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Paul Jarvis

Content marketing isn’t the dirty word you think it is

People call me a “content marketer” often (not sure if it’s a compliment or insult), so let’s talk about how you can use the articles you write to sell the products or service you’ve got.

Too often, clients, friends, and confidants (i.e. people I talk to on Slack) tell me that they don’t have time to write articles that support their business. Then, in their next (digital) breath, they tell me how their business could be doing much better. When I mention to them that useful content could support and grow their business, and they could do a lot better if they made time for writing, they reply that they don’t have time to write. This, my friends, is known as a total logic fail.

Let’s start with what content marketing isn’t. It’s not simply blogging. Otherwise, there’d be thousands of teenagers on Tumblr who could put “content marketer” on their resume (although I’m sure some do, those pesky teens!). If you’re writing entirely for yourself, that’s a journal—there’s nothing wrong with that, but it won’t be effective for selling anything.

Content marketing is the intersection of where the writing you do serves the audience *and* you, the creator, equally.

Your audience wants value from timely, useful, and engaging information. You need your business to grow (whatever growth means to you), make money, and be continually exposed to new audiences.

With this type of writing, there’s always an intended next step. Buying something, signing up for a list, registering for a webinar, sharing something socially, ranking in a search engine for a term, etc. There’s some explicit action that happens after someone has consumed what they just read. Because they made it all the way to the end, they’re finishing reading now, and are looking for what to do next.

The reason I’m called a “content marketer” is because my weapon of choice for selling what I create is writing. I choose this weapon because it suits me the best, and aligns with what I like do and how I like to show up in the world.

As a writer, I know I can write. Whereas if I had to make cold calls or give speeches, I’d be a sweaty mess of “uh’s” and “hmm’s.” Writing has consistently and strategically grown my product business (books, courses, online events) to make up more than 50% of my income in less than three years.

So maybe you want to be a content marketer, too? Maybe it’s not such a dirty term after all. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not as much work as you think.
Here’s how you can maximize a small amount of time to use content to help both your audience and your business.

Start by always having a list of ideas for topics you want to write about. What do you add to this list? Questions your audience has asked you, related content to your most popular existing articles, using apps like BuzzSumo to analyze topics/competition, even articles you’ve read that you have a unique or opposite take on. Have ready access to this list of ideas (either in a physical notebook or a text file that you can access from your computer or phone). Add to it constantly and be on the lookout for new ideas to add to the pile while reading, watching TV, scrolling on social media, walking in the park, or even eating breakfast.

Now, look at the list and pick the first idea that stands out to you. You’re going to write a content marketing article on this idea!
Write down the following items in a spreadsheet (let’s use this article as the example):

  1. What’s your goal in writing about this idea? Ex. “I want to teach people that content marketing is easier than they think it is.”
  2. What’s the reward your audience gets for consuming an article about this topic? Ex. “They learn how to use content marketing to drive revenue and exposure in their own businesses.”
  3. What’s the main point of the story? Is there a secondary point? Ex. “PRIMARY: Content marketing is easier than most people think it is. SECONDARY: Writing consistent content takes less time than people think, too.”
  4. What makes those points valid? Is there data, a unique personal story, research that backs it up? Ex. “50%+ of my revenue is now coming from products—all because of content marketing.”
  5. What is the result a reader would see if they, too, acted on the main point you’re making? Ex. “Better/more business if they used content marketing correctly.”
  6. What are 5–10 headlines you could use for this post? Ex. “Content marketing isn’t the dirty word you think it is” “How I use content marketing to generate more than 50% of my product business revenue” “Why content marketing can work for you, in less time than you think” “If you’re too busy for content marketing, then you’re too busy to grow your business” “Get out of your own head about content marketing—it can help drive business”
  7. What’s the next action you want a reader to take after reading the post? Ex. “NEW READERS: Sign up for my mailing list. EXISTING SUBSCRIBERS: Download the XLS worksheet and actually use it.”

Guess what? In answering those simple questions, you’re now 80% (or so) of the way finished your article. No staring at a blank screen for hours or life hacks required, just asking yourself a few simple questions for each idea you’ve got. Let’s put the answers to those questions together a little better:

[A6 – Pick your best headline or A/B test the strongest ones.]
[A2 – Use the reward your audience gets to illustrate a pain point—what happens if they haven’t taken action.]
[A1 – Spell out what you are illustrating.]
[A3 – Clearly explain your point(s).]
[A4 – Back the points up with data or stories.]
[A5 – Describe what the outcome looks like if your reader acts on this.]
[A1+A2 – Reiterate your goal and why your audience cares.]
[A7 – Give a concrete next step now that they have the information. Bonus content, buying, signing up, sharing, etc.]

Without writing the article by staring at a blank screen, you’ve just written the entire outline, now all you need to do is make the sentences flow together in your own style. If you’re just starting out with writing, remember that writing is basically a muscle—it gets stronger the more you exercise it. So don’t be discouraged if things at first are slower than you expect. You’ll get faster the more consistent you are with your writing practice.

“Now Paul,” you might be thinking, “That sounds so formulaic and boring! And not at all like the creative person you are or—more importantly—that I am!” But here’s the thing. The formula may be … well … formulaic, but the key is all in how you apply it. How you take the information and make it into a flowing story for your readers. It’s like saying, “Oh, I don’t read fiction because they’re all stories of a character who starts out, goes through some things, and ends up in a different place.” The high level stuff IS formulaic—it’s what you do, what data that makes it interesting, and what makes it you.

With a bit of practice and consistency, there’s no reason you can’t spend an hour each week writing at least one of these articles. That way, you can get your words, ideas, and brand in front of your audience on a regular basis, and the more you write, the faster and easier it becomes. There’s no excuse not to carve out a bit of time each week if you have a business.

One extra thing I’ve figured out by doing this for a few years is that it’s easier to write a bunch of articles at once than it is to write just one, wait a week, then write another. Once you get into the rhythm and flow after writing one, you may be able to crank out another couple right after it. This helps you stay a few weeks ahead of your publishing schedule, which leads to less stress (also known as, “Oh shit! I have to release an article tomorrow?!”)

Staying ahead of your schedule can also help you commit to only publishing your best content. The formula above doesn’t guarantee greatness, it just helps frame content quickly. So you may find that some posts just aren’t that awesome. However, if you’re head of your publishing schedule by a few weeks, you can throw the bad ones away and keep the best for sharing.

I’ve used the above ideas to sell books, drive mailing list signups, sell courses, and keep my brand top-of-mind. It works for me because I get to share in a way I feel comfortable with: writing and teaching.

Using content to engage, teach, and inform your audience is a powerful sales tool. It helps define you as an expert as well as a helpful person, which leads to trust, which then leads to sales. All done in a non-slimy, non-sales-pitchy, really honest way. You help the most important people to your business ( your audience ), and reciprocation from them helps your business. It’s a win-win.

For those of you paying attention (which I assume is everyone who has read this far), this post was written using the formula I just outlined. I took an idea from my list of topics and went through each question, then put the answers to those questions in a order that gave me an outline. From there it took a little while longer to turn it into the article you just read.

Audience growth

The common thread between people who hire me to do websites, consulting, buy my books, listen to my podcast, or take my courses is this: they want a bigger audience. Hell, I too wouldn’t mind a bigger audience of rat people sometimes.

I recently gave a talk on audience growth and starting from scratch, and while I don’t have all the answers, I do know a few things. I’ve learned both from my own experience and that of the people I work with (some of whom have much larger audiences than mine).

First things first, this information falls entirely short if you do not start with the audience you’ve already got.

Your current audience—the people who are already listening, buying, engaging—these should be the most important people to you. Far above anyone you wish you were reaching. If it’s 10 people, 100 people, or even 1,000 people—if you’re not doing right by them, right now, none of this will make a lick of difference (aside: do differences lick?). Make sure you’re listening, communicating, and helping the people who are already paying attention to you.

The next thing to think about is your message.

This isn’t what you’re selling or what you’re writing about. It’s not even who you are. Your message is what you stand for. It is bigger than any single thing you do or say. It’s like a rallying flag that you use to direct your forward motion. It’s what makes you stand out beyond anyone else who has similar skills as yours.

Your message helps craft what makes your unique voice cut through the noise. It’s what draws people to you (even if many other people are talking about the same topic or building similar products).

Unless your message is interesting to both you and your audience, one of you will get bored and drop off.

You may think that developing your own unique voice is easy, since, hell, it’s your voice. Sadly, this is not the case, especially in writing. Finding your voice takes work. It’s part internalization, part confidence, and part a damn lot of practice. I’m not sure developing your voice as a creator is something you can ever completely win at—you have to continually check in with yourself to see if it consistently aligns.

Your current audience, your message, and your voice are the groundwork. Next you need to consider why audiences grow. Why do some people build sizeable groups of people who pay attention to them, and some people aren’t able to?

Growth happens when your audience shares what you do with their own audience.

Think about it. In order for your numbers to grow, people need to first hear about you. How do they do that? By listening to people they already listen to. If those people they’re already listening to mention you, you’ve got a good chance of adding them to your audience ranks.

In order for someone to want to share you with their own people, think about why you would share someone else’s work. Chances are, they said something smart, interesting, entertaining, or useful. You feel good about learning from them, you align with their message, so you want to tell others (and you do). Now you’re helping them grow their audience.

At the heart of it, audience growth requires each of the following things to be present:

Your audience is not made up of numbers or stats or metrics.

Your audience is a group of individuals who share a common idea, value, motivation, or pain. Each one is more unique than they are similar. It’s easy to overlook the humanity when staring at numbers on a screen, but there are people on the other end of each of those numbers. People, each with their own lives, struggles, and satisfactions.

Looking merely for growth is not enough, and frankly, it’s a horrible goal. You can’t just wish it into being. You need to take lots and lots of small steps towards it: test ideas, analyze results, and adapt/change as necessary. Save the magic bullet for infomercials (they’re awful blenders at any rate).

Why do you even need growth? When I was doing just web design, I only needed a few dozen clients a year. That was the perfect number of people paying attention for me to make a living.

For smaller products or services (like $5-10 ebooks), more are required. But, there’s also enough. Enough people where it still feels like a friendly small town and not a hostile city. Enough people where you can make a difference, and moreover, help them succeed. Because if you can help your audience truly succeed, they’ll reward you for it.

So when you’re thinking about what you can do to grow your own audience, consider these points we’ve just covered. I don’t have “5 easy tips to get the numbers you want, guaranteed,” but these ideas are worth thinking about if you want more people to pay attention to your work.

Effective marketing for introverts

I know you have something to say.

You’ve been saving it up for a while now, being patient, listening, taking notes, and researching.

You want your voice to be heard, but you’re scared to open your mouth.

Reading about self-promotion and marketing is interesting, but it totally doesn’t jive with what you think will work for you or how you think you should share your work.

Sharing, talking, and putting yourself out there takes a lot of energy and most of the time you’d rather just focus on your work. Plus, you’re a private person, so sharing isn’t something you’re typically comfortable doing.

So how do introverts market their work?

My story

A lot of people assume I’m an extrovert because I’m not shy. I associate more with introversion because I am energized by being alone—in both my work and free time.

If left to my own devices, I’d rather be alone—most of the time in the woods with my thoughts (and probably a camera). I’m quiet around people, but not because I’m awkward. It’s because unless someone else engages me, I’m happy being with my own thoughts. Once engaged or interested, I have no problem talking to people—even folks I don’t know. I like being alone; whereas a shy person may wish they were better with social interactions.

Introversion may be all the rage thanks to smart folks like Susan Cain. And, like a true hipster, I was an introvert before it was cool. Back in grade school, I’d hang out alone with legos and the illustrating books that I would write (see above, that’s my first book). However popular now, it’s still worth diving into, because a lot of the knowledge out there on marketing and self-promotion is not geared toward us.

I do lots of self-promotion for my work, and I go even further because I write about it, too. Because I have a penchant for aloneness and quiet, here’s how I approach marketing and the self-promo necessary for my work (because it is necessary):

Scheduling bravery

Sharing can be draining. So I schedule sharing when I’ve got the energy and am feeling amped up to do it. That means putting newsletters in the cue sometimes weeks before they go out, pre-publishing blog posts to go live at later dates, and even scheduling tweets way ahead of time (I try to schedule the tweeting of articles I’ve written to go out at least once a day). Luckily social media (and tools like Buffer, MailChimp, and WordPress) make it easy to cue up as many things as you want to post at a future date.

Not everything needs to be an open discussion

I’m picky about receiving feedback on my writing. Not because I think I know everything, but because I don’t have the mental space to deal with a constant discussion of my ideas. That’s why I don’t have comments on my website and why I don’t answer every tweet, or even have a Facebook account. Interactions require a specific headspace that I’m not always in, so I pick and choose which places I interact. For me, that means I always interact with my newsletter (because I enjoy that the most) and sometimes on Twitter (my social network of choice). You can pick and choose interacting with others, or turn off interactions if they don’t suit you.

Focus on your audience

I talk about this a lot, but I focus my attention solely on my rat people. If someone’s not into your work, hates what you do, or wouldn’t ever think about supporting you, it’s okay to write them off. Don’t answer their emails, don’t reply to them on social media—pretend they don’t exist. Difficult to do? Yes. Important to do in the long run? Totally.

Share what makes you strong

There’s a lot of talk about authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty—and while those are good, seldom does advice out there paint the whole picture. You can share the honest and vulnerable parts of you that you want, and keep the rest to yourself. You don’t have to share everything, you can just share what you’re comfortable with or what gives you strength. If you’re naturally private, then only share small pieces. If you’re not comfortable sharing with strangers, just share tiny amounts publicly and share more privately with them (say, if they opt into your list or join a private Facebook community).


The most important thing about self-promotion or marketing is that you don’t have to always be doing it. Do it at the end of your day, schedule it, do it once or twice a week. Then retreat to doing your work or recharging. I know how to re-energize myself (nature, reading books, watching sci-fi) so figuring how you get energy is important when you know which things in life drain it.

Find your medium

I know I’m not the best public speaker. I don’t like big groups (like events or conferences) and I’m better at communicating through the written word. This isn’t negative self-talk—I don’t even feel bad about it—I just play to my strengths and only occasionally push the boundaries of my weaknesses. Whether it’s writing, video, audio, painting, dance, whatever—find the medium you’re most comfortable with and do most of your sharing in that way. And then sometimes, push against the mediums you don’t think you’re as good at, in order to grow.

Practice your story

A lot of the time introverts aren’t the best at talking about themselves or their work. I actually practice this, by writing and rewriting my bio. Writing and rewriting book synopses. Sometimes, if I’m pitching a design to a client, I’ll pre-write out all the points and benefits I want to make when talking to them about it. Practice before taking something public. For books or products, I also enlist help from other people (who are part of the audience it’s created for) and get them to describe back to me whatever it is I’ll be selling. That helps me with language and phrasing.

I definitely know that introversion isn’t a “one size fits all” label (and anyway, labels are for jars, not people), but the above points are what works for me. Hopefully one or more might help you if lean that way, too.

Remember the “self” in self-promotion is you, and guess what? You are in charge of you! Introvert or not, you make the calls on what fits and what doesn’t. So do things in the unique way that works for you.

Marketing doesn’t have to be you doing everything.

It can be a focus on one type of interaction, one social network and one schedule that works for your on and off times.

As long as you’re sharing your work with other people—the right people—then you’re marketing. Because really, all marketing is is communication. And even introverts know how to do that, even if it’s in small doses.

What’s your social capital?

You know that person.

The one that’s always on social media tweeting links to their products every few minutes. Exclamation marks abound like they’re getting paid per instance by ExclamationMarkCo.

Their website is awash with large buttons to buy something, pop-up windows telling you to sign up, and ads everywhere you look. They have a mailing list that not only bugs you to buy their product, but reminds you when you haven’t bought it.

They don’t share anything that isn’t paid for first, they never mention other people on social media, and their mailing lists are all about themselves and their own products.

You don’t want to be that person. That person thinks the problem with their lack of sales comes from not promoting themselves enough, and they get stuck in an endless loop of more self-centred promotion.

You really don’t want to be that person. That person has no social capital.

There are so many opinions, tricks, and tactics on the Internet that tell you how to sell your product or service as a freelancer or entrepreneur. It’s difficult not to try all of it.

It’s a mixed bag, though. What works for one person and their audience may not work for you. There is also a lot of advice out there that may show short-term gains but has a long-term diminishing effect on your social capital.

What is social capital?

Lyda Judson Hanifan is credited with coining the term in 1916, but it has made a resurgence lately to describe how relationships —especially online relationships— are a form of currency. When cashed in, it’s what you can ask people to do that benefits you (like buying your product or having someone share what you wrote with others).

The premise of social capital today stems from the fact that our social networks have value. The people in those networks do things for each other, such as buying products, sharing articles, and helping each other. Relationships are currency.

Think of social capital like a bank account.

You can only take out what you put in. So if you’re always asking people to buy your stuff or promoting solely yourself on social media, your balance will hit zero or negative quickly. People don’t want to buy something from someone else if that someone else is constantly bothering them on social media with “Buy my stuff!” tweets, or newsletters bestowing the virtues of their products every week.

No matter how often you ask, you won’t make any sales. No conversion tactics, pop-up messages, or sales tips will help.

You have to make deposits into your social capital account often, and build up your balance well before you ask your audience to buy what you’re selling. Do this by being helpful and creating value for as many people in your audience as possible. At the core, your social capital depends on what you can provide for your audience that builds trust, value, and reputation.

Freelancers aren’t suckers with all the time in the world to provide value to others. But unless you pound the pavement a little, especially when you’re starting out, there’s no way to bank anything.

Social networks have immense value. That’s why many entrepreneurs have mailing lists (a social network they’re in control of) that drive sales. Or why many companies engage in conversations on social media. It’s the basis behind content marketing and why it’s so popular.

There are great examples of freelancers and new businesses that are building large bank accounts of social capital that then translate into revenue streams.

Buffer, a company that helps people manage their social media accounts, writes daily on their blog — sharing well-written and well-researched articles about social media, which is the type of content that their audience is intensely interested in. They committed to providing value, for free, right from the start and have grown to more than 1.2 million users in two years, with more than 700,000 people reading their blog each month.

Chris Guillebeau, bestselling author and creator of World Domination Summit, personally emailed the first 10,000 people on his mailing list. Sometimes doing something that doesn’t scale, but is truly genuine, is a great way to form strong connections with your audience. Through his authenticity and personal touch, Chris has sold more than 300,000 books and continues to sell out the WDS event each year.

As far as building social capital using social media, there are several schools of thought, but the most popular is the 5-3-2 rule (introduced by T.A. McCann on Gist). It states that out of any 10 social media updates, five should be content from others, three should be content from you, and two should be personal updates.

How to build social capital

When it comes time to promote your own work or products, if you’ve built up enough of a balance, you won’t totally deplete your social capital balance or send it into the red. And moreover, if your audience receives your work as important and valuable, your promotion time will deplete your balance in even smaller amounts.

This isn’t some hippy altruism, this is how social currency works. The trust and value you build is something you can take straight to the bank.

How do you build your own social capital?

Sales advice from the world’s crappiest salesperson (aka: me)

Most of us creatives suck at selling.

And this is probably part of the reason why we write or draw or create instead of selling cars or condos. There’s nothing wrong with selling cars or condos, but I doubt many of us would be able to sell even one.

If you put me in a room and told me, “OK, Paul. Listen here. You’ve gotta sell this nice, cool glass of lemonade to these thirsty and overheating people,” I doubt I could do it.

There’d be a lot of umm’s and hand-wringing. I would probably ask to borrow a computer so I could make a website for the drink instead.

A lot of us feel that selling is “icky”. And for the most part, it can be if we do it in a way that doesn’t suit us.

The Internet feels a lot like The National Inquirer, edited by a statistician, who’s also just dropped acid.

(FYI: this is something I’d LOVE to see happen.)

With their flashy sales pages (which are clearly fully optimized for hyper-improved conversions), the blinking pixels send out their covert (or sometimes, not-so-covert) messages:

You’d better be afraid, because your life will suck forever… unless you act now and BUY my product! Look at all this social proof! All the cool kids are doing it! Wanna know the 15 ways to achieve X that no one (but me) knows about? Hack the system to unlock your hidden wealth with these 3 easy steps! Stats, oh glorious stats!

I feel like I’m in the lemonade room, feeling the skin-tightening pressure to sell, all the time.

When I create a new book and want people to buy it. When I want a blurb from another author whose name has serious clout. When my band plays shows and we want to sell t-shirts and CDs.

Hell, even if someone asks me why they should hire me to create their website, my answer is often akin to, “Drink?… Now?… Lemons!?”

It seems silly to write about selling when I fully admit that I’m probably the world’s crappiest seller. But here’s what I do know: people need to feel like they know who you are before they’ll give you any money.

If they don’t feel like they know you, it’s going to be a much more uphill battle to get them to open their wallets.

So how do you get people to know who you are?

Be really good at what you do. Like, the best—while always learning and improving. That’s a no brainer, right?

Oh, and did I mention that “good” takes years, not weeks or months, especially if it’s creative work?

Want to have a popular blog? Write on it every week for 5 years. Want to sell out coaching sessions? Get your credentials and then work hard with any clients that come your way, for a very long time.

Focusing on a specific group people is another important point, because it’s next to impossible to get to know every person on the planet. It’s better to pick a tiny group that you can easily interact with.

Social media, message boards, even networking events—the more focused they are on a specific niche/industry, the better for you. That way, when you start offering your opinion, offering suggestions or sharing your expertise, you can build awareness and value specifically for that small group’s needs. You don’t even have to sell/pitch/be icky to these people. Just talk to them.

I have been very deliberately chosen the niche my web design work focuses on because I know how much easier it is to get clients when I work at a single, tiny niche.

Sure, I’ve switched niches a few times, but it’s only ever been one at a time. That’s because once I do a few websites in a niche, I don’t need to do any hard sells (which I’m awful at) to book clients. I become “that guy who designs websites for these type of people”. And being the go-to guy for a tiny niche pretty much guarantees steady work.

This kind of focus means less people need to get to know you, and because their community is so small, they’ll talk to each other about you, essentially becoming your own word-of-mouth marketing street team.

Next, once you’ve figured out your focus, get super duper, laserBEAM clear on what you’re offering these people and why.

Can you explain what you do in one sentence? If not, get to work on that.

On your website, is it immediately clear to the right people why what you’re selling is beneficial? I’m not talking about bullet points that list a metric ton of features. I’m talking about using plain, easy-to-understand language to tell the story of why what you’ve got will give someone value in return for their money. Clarity works.

I’ve seen far too many websites fail, because (even after a few minutes of prowling around) most people can’t tell what’s being sold or why they should buy it.

Often, this boils down to the way you told your product’s story.

If you’re using language that you, the expert, are comfortable with, will someone who’s not an expert yet (since they haven’t bought what you’re selling) understand it? If not, revise it.

The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to ask someone who’s bought what I sell (books, in my case) to describe the book back to me. I then steal part of their language for my sales copy (with permission, of course).

The other side of the clarity coin is checking that you’re not making your sales copy all about you and your product. It may seem counter-intuitive, but selling is about the other person.

What’s in it for them? How will they benefit? Why should they be interested? What need is this product filling in their lives? Why does it make their life better (since it’s making them slightly poorer)?

So, there you have it.

That’s my big reveal about sales: people need to know you to give you their money. So be good, be focused and be clear.

Good thing I didn’t package this as a $7,623 e-course, because the punch-line isn’t super sexy or “OMG NOW I CAN BE RICH”.

If selling isn’t your jam, that’s ok. Play to your creative strengths instead – you’ve got those in spades.

You already know how much hard work is required to make a go at being creative for a living.

It’s easier to focus on a smaller group of people to work for. And creativity is about communicating, so be clear about what you’ve made and why it’s going to help people.

And most importantly of all…

Enquiring minds need to know: what would you do in that room, holding a glass of lemonade?

The Metric of More

Say you look at your stats and see you received a single visitor to your website today. Awful, right?

Maybe you didn’t write that good of a post, you’d think. Or maybe you need to change a call to action, since they didn’t subscribe or buy anything. Or maybe you need to promote your work more on Google+. Maybe you started googling “growth hacking” (gasp!)

For most creatives (even those of us who don’t have a heavy online presence), this sort of thinking can easily creep in. When I was playing shows in a band, if there weren’t people lined up at the front of the stage, a “why even bother?” feeling often crept in. I felt awful thinking it, but it happened. Same goes for art shows, book signings, dance recitals…

Here’s another scenario: you’re at a coffee shop and start chatting with a stranger. The conversation eventually goes deeper, into the things that hold great meaning for you both and each of you leaves changed, a little for the better (or at least with something meaningful to think about).

Or something like this happens:

My band had just played a show, to maybe a dozen people somewhere in the middle of Canada (I forget exactly where). Afterwards, a person came up to us to say that they were in a bad place but after they bought and listened to our album on repeat for a while, it helped them through a rough patch in some small way.

One person in a coffee shop. One person sitting on their couch, listening to your music, feeling a little less heavy about their life.

This is why I think metrics, when applied to our creative work, can be detrimental. They downplay the value of one or even the value of a small number of people.

Not enough Twitter followers, reach on Facebook, mailing list subscribers? We must be doing something wrong because we aren’t reaching thousands with what we have to say. Right?

The problem with “the metric of more” is that it’s dehumanizing. It’s easily the biggest problem with this new hyper-connected economy. We can talk with people all over the world with the click of a mouse but still feel so lonely.

I realize we’re all trying to run our own creative businesses and that building an audience is important. But we beat ourselves up too often for not reaching enough people, especially when we’re starting out. We ignore the fact that we are reaching people. Sometimes we just need a bit of mental minimalism.

They’re not just numbers on a list, but real life people with lives, opinions, feelings, etc. The reason they’re paying attention to us is because our work is touching them in some way (not a creepy way, unless that’s your thing, then I won’t judge).

The metric of more makes it seem like reaching one person isn’t enough. But, for that person, maybe your work made a world of difference. It’s just like when you read a book that feels like it was written for you. It doesn’t matter how many other copies that author has sold, it changed your life.

And it’s a slippery slope too, because maybe 5 people aren’t enough. Or 100. Or 1,000. The second we start to focus more on reaching the people we haven’t yet, instead of taking even better care of the people we are currently reaching, there’s a problem.

Obviously, we need to pay attention to growing audiences, selling our art to more people and building a wider net. But I don’t see it as the most important thing for a successful creative business.

The reason we put our art into the world is for it to connect. Prioritizing the people it’s actually connecting with right now is paramount. Even if that’s just one person.

Rallying points

Do you remember in medieval times (me neither, but stick with me) when you were in battle, possibly losing or confused, and then someone would hoist your flag?

You’d get the urge to fight just a little harder and move toward that flag, hopefully with more soldiers on your side doing the same.

The flag became a beacon that instantly identified a common cause. Gotta make it to my flag, you’d think, and then you’d be surrounded by like minds (in this case, minds that didn’t want to kill you). And from there, you could further your common goal.

The idea of flags as broadcast messages and rallying points is as old as culture.

Flags are more than just well-designed fabric with nice logos. They proclaim an immediately identifiable idea. What they stand for is more important than what they look like. You either believe it and therefore stand behind it, or it doesn’t resonate and you know it’s not your flag. It’s a black-and-white, cut-and-dried sort of thing.

In those old times, everyone wore basically the same suit of armor, so it was hard to tell who you should help and who you should use a sword against. Flags were used to differentiate the two.

Even now, it can still be hard to tell who’s the right audience for your business versus who most certainly isn’t a good fit.

I like the idea of focusing your work around a “rallying point.” It’s more than simply branding, messaging, or even business goals. It’s a line in the sand, with your work and the values it represents on one side and everyone or everything else that doesn’t fit on the other side. It immediately illustrates who’s part of your small army, your audience, your followers.

It can be scary to draw that line in the sand—especially when it’s your business. Doing so immediately alienates certain people or entire groups. But raising a flag is important because it acts as a beacon for those individuals who are your people, your tribe, and your audience. You hoist it up and they know where to find you.

What would a rallying point look like for a non-medieval business?

Think of the lululemon manifesto (or any other corporate manifesto). If you aren’t into yoga, sweating, and positivity, you won’t like what it says, but then you wouldn’t buy a pair of their pants anyway (unless you’re into see-through pants). But if you do, you might read it and think, “Heck yes! This!” And you’d probably already be wearing their logo.

A rallying point doesn’t need to be as specific as a manifesto, though. In my own business, it’s really just defining how I feel about design, SEO, and programming by writing lots of opinion pieces on my blog.

If someone wants to work with me and then reads what I think about my industry and disagrees… they probably wouldn’t have been the right fit and would make me want to pull my hair out.

But if someone finds me, digs what I have to say about what I do, and then we launch a project together, I guarantee it would at least start from common ground and understanding.

My logo has changed and even disappeared many times over the years, but what I stand for hasn’t budged. I’ve always been about simple and direct design that serves individuals more than a metrics calculator.

Rallying points can simply be your values, expressed in some form of content—writing, videos, photography, etc. Or it can even just be the tone in which you communicate. It’s whatever works to show your people that they are your people.

MailChimp‘s “Voice & Tone” website is a great example of non-promotional rallying content. It’s not about one specific idea or value, but the company’s manifesto comes through anyway. A rallying point can simply be how you communicate with people on a one-to-one basis.

The best marketing always takes a stand.

It’s not just about selling a product or service; it’s about showing an audience why they should believe in it enough to want it at any cost, simply because they agree with what you’re doing. Chipotle’s short film “The Scarecrow” was less about burritos and more about why the company sells them.

Goals can be reached or adjusted if they aren’t functioning, but rallying points align with the values and meaning behind what you do (not just the specifics of what you do). They’re clear and noticeable and impossible to ignore. They’re a bold statement that your work is more than the work, but also the reason why you’re doing it in the first place.

So what’s your rallying point? What does your flag look like when you raise it up–and who will be drawn toward it?

Build an Audience from Scratch

Let’s say tomorrow I had to start my business from scratch. No existing clients, no existing following. How would I build an audience? How would I attract customers?

We’ll suppose all of this, because lots of people start businesses every day without an existing group of people eager to work with them. They know how to do something well (their craft), but might not have customers at the start.

So let’s say that’s where I’m currently at—starting out, great at a craft but no one to provide it to. What would I do? And we’ll use web design in the example, since that’s what I know. And we’ll avoid growth hacking, because that’s what I dislike.

I’d start by listening to people who were looking to hire web designers or who had already hired web designers. How were they conducting their search to find one and where? What questions did they have about the process? If their experience with web designers was bad, why? What did they wish they knew before starting a web design project?

And then I’d offer to help. Did they have questions? Did they want a second set of eyes to look at anything? Did they want to brainstorm what to do next? Did they want a second opinion? Was there anything they wanted to know about the industry? And I would help them without offering my own services or charging them. More importantly, I wouldn’t be pushy about it, I’d just look for folks who had questions I had answers to.

This help wouldn’t be a month of work or redesigning their whole website. Instead it’d take the form of emails, chats or talking things out on the phone/Skype. Basically: a free consult.

This would start with a single person. Then another. Then another. I’d talk to as many people as possible, until I started to notice definite trends in where people were having issues or not understanding things. Their pain points in the process. And I’d do all of this without pitching or selling myself once. I’d simply offer help or advice to anyone who wanted it.

Talking to these people would do two things. First, it’d be an opportunity to share my knowledge with the type of people I wanted to work with (without asking anything in return). Second, I’d learn what my future audience was looking for, where they were getting hung up on in projects in my field and how I could effectively communicate with them to help solve those problems.

Long before I’d start selling anyone anything, I’d be building a relationship with the people I had helped in some way. I wouldn’t build this following so I could “promote at” or sell to them later. I’d build and foster relationships with these people so I could continue learning from them. It’d be a mutually beneficial relationship, since they’d receive my help and I’d receive their knowledge.

From there the path could diverge. I’d either write publicly about what I learned on a blog, eventually compiling it into a free book—full of insight into common client issues and how they could be resolved. Or I’d use that knowledge to create my own services, since I’d know where my potential audience needed the most help. I’d probably do both things. And I have a feeling that group of people I’d been helping would promote what I came up with, without me having to constantly promote/sell at them. And this is the key—they’d help me because I had helped them (although I would never expect it of them).

My new business would be based on helping others first. Not because I frown on capitalism and want to sit around a Skype video call singing kumbaya. I’d do this because I know that’s how you can build a loyal client-base and following. And because I truly like helping others.

For many people, the above idea might seem like advice for how to build a charity or what you do for close friends—it couldn’t possibly be applied to a business that makes enough money to put clothes on children, food on a table or pay rent. But this is how I’ve built my current business, which has a 4-5 month waiting list. It’s how I’ve released books that have sold 1000s of copies. It’s how I’ve approached my entrepreneurial work for the last 15 years. I’ve simply helped others, using my skills, because I enjoy doing it.

Too often people make the mistake of trying to build an audience for their business by thinking about themselves first. By thinking about making money first. By thinking about what’s in it for them above anyone else. By thinking about how they can reach “X” number of followers to stroke their ego. This attitude comes across in how they interact with others, use social media and how they promote what they’re selling. People see through this type of behaviour.

Motives are transparent (even if we wish they weren’t). So it would be transparent if your business focus was helping others first.

If you approach work as helping others instead of how you can make money off them, everything fundamentally changes. People are drawn to you. They are willing to invest in you, because you’re invested in helping them.

The best thing about having a business that’s genuinely geared towards helping others is that it can cost nothing to get started. No investors or investment on your part, no hardware/software, no secret tactics or even strategies. Nothing but being a decent human being, sharing what you know with people who’ll listen, which should come naturally to everyone. And then what you do will sell itself.

The Sunday Dispatches newsletter, weekly articles since 2012—written by Paul Jarvis and read by 30k+ subscribers.