The Case of the Attentive Audience

Date Posted

June 17, 2018

There is no perfect way to build a digital product. But, perhaps the best way to build a tech product is to build the audience before you build anything else.

Sure, it’s a pretty self-explanatory statement, why wouldn’t you want an a healthy audience when you launch your product? But what some would say is a luxury, I say is a necessity. Here’s why it’s important:

  • It’s harder to build an audience after/while you’re building a product—mostly because time is limited, and usually the first thing to go is audience & attention efforts.
  • Your audience helps guide, validate, and shape your product—getting them involved as early as possible reaps huge dividends.
  • I’ve realized there’s a huge psychology component to “early success” in a product launch. The more I see traction and growth in early stages the more motivated and happy I am. The opposite is just as true. If I already have a loyal following, it helps buoy growth and my happiness level.

My most successful products all had a growing audience before we launched. My least successful products were the opposite. Here’s an example:

Rails for Zombies

RFZ was a free Rails course that allowed you to learn the framework and code in the browser without any installation. It was one of the first of its kind, and became the precursor to Code School. We could have charged for it, but for a number of reasons we decided to give it away for free, because we knew the market for this course was the same market that we wanted to target for Code School.

Rails for Zombies image

We believed that this course would carry so much value that it would generate a large amount of attention, which in turn would build a large audience — we were right. It went viral, tens of thousands signed-up, played the course, and our launch of Code School several months later was categorically more successful because of the audience we built. We were able to grow sooner and with more traction, and it created a bit of a snowball effect which helped motivate us to continue investing in the product.

The best way to build an audience is to provide a disproportionately positive amount of value to your users over time. That’s the secret: value, value, value. The best way I know to provide a disproportionately positive amount of value is to offer free content.

Offer Free Content

It can be counter-intuitive to “give away” value before you’ve even built revenue. But in this 2017 marketing world, attention is the digital currency, and it’s incredibly hard to mine. THE best way I’ve found to siphon attention towards your business is one word: FREE. By doubling down on value you’re communicating to your target audience that you care about them, that you believe in what you’re offering, and that it will have a positive impact on their lives.

If you’re building a product, put down your scope docs and focus on developing a plan to offer so much “free” value to your users without asking for anything in return.

Here are some tips when producing free content:

  • It should be so valuable it hurts
  • It should be similar content to what your product or business will eventually provide and ask money for—i.e. Rails for Zombies was a pre-cursor in UI/UX/Tech to our future product, Code School.
  • It should be targeted at your exact audience
  • It should be in a medium that matters—go where your users are, maybe it’s social, maybe it’s a blog, a podcast, or a beta platform
  • I’ve come to realize the extent to which you build an audience prior to building a product directly impacts your velocity of success. Every new product I build will include at least a 3–6mo “audience” phase before we break ground. And I’m evaluating how I can retroactively build an audience for every product I’m currently working on.


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