Want to Grow, Captivate, and Keep a Massive Audience? Read this.
All the talent, effort, and hacks won't mean s**t until you do the following.
I remember the first time I bought a car. I don’t mean like an $800 clunker — although, shoutout to my 1985 BMW 745i, that beautiful beast with heated seats, a moonroof, and a nonresponsive speedometer — I mean a real car. With a car payment. With that new car smell and a glimmering coat of paint.
It was 2010, and I’d saved up enough pennies to plunk down on something that would make it through the next decade. I knew exactly what car I set my eyes on—a fresh-off-the-line Hyundai Sonata. I visited half the dealerships in the Buffalo-Niagara metro area to compare prices. I got shown around by a bunch of empty suckers in suits, or bland blondes in blazers. They’d talk about their low-price guarantees and easy financing options.
Now, I take my time when I part with my hard-earned cash, so I remained skeptical. I found it hard to trust the folks showing me around the showroom. And all I could think was: Am I sure I want this car?
So, my buddy Pete told me to go say hi to his friend Shannon at a dealership a bit farther off the beaten path. Told me to talk to her. She got him into his new whip, he told me. She could get me into mine—and I’d walk off the lot with a car, no prob.
So I hit her up. Shannon was different. She was damn cool. Cracked effortless jokes during the test-drive. Talked about her kids and her house, and asked me if I wanted to listen to The National. [The answer is “yes”, I always want to listen to The National.] Asked me what bars and beers I liked, and what concerts I wanted to see that summer. Smiled and strutted as she walked. Made my friends who came along for the ride with me laugh. Told me financing wasn’t just easy, she’d even make the paperwork process fun.
Less than an hour later, I’d signed my name on the dotted line. Might’ve even paid a little more than I would’ve by getting swindled by some suit. But bet your ass I got that damned car, and she got her commission check. I sped around town, pleased as punch. I drove that car for over 170,000 miles. That experience taught me a lesson about captivating people that I wasn’t yet ready to learn.
How does that translate into online audience building? Pfffft … I gotchu.
Talent Only Gets You So Far
I’ve always been a prodigious writer. I once got a zero on a college writing final because my professor was certain I’d plagiarized my work. (This was before you could Google to know for sure.) I lobbied believably and changed that grade to an A+.
I started an online blog in 2007 to talk about sports in that snarky Gawker style that was all the rage in the early-Obama years. I imitated. I tried to sound cool. I wasn’t. I was a piss-poor traffic manager at an ad agency making $30K a year in a one-bedroom condo deep in the Rust Belt. Could I write? Hell yeah, I could write. But it wasn’t my voice and therefore I was a dime a dozen.
When I started writing about my life, I wrote a lot about depression, hypochondria, binge drinking, and a general sense of unfairness. “The world is going to hell,” I would yell from the rooftops. “ … and so is my life!” Yeah, the prose was elegant. No, nobody read that shit. 17 reads. 84 reads. 12 reads. Zero claps.
“The fuck is wrong with me?” I yelled to myself. “I can write circles around these clowns spitting out boilerplate listicles with advice like ‘Drink Water.’” So I drank some water and switched up my approach.
The Best Advice I’ve Ever Received
I write under my own name. Yet, I often write for (or as) other people. People need words, and — as you may have guessed — I have more than a few of them. One of my clients is an author, lobbyist, motivational speaker, and activist. I wrote her TedTalk.
She’s pretty in demand, wearing out her Delta SkyMiles card jetting to the Beltway and back, and to various City Halls around the country. She’s got a smart and successful husband, cracks corny jokes, holds her liquor well and does unsolicited favors for people just because she can. In short: she’s a dynamo.
One day, we were chit-chatting, and I asked her how to up my game, and leap to newfound heights in my new line of work, which ain’t all that dissimilar from hers. (I write a lot about politics and policy.)
She talked about her media reps and brand consultants and web designers, and her literary agent and how it takes a team to make the dream possible and all that, and to assemble my village, too.
Yet, more powerfully, she said something that struck a deeper chord. She said, “the most important thing I can tell you is — whether you’re selling advice or a product — people won’t buy from you … unless they also want to be like you.”
I was taken aback. She continued: “We buy from people we want to be, or people we want to hang out with, or people we don’t think we’re capable of becoming but wished we could. Work on being that person, first.”
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Be Like Mike
Phil Knight knew what he was doing when he enlisted the help of Michael Jordan to sell his fledgling line of Nike sneakers. Michael Jordan was fresh off winning an Olympic Gold Medal in 1984. And, at 21, he signed a $500,000 deal to wear exclusively Nike’s in an NBA that, at the time, was mostly Adidas and Converse. It was the first deal of its kind — and, still, the biggest.
There was nobody like Michael Jordan in the NBA. Six NBA titles. Second all-time in points. The tongue-wag. The slam dunks. The shot. The comeback. The 72 wins. The style. The rugged competitiveness and smooth press conference demeanor. There’s a reason why, in 2020, some two-plus decades since his run with the Bulls ended, Jordan’s 10-part docuseries, The Last Dance, smashed viewership records on ESPN. MJ transcends basketball. He’s living, breathing American mythology.
At the peak of Jordan’s powers — around the time he and his Dream Team gallivanted around Barcelona — Gatorade created the iconic “Be Like Mike” campaign. It vaulted Gatorade from little-known scientifically-engineered hydration titration into a ubiquitous household brand, and his preferred flavor — Citrus Cooler — rose above Fruit Punch, Orange, and Lemon-Lime to become their №1-selling formulation … and my personal favorite. (The sun has largely set on Citrus Cooler, right around the time Jordan hung up his Jordans. No coincidence.)
We don’t buy from, or even trust, people we don’t want to emulate or cozy up to in some way. If persuasion amounted to just presenting the most credible viewpoints based on who held the most accurate data, then it wouldn’t matter where we get our news, what logo adorns our shoes, or who sells us the Sonata. If we have no desire to be them, we’ll have even less desire to buy what they’re selling us.
Do you know who’s not getting asked about their skin-care routines? People with scatter-shot skin.
Do you know who’s not selling us whitening strips? People with yellow teeth.
We take our life advice from Lizzo. We buy our beauty products from Rihanna. We hustle like Gary Vee and hack like Tim Ferriss. We Bend It Like Beckham, and Dare Greatly like Brene. We ask AOC where she got her lipstick and go to Santorini to follow in the footsteps of all the effortlessly gorgeous couples who flaunted their love there before us.
And all those people who graduate from commonfolk to blue-checkmark digital immortality? The folks with the extra zeroes in their follower counts and their bank accounts? They’re people we, on some level, wish to become or be close to.
I write for an audience of about 54K on Medium. I make more than double that as a freelance writer, copywriter, speechwriter, and brand consultant. Why? It ain’t because I write well (although I sure as hell do), but because people want to work with me. Because I’m a good hang. I got my shit (mostly) together and get my work (mostly) done. If that sounds like I’m beating my chest, well … I spent a long time not beating my chest. I’m owning this W for once.
The secret to building an audience is to become a person people want to be, or at the very least be around. If that sounds circular, then clearly you’ve never heard the slightly-less-accurate axioms, “image is everything,” or “fake it till you make it.” I could’ve just said those, but I don’t fuck with cliche—it’s part of my charm.
Want people to listen to you? Be someone they want to be around. It’s not enough to write well, you’ve also gotta sound like a good hang.
That’s not, by the way, to imply that you should be inauthentic or disingenuous — which is why I told you those were slightly-less-accurate axioms — instead, get healthy, cultivate grace, radiate warmth, stand for virtuous values and own your power. Learn, explore and grow. Accentuate the best parts of yourselves and keep working on them.
Without that work, you won’t even get people to listen to you, much less get people to love you. You won’t have a prayer in getting people to ask you to come aboard their staff, to sit at their dinner table, to offer to wear your sneakers.
This ain’t about manipulating your image; but about controlling and improving your character. Do that, and it doesn’t matter what you’re writing or what you’re selling. People will read it, adhere to it, and buy it, because — whether they know it or not — they’re trying to take a piece of you with them.
One More, For The Road
I have a cousin who’s a fair bit older than me. He graduated high school when I was born.
He lives in a nice home that’s both tastefully decorated and equipped with nonsensical things like multiple kegerators and full-size barroom shuffleboard. He’s married to a smart, fantastic, empathetic, ageless woman. They’ve raised a strong, awesome daughter together.
He started his own company, brews his own beer, smokes meat, cycles competitively and is both a father-like figure and the life of the party, sometimes at the same time. I use his life as a bit of a measuring stick.
One morning, he asked me if I planned on getting married, and if my parents’ marriage colored how I look at love. I told him, “yes, and also yes.”
Indeed, I never wanted to end up like my parents, and so I soured a bit on the idea. But I told him, “watching you two, though, convinces me that love and marriage are possible and worth shooting for.” It was his marriage that sold, and still sells, me on the idea of it — not my parents.
He owns a silver 1984 Porsche 944, and, that afternoon, he took it out of the garage for a spin. I sat passenger. Then, he pulled over, got out, and told me, “okay. Your turn.” I, having never driven stick, rounded the corners at 20mph before stalling out. I felt alive, sexy and one with the road. I knew right then and there I wanted one.
There might be objectively better cars, but you can keep your Aston Martin and your Bentley. I’ll take the 944, please and thank you. I drive a 3-series now, but maybe if I save up a few more pennies, I’ll look into making a purchase. You know … just for fun. And, when I do, somebody please find Shannon. I wanna know if she’s got one for sale.