I’ve had my own small business online since the early 2000s. One of the benefits of being an “early adopter” is that I was able to assume a position of leadership before I faced too much quality competition.
It was great for me back then as I could test basic ideas, see how they went and report back my findings. This lead to building a following and thus a thriving business.
Today it’s not quite as simple as that. Leadership positions are mostly taken. You can certainly enter a market and become a leader if you have the credentials, the skills and the dedication, but it’s just not as easy as it once was.
There are more people who are good at what they do today, meaning you have to essentially – “up your game” – if you are to survive and thrive.
A few weeks ago I was busy writing an email to my newsletter. I had published a solid article here on EJ and I wanted to make sure my newsletter subscribers knew about it. I invested quite a bit of time writing the article and then a bit more time writing my newsletter. Stock-standard work for a blogging information publisher.
Shortly after sending off my newsletter, I received an email from Leslie Samuel from BecomeABlogger.com. He just published an epic article of his own reporting the results of his blogging business from the previous month.
I continued through my email and noticed an update from Pat Flynn. He had recently published an extremely detailed post on his blog about how he does podcasting. It included multiple videos, transcripts, MP3s – almost an entire course in itself!
Then Tim Ferriss popped up on my radar next, releasing another one of his epic articles on how someone did something amazing, a common subject on his blog.
These are three talented and dedicated guys, all working in roughly the same industry as me. Week-in-and-week-out they publish great ideas, do experiments, write huge blog posts, record videos, podcasts – even write the occasional book! And they are just a small sample of an extensive collection of amazing people who operate in my “hood” online.
When I started blogging, none of these guys were around. At least they weren’t writing a blog or were well known for what they do today. It was a lot quieter place in the blogosphere.
You might feel a little discouraged about starting a blog or online business because of the quality people already doing such great work.
How are you going to stand out when every subject area seems so crowded?
How on earth can you become a leader if it takes a monumental amount of work just to do half of what other people seem to pump out online week-in-week-out?
What if you have a full time job and family that take most of your time?
I’ve actually felt these exact feelings myself (well, not the full time job part, but I do get busy with non-business life things too). Just because I was an early adopter doesn’t mean I can just sit back and rest on my laurels. I’m being outpaced by smarter, more active and passionate people.
One of the challenges for a person like me is that after so long online everything starts to look the same. The fundamentals never change, all that happens is we get more tools to exploit them. As a “grandfather” online, I can get cynical as each new tool or technique comes around. I just don’t have the energy to know everything about everything in my industry, like a leader should.
That’s not a good attitude. It’s a sign of burn out, too long spent doing the same thing with nothing new sparking excitement. It’s also a sign you have lost touch with why you are doing what you do in the first place. Without passion in place, everything can seem like too much work.
In the past you could just blog good content knowing other bloggers would link to you, delivering SEO benefits and thus traffic. That was basically it, job done.
I didn’t think what I did back then was easy by any means. There was plenty to learn, things to try out and in my case, I was doing it all myself. I had way too many hats to wear, but compared today, it was a lot simpler. You could get away with a lot less and still win.
Today you need a YouTube channel, a podcast, constantly updated Facebook pages and Twitter timelines. You have to network on LinkedIn, and watch out for Pandas and Penguins stomping through the search engine algorithms.
This is on top of being good at what you are supposed to be a leader of. If you’re a musician or a lover of collecting antique furniture or studying quantum mechanics, this is what you really want to spend your time on. Picking the activities to focus on is half the battle.
I’ve painted a potentially bleak picture, but it’s the reality of what we face online as independent creative publishers looking to make a living.
It’s not like we haven’t seen this coming. For a long time people have been talking about how crowded it is online. Studies continually report that attention spans are decreasing, a natural outcome when there is always something new distracting you, especially with the constant stream of life-casting that is social media.
Its not all doom and gloom of course. There are benefits as a result of more people going online and more people producing. Namely –
That last point hints at what I believe is the crucial trend to fully understand as you head into 2013. Building a true fan base, understanding why they come to you, and then nurturing those people, is how you can survive and thrive.
Let’s take a deeper look at this by reviewing two important concepts that emerged online in recent years…
Although written in 2008, this concept, I believe, has only become more and more important since then. The idea, in a nutshell, explains you need a core following of people who love what you do and are willing to pay for it.
While the number 1,000 is arbitrary to a degree (Kevin explains that 1,000 people giving you $100 a year is an income great enough for an artist to survive), the idea that a small group of people are the life and blood of your business is spot on.
I tell people in my presentations and marketing materials that I have 100,000 subscribers combined, including my RSS, email and daily blog readership – and it’s been higher than this before I recently halved the sized of my email list, culling a lot of “dead” emails from my newsletter. The truth of the matter is that a much much smaller amount of people actually pay attention to what I say online.
When I send an email to my entire newsletter, currently it will go to over 35,000 subscribers. Of those people, about 20% will open the email and around 5% at best will click the link. That’s a little less than 2,000 people who make it to my website from that newsletter. There’s no guarantee once they get there they will stay and read my entire article or listen to my podcast.
The fact that you are still reading this article means that you are likely one of my true fans, or very close to it. You might also share this article with your social media circles, another sign that you and I are a little closer online than most people, even if we have never met in person (Hint: click that Tweet button and Facebook Share button – thank you!).
When I launch my own products or promote affiliate products, only a tiny fraction of my audience actually buys. Of course, 100 people giving you $97 a month ongoing, or just ten people buying a product you get $1,000 commission for, can add up to a good-enough-to-live-off income stream.
In the same year that Kevin Kelly was talking about 1,000 True Fans, Seth Godin was talking about tribes. His latest book at the time, titled “Tribes”, talked about the importance of community online.
Watch Seth explain the concept of Tribes in his TED talk here – The Tribes We Lead
A tribe unifies a small group of people behind an idea. The leader of the tribe represents that idea and gives direction to the tribe in how to further explore and expand it. The idea can be anything from a social movement like gay marriage, to fans of a certain brand of sneakers, or music style, or parenting technique, or really anything where enough people band together and create collectively around an idea.
It shouldn’t be a big leap for you to understand that a blogger is a tribe leader. We represent something that we care about, that other people care about, and create places for people to communicate and educate themselves about that idea.
As is the case with 1,000 true fans, the people in your Tribe are your core following. These are the people who leave comments on your blog, send you emails, share your ideas with other people and perhaps most importantly if you want to make a living from your ideas – purchase your products and services.
I started this article by explaining how difficult it is today to stand out online, how hard it is to keep up with all the other people already doing amazing things.
This is not going to change.
The answer to the problem hasn’t changed: You have to focus.
What has shifted, at least in my eyes, is how critical it is that you focus on only one group of people – your core supporters, fans, community, tribe – whatever you want to call it.
It’s never been more important to understand who your people are, why they trust you, why they keep coming back to you and most importantly, what they are striving for.
Your focus in 2013 must narrow even further on to your core followers. You will need to support them with your best ideas, recommend tools and communicate directly with them as often as you can.
You have to get better at ignoring distractions that don’t fit into your community. There are huge hungry audiences out there, but if you change your message or spend time chasing something new, your tribe will start to forget you.
Narrowing your niche is a natural response to a crowding market. Your niche isn’t a particular product or category or even just a specific problem – it’s a group of people that represent these things.
In 2013, you need to get better and better at narrowing your focus on certain people. This is the path to establishing a core group of true fans.
Bear in mind this is not something you can decide quickly. It’s a process of refinement as you spend more time interacting with your people.
Relationships are not static. They become stronger when time passes and experiences are shared. This holds true for your relationship with your audience online.
You must bring the focus down as tight as you can and support only your core community. Answer their emails, reply to their comments, give them your best materials, learn what their problems are and direct all your content at them.
Focus focus focus.
If you don’t do this, then they will move on to other people who do. You simply can’t be a jack-of-all-trades online anymore, at least not unless you have the resources to support lots of different tribes.
In my case I’m thinking about my tribe, my true fans. Who are you? Why do you read my blog? What are your goals, and what tools and systems are you implementing to help achieve them?
I’ve been under the assumption that my audience are internet marketers and bloggers, however that’s too big a category. I’m narrowing it down to focus on bloggers who use information publishing as their income source. People who want to build a sales funnel of information they sell online using their blog.
Is that narrow enough? Possibly not.
What do you think I should focus on? What are you focusing on?
Tell me in the comments.
I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s.
Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business. The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently. Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.