Starting at 0: Building an Audience as a New Business
Building a brand can be a challenge for small businesses on a shoestring budget. A creative approach to social media can have a huge impact, with a very low cost. But when you start with zero followers, how can you build a solid audience and find early adopters?
Many small businesses turn to either buying likes on Facebook or furiously following and unfollowing people on Twitter and Instagram to inflate their audiences, somewhat artificially. This approach can damage your brand at the outset: inauthentic growth will make potential customers question your brand’s authenticity in other areas. If your online audience is fake, your brand promises, reviews, and value might be fake as well. I looked around the new brands in my own social network and the incubator where Crowdbabble is based to find examples of real growth: of users finding and following brands not just for a #followback, but because they find value in the brand and the content it shares.
The small businesses below have successfully cleared the first hurdle of social media marketing: building a small, but real audience of fans online. How did they do it?
Arti Designs Her Life
Arti Designs Her Life is an inspirational blog run by Arti Joshi, where she discusses her journey through the world of following your passions and who splits her time between London and far-flung locations like Australia and Indonesia. The blog launched in August 2015 and has experienced slow and steady growth to 500 WordPress followers and 110 very dedicated Facebook fans. On Facebook, Joshi has achieved what few other small businesses have: an almost equal proportion of shares to likes. Likes require less effort, and usually signal that fans are closer to the top of the funnel — less likely to convert.
Because Facebook shares extend your reach to entirely new audiences (they push content onto your fans’ feeds for all of their friends to see), they’re much more powerful for increasing reach.
As shown in the Crowdbabble graph above, 45% of fan engagement with Arti Designs Her Life on Facebook is shares. This indicates that her early adopter fans are brand advocates: though the page has a small audience, it’s very powerful. From March 2015 to March 2016, this highly engaged audience gave Joshi’s Facebook page an engagement rate of 152%.
Joshi’s ability to attract such a high proportion of shares might lie in her content strategy: her Facebook page is focused on videos with an inspirational lean. As shown in the table below, her most shared content are video interviews with inspirational bloggers who have larger audiences.
When Joshi posted two interviews in quick succession, in early March, her Facebook Page Likes increased dramatically.
The Crowdbabble graph below shows the resulting jump in likes in early March.
By creating video content and interviewing with bloggers who have more Facebook fans, Arti engaged two active audiences: her own brand advocates, and those of her interviewees. With this approach, her Facebook fan base should continue to grow organically and she should be able to amass an even higher proportion of brand advocates.
SlimCut Media is a Toronto-based startup that offers advertising solutions to online media, including news sites. Though its ad solutions boast more than 1 billion page views, translating those viewers into brand advocates on social media hasn’t been easy. As a B2B startup, SlimCut faces a unique challenge on social media: its solutions aren’t aimed at most consumers and their audience is much narrower. On Twitter, SlimCut has successfully attracted followers interested in the company’s progress. The Crowdbabble table below shows SlimCut’s most engaging posts over the past couple of months.
The company’s most successful tweets aren’t about its industry, but about SlimCut’s milestones as a startup. Photos and status updates, rather than industry news links, are the most engaging for @SlimCutMedia’s audience.
According to startup social media expert Brent Stirling, speaking as a person, rather than a faceless company, is the best way for new businesses to grow their audiences. SlimCut’s focus on its progress as a team of people, rather than a company in a B2B industry, is aiding its follower growth.
A Piece of the Party
This new business delivers on the promise of fun in its name. Its CEO — London-based Lauren Garvey — has carefully built a trendy brand that delivers playful, authentic videos of important events. A Piece of the Party’s brand is that it’s not your mother’s wedding footage. Shareable content is built into the business model: who can resist footage of the first time the groom sees the bride, or a snapshot of the flower girl and ring bearer?
On Facebook, Garvey has leveraged this content to build an audience of potential customers. Garvey focuses on lush HD footage uploaded to Vimeo, and personalizes posts by mentioning the first names of the bride and groom. These short highlight reels will help her page continue to grow along with her business. Her engagement rate from 2015 to 2016, when she launched her business, was 109.8%. More recently, Garvey has focused on video content and photos — this strategy seems to be paying off. In May 2016 A Piece of the Party grew fast on Facebook, gaining 20 new fans in one day.
The graph above shows the sharp rise on May 16, when Garvey posted a feature highlighting her videos on a popular wedding site. By celebrating the feature with her followers, she is making early adopters part of her milestones. As with SlimCut media, sharing positive news about the company creates the biggest return for her new and growing audience.
Climb Out of the Cubicle
This brand delivers e-courses and organization tools to help you maximize your spare time, realizing your dreams around a 9 to 5. Founder Amber Monaco has created a “second shift” community on social media, where she organizes chats and shares her insights via blog posts. Social networks are drowning in self-help brands, from companies promising miracle cures in turmeric recipes to bloggers selling $800 conference tickets that promise to change your life. But the success of brands who promote content that only teases other products is often short-lived. Once social media users realize that value is never just one click away, they stop clicking. Customers have become wary of anyone peddling #lifehack solutions; building credibility and delivering real value up front is key to success in this area.
Climb Out of the Cubicle stands out with inspirational content available for free, in Monaco’s personable voice. Monaco has avoided the clickbait trap by frequently updating her Facebook page with blog posts that are self-contained stories, not behind a paywall.
To build credibility from the outset, Monaco was active on Twitter (as @theAmberMonaco) long before launching Climb Out of the Cubicle in January 2016. As shown in the Crowdbabble graph below, followers engaged with her tweets a full year before launch.
The audience (and credibility) Monaco built on Twitter, along with her unique content strategy, allowed her to succeed on Facebook. Monaco’s steady growth on Facebook, where she posts her articles frequently, is a testament to the success of her strategy.
Her helpful articles are the most engaging, and make up the bulk of her posts.
As shown in the Crowdbabble graphs above, the media types Monaco uses and the ones her audiences engage with the most are in sync. Another key factor in Monaco’s success? Posting as herself. As social media guru Brent Stirling said, new businesses can find success by posting as real people, so that users “can identify with the person behind the brand.” Monaco publishes in first person as the business owner, rather than in third person as the business, and this has been key to her success.
Starting at 0 in January, Monaco’s audience has grown on Facebook to almost 500 likes. That may seem small, but her engagement rate is high: an average of 147.5% since January. By giving away quality written content for free and not pushing other offerings hard in her posts, Monaco has avoided the spammy feel that turns off potential customers.
Lessons for Entrepreneurs
Slow and steady growth can be frustrating for small business owners growing their brands authentically by delivering real value on social media. Seeing just 5 new likes on a Facebook page or 10 new Twitter followers in a week seems, on its face, discouraging. But if you are growing authentically, those likes are valuable: they represent users who are genuinely interested in your content.
New businesses do best when they recognize that their audiences are early adopters: users excited to share in the company’s growth and be part of its important milestones. These fans and followers — the few, the enthusiastic — are more likely to become customers and then brand advocates. With engagement rates of more than 100% and a high proportion of shares and retweets, organic growth will likely continue for these new businesses.
When you start at 0, attracting 10 new likes or follows unlocks 10 potential new audiences: your brand is exposed to the networks of new fans genuinely interested in your content, and most likely to share it. Startups and small businesses that begin at 0 might grow slowly, but the early adopters who found real value in their brands will be more likely to convert. For new businesses, small gains are big victories.