You're trying to build an audience.
So you publish content designed to provide value to the viewer.
And you publish...
And you publish...
And you publish...
...but, for a lot of aspiring creators, the audience doesn't seem to grow.
The Missing Ingredient
This was my experience too. And in April 2022 (already 5 years in!) I was feeling frustrated.
It felt like no matter how hard I tried, growth was slow. People didn't seem to care about my work – they didn't even care enough to understand who my work was for!
I would see conversations happening in my network on social media – conversations about the best podcasts for creators, or best newsletters for creators, or generally WHO to follow for creators...
But my name was rarely mentioned.
I felt discounted.
I felt passed over.
I felt ignored.
And then I had a flash of insight:
"People don't associate me with creators."
So, I asked:
The answers were very telling! I got answers like:
...but only two people used the word "creator."
This was a big, big problem.
Of course I wasn't coming up in conversations about creators – my work wasn't associated with them!
There's a concept in psychology called cued recall – it's our ability to retrieve information from our long-term memory using aids or cues.
When people ask for recommendations, they use specific words – and those words serve as cues. People use their cued recall to think of recommendations associated with those cues.
When your name (or your work) is associated with a specific word, that's what brings you to mind when that cue is presented.
My work was not associated with the word "creator" – so when that cue presented itself, I was not recalled.
But this is the opportunity – conversations like this are happening everywhere, all the time, simultaneously.
And when those conversations start working in your favor (i.e. people are being cued to refer YOU) then magical things happen.
I think about the conversation I had with James Clear at the end of 2019. At the time, Atomic Habits had sold about 2 million copies (over 15 million today) and I asked him the takeaways he had from his successful launch:
If it was just up to me marketing at this point, [it] would be over...it's sort of out of my control at this point. And I think that's because that maybe is the best signal that the book is providing value for people because it's so valuable that they're telling other people about it.
It was up to James to make a great product. But James didn't have a personal reach of 2 million people in 2019. So in order to sell 2 million copies, the book had to perpetuate itself.
Fortunately, the book became associated with the idea of habits. Not just habits, but creating good habits and breaking bad ones (it's in the subtitle).
At some point, it even became associated with the idea of a "great book!" When people asked for great book recommendations, it began to make those lists, which strengthened the association, and so on...and so on...
This should be your goal too – you need other people to spread the word about you, your work, and your ideas.
So how do you make that happen?
The Power of Association
Creating valuable content isn't the wrong idea – it's just becoming more and more abundant. Most content that makes it to your feed is valuable in some way to somebody – so people are finding new ways to filter what they actually pay attention to.
Creating valuable content is necessary, but not sufficient.
Your brand as a creator matters now more than ever. I don't necessarily mean the name of your company (though it helps). I'm talking about your reputation and what you're known for.
You need your work to be associated with a specific idea.
Here are a few of my favorite examples:
- James Clear: Habits
- Brené Brown: Vulnerability
- Codie Sanchez: Boring businesses
- Nick Huber: Sweaty startups
- David Perell: Personal Monopoly
- Wes Kao: Spiky Point Of View
- Justin Welsh: Solopreneurship
- Rosie Sherry: Community
- Daniel Vassallo: Small bets
- Jack Butcher: Build once, sell twice
When you are associated with a specific word, phrase, or idea, that connection spreads. Cued recall starts doing its thing and when that idea is brought up, so is your work.
As it spreads, it gets stronger.
That association is what builds the audience – and a very targeted audience at that.
There are three steps to creating an association in the minds of others:
And these steps should be followed in order.
Your first decision is what you want to be associated with. It can be a word, phrase, idea, or movement.
The more broad, the more likely there will be established competition and the harder it will be to succeed in creating the association.
If I wanted to be associated with "self-improvement," that's going to be tough. That's a broad category and there are a lot of well-known creators in the mix already.
If I go super narrow, that may be easier to dominate, but also it may be limiting. I could probably be the only guy talking about creating sea turtles out of LEGO, but how big is the reward for succeeding?
The art is finding a topic that has real appeal (and organic conversation) but limited competition.
One way to find a blue ocean is by positioning yourself at the intersection of two ideas. Dan Runcie writes about the business of hip-hop. Tori Dunlap talks about personal finance through the lens of feminism.
When I realized that my work wasn't being associated with creators, I fully rebranded the company. I renamed my newsletter from "Creative Companion" to "Creator Science." That rebrand was so successful that I renamed my podcast "Creator Science" too.
Granted, my attempt to compete for the term "creator" is ambitious (if not a little unwise). It's a broad word with a lot of competition.
But there is a strategy for competing in a crowded space...
Simply selecting the association you hope to create does not make it so. It gives you a north star, but it's only a starting point.
You now need to express your ideas in a way that is both aligned with that association and differentiated from others. Of course, it's easier to be differentiated the less competition there is!
If you're saying the same things as other people who are already MORE closely associated with an idea than you are, then you're fighting a losing battle. You need to either choose a different battlefield or take a more differentiated approach.
This is why copycats, by definition, cannot be more successful than those they are copying. It's a losing strategy.
The winning strategy is forming and expressing a unique perspective.
What makes you and the lens you see the world through different?
That's something to lean into and invite others to view the world the same way.
I mentioned above that competing for the word "creator" is competitive – so I'm constantly applying different perspectives on how to succeed as a creator:
- Having an experimentality (a word I made up)
- Creator-educators vs. creator-entertainers
- Discovery Platforms vs. Relationship Platforms
- I juxtaposed "creator" with "science" to allude to a measurable, controlled approach
These are all unique frameworks for the creator economy that give new language to a way of thinking.
Plus, unique expression is the beginning of creating defensible intellectual property.
Once you've expressed a unique perspective, the temptation is to pat yourself on the back and move on.
Mission accomplished, right?
And the next step isn't necessarily creating more new unique expressions, either. That may be helpful, but actually, the most effective thing you can do is embrace repetition.
Repetition is what creates an association. Think about studying as a kid – you would create flashcards so that you could strengthen the relationship between specific cues and the correct association. Flash cards are designed to make repetition easy – because repetition builds association.
If you're familiar with Andrew Huberman of Huberman Lab, you may have heard him talk about the benefits of sunlight exposure in the morning or why you should wait 90 minutes after waking to consume caffeine.
These are unique insights, but I would argue that's not why you remember them...
At one point, I turned on push notifications for all of Huberman's tweets to get a sense of how he uses Twitter. But what I really noticed was that he was tweeting about both of those ideas – sunlight exposure and delayed caffeine use – multiple times per week.
Hasn't he already said this??
Yes! But that doesn't mean he should stop talking about it.
Not only does repetition help to effectively create association, but people like repetition. Repetition creates familiarity – and people like familiarity. It's comforting.
When you go to a concert, do you prefer to hear songs you know or new music?
People want YOU to play your hits too.
If you are struggling to find traction, it's likely that your work isn't being associated with the ideas, words, or audience that you hope for.
However, creating an association between your work and the interests of your target audience is the gateway to organic growth.
This starts with the intentional selection of the words, ideas, or phrases that you want to build an association with. Once you've made that determination, express your perspective in a differentiated way.
And once you've expressed them in a differentiated way, do not be afraid to repeat yourself. Repetition builds association. And soon, it won't just be YOU repeating your ideas, but your audience on your behalf.