Audience Building · · 7 min read

Maybe your content isn't the problem

What to consider if your work isn't getting the attention it deserves.

Negative feedback is painful – but it's less painful than being completely ignored. When you pour your heart, soul, and time into something – it really hurts when nobody seems to care.

If no one acknowledges your work, does that mean it's bad?

To figure that out, let me first tell you about Joshua Bell. If you're more cultured than me, you may already know that Joshua Bell is one of the most celebrated artists of our generation. He was a child prodigy and is now an internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso.

Translation: He's not only really good at violin, he's one of the best ever.

Here's a Tiny Desk concert to give you a taste:

In the early 2000s, Joshua Bell filled Symphony Halls with tickets selling for $100+ each. And in 2007, The Washington Post talked Joshua into doing a little experiment: He would play his violin during rush hour inside a Washington, D.C., metro station (and, by the way, the violin itself was handcrafted in 1713 and worth $3.5 million).

Over the next 43 minutes, 1,097 people passed by. Almost none of them stopped, and he earned just $32.17 in change.

This experiment wasn't completely fruitless...

One man stopped because he felt so moved by the music. Another man who studied violin noticed how technically proficient Bell was. One child tried to stop his mother so they could listen. And one woman recognized Joshua Bell himself.

The whole experiment is written about beautifully in the original Washington Post article from 2007. Some of my favorite parts are the quotes from Bell himself:

“I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”

We crave recognition. Even if you don't love our work, can't you at least acknowledge that we made an effort?

I share this because I think we can all agree Joshua Bell makes good content. He's technically one of the best at his craft. So if HE can be ignored, what hope do we have? What can we learn from this experiment?

Context over Content

On its face, this experiment may seem confusing at best and deflating at worst. How can a man go from selling out concert halls to earning just $32 for the same performance just weeks apart?

I think it boils down to the environment:

People come to the concert halls for him. They brought their attention to him.

But in the subway, no one expected him. He had to convince them to give him their attention.

From the Washington Post article:

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence..."

In the subway, there was no external validation providing context for his work. The implicit context was, "This is a busker," and people may not expect buskers to be good, let alone world-class. After all, if they were good, why would they be here?

The context of the subway is a low-trust environment.

This is in contrast to the halo effect of having "made it." When the culture (or a small subculture) agrees that you've "made it," then you start getting invited into places that are only open to those who have "made it." Those platforms provide external validation, reinforce your legitimacy, and it gets easier and easier to be taken seriously.

When you showcase your work in places with others who haven't "made it," you're also assumed to have not "made it" yet – just like Joshua Bell in the subway. We don't expect music in that environment to be world-class – so just by virtue of that space, we discredit the work.

The context in which you share your content matters a lot. It presets our expectations and how we receive it.

Making context work for you

Social media is the great digital subway. It attracts tons of attention, but it is a low-trust environment that is skeptical of new people. The For You algorithms of social media have democratized your ability to get in front of people, but to grab our attention (and retain it), you must make a remarkable impression (fast). The bar is getting higher all the time.

It's always rush hour on the great social media subway, and it gets busier every day. The digital passerby isn't looking to dole out more of their precious attention – they're actually trying to disqualify and ignore as many people as possible.

But critical thinking and discernment take effort. To make things easier, we lean on heuristics to make choices without thinking too hard.

One of our favorite ways to determine whether or not to pay attention to something is whether someone else we already trust endorses them. Another is to look at a Follower count to see if people generally seem to trust this person.

Instead of thinking for ourselves, we often offload that critical thinking and discernment to someone we've already decided to trust (or the “wisdom” of the crowd). We seek external validation of someone to save us some effort.

That’s the true benefit of Follower counts today. In a world where your own Followers may not see your work, Follower counts are still used as an eyeball test for your legitimacy. They create both a vicious and virtuous cycle. It's difficult to build momentum, but it's also difficult to stop once you do.

Our desire to offload critical thinking means gatekeepers still exist. There are more of them, they are more independent than in the past, and they aren’t the only pathway — but they are still powerful.

Anyone can play in the digital "subway" of social media, but you'll be taken more seriously on the "stages" of trusted gatekeepers.

I talk a lot about community on social media, and a lot of it totally flops! But when Ali Abdaal gave me his stage on the Deep Dive podcast, I got a TON of new attention and positive feedback:

When good content is presented in the context of a high-trust environment, it tends to perform well.

Of course, we’d all love to be featured on these big platforms tomorrow. It’s not as easy as snapping your fingers for most of us, and there is more demand for these stages than there is supply. So who gets on them?

Generally, they’re offered to people with some combination of:

Relationships reign supreme. Ever notice how the biggest names seem to all know each other? We listen to a shockingly small number of voices – and those voices are often reinforcing each other.

I’m not throwing shade. But once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it. You start to understand how the game is really played. The largest and fastest-growing creators often have relationships with other creators that audiences trust. Sometimes those relationships are earned through doing great work, and other times those relationships pre-date the work itself.

Gatekeepers often lend their stages to their up-and-coming friends (podcast guest appearances, channel collaborations, or even social media reposts). This is easier when your ideas are novel and complementary to the gatekeeper (rather than competitive).

Novel or timely ideas still require some amount of social proof. The gatekeepers worked hard to build their platform — sharing it with you comes with some level of reputational risk. If they don’t know you, why would they share their stage with you?

Even gatekeepers sometimes outsource their discernment. Who else trusts you? What stages have you been on? What common ground do you have?

It’s another reason why relationships are such a force multiplier. If you have a warm relationship already, you have an inside track. And if you don’t, don’t become a cynic who believes this is an unobtainable catch-22. If you don’t have those relationships, you can develop them!

In Ryan Holiday’s first book, Trust Me I’m Lying, he demonstrated how you can continually “trade up” small amounts of social proof into slightly larger and larger opportunities. Networking becomes friendships. Friendships lead to introductions. Like building individual relationships with your own audience, this is a slow process — but it’s the most broadly accessible strategy we have.

Remember: this is all easier when you’re doing high-quality, differentiated work.

Long-term, you want to develop your own platform. Your own high-trust environment. When you develop trust with an audience, you become your own gatekeeper. It's the most valuable (but difficult) position to develop.

Whatever you do to get there, when you're able to share your content through a high-trust context, you stack the odds of success in your favor:

Relatively low-quality content in a high-trust environment typically outperforms relatively high-quality content in a low-trust environment. It's frustrating, but it’s true (and you’ve probably already seen it).

Even creators who worked hard to develop an audience through high-quality work often start to coast in the high-trust environment they've built for themselves, making lazier content that wouldn't perform well outside of their own platform — simply because they can.

Conclusion

The success of your content isn't solely determined by the quality of your work. Unfortunately, the internet isn't a pure meritocracy.

In the long term, you want to earn the trust of an audience. In doing so, you build your own high-trust environment.

This is hard-earned over the course of years (and easily lost). You can do it brick-by-brick, slowly, in the great online subway, or you can get on other stages to borrow from their high-trust environments.

Relationships are an unfair advantage. You build these relationships slowly and genuinely over time. Find some friends who are building their own stages and share your stages with one another.

Or you can do this the hard way by "busking" alone on social media. Great content can still make an impression – but it's almost always slower.

Recommended:

Recommended Next

The Secret to Word of Mouth

Word of mouth is still among the most powerful forces for spreading ideas, brands, content, etc. If you want your

RIP Followers?

Jack Conte (CEO of Patreon) gave a fantastic keynote at SXSW 2024. The talk was called "Death of the

Join 60,000+ Creators

Subscribe to the Creator Science newsletter for real-life experiments, expert interviews, and evidence-backed advice every week.

CTA