Why you need to Build an Audience

For virtually all of the funding streams in adventure, you need an audience. Someone has to care about what you do and (one way or another) be prepared to part with money in support of you and your undertakings. 

There is the dream that you can modestly do your own thing and you will be ‘discovered’ by the wider world.

You hope to gain the audience without having done any of the embarrassing work of soliciting attention. There are two problems with this.

1. Those days are over

Insofar as this dream was ever true, those days are over. Once all you had to do was get the attention of specific individuals. You found an agent, they found the publisher who then found the audience to buy your book. You found a corporate sponsor, and their PR team introduced your project to the media. Now you are expected to be hustling right alongside with your publisher and your sponsor. Furthermore, you may never get to speak to them in the first place, without the ‘social proof’ that an already-existing audience provides. The upside of this new reality is you may be able to direct a bigger percentage of the profits to yourself, but the downside is that marketing yourself has to be a fact of life. 

2. Luck doesn't last

Even if you are blessed with the lightning stroke of luck that catapults you into the public spotlight, that beam of interest doesn’t last long. You need to be ready to capture as much of it as you can before public attention moves on. Think of it as a sudden thunderstorm, if you don’t have buckets already in place to catch and hold some of that water, it will have all soaked away into the ground before you recognise the opportunity that’s just passed by. 

The biggest single key to audience building is to do it consistently, over time.

You need to be deliberate and purposeful about audience building, and you need to have your mechanisms in place, even if you don’t (yet) have much of a story to tell. Mixing rushes of enthusiasm with long periods of silence when you feel over-exposed or disheartened, is going to make it feel even harder than it already is. 


Why do you need an audience? 

  1. Social Proof
  2. Fan base

DISCLAIMER for every piece of general advice, there is an adventurer who has succeeded despite breaking all the rules. What we don’t notice are the many, many more who have failed. If you choose to blaze your own path, at least know what the rules are and decide to break them deliberately, with an alternative plan in place, rather than ignore them out of laziness or pride. 

Anyone who has travelled in the backcountry knows you travel faster on paths laid down by others. Break away from the crowd at the optimum moment to highlight your unique vision, not at the moment where you end up hopelessly tangled in the bushes on the valley floor, while others run up the path towards the mountain tops. 

 

1. SOCIAL PROOF

When your mad-cap adventure proposal lands in the inbox of a sponsor / agent / publisher / TV channel / newspaper, you are just pixels on a screen. An anonymous someone claiming they can pull off an outrageous idea. You may be right, but you may be a con-man, a fantasist, a naive time-waster. The point is - they don’t know. In the short period of time where they wonder whether to take your pitch seriously or consign you to the trash folder, the first thing they will do is Google you. They are looking for evidence that anyone else takes you seriously. You want them to find:

1. Your website - the very best of what you’ve done (and hope to do) cleanly and professionally presented. That shows you take yourself and your pitch seriously.  [12 Reasons You Need Your Own Website]
2. Your social following - evidence that other people think your opinions and your adventures matter. (Yes, social numbers can be easily gamed, but it’s not difficult to detect signs of gaming either.) 

Because you know your pitch and your purpose so well, it is easy to forget how little anyone else has to go on when they first hear your proposal. We also underestimate how many poorly-planned or entirely impossible pitches these people are receiving daily. They are looking for reasons to put you in the trash and move on with their day.

If you have an audience but it is not easily visible via a Google search, you need to explain it in your pitch. But your target is still going to seek out independent verification of your claims. Make their life easy. Give them something to find. 

2. FANBASE

The more important reason to build an audience is that they provide the fanbase that will underpin all your adventures. You can use your fanbase to prove the power of your message to your potential sponsors. You can trade your fanbase with the fanbase of others to get marketing opportunities. You can sell to your fanbase - charity support, crowdfunding, books, talks, merchandise. 

This is why many of the techniques for gaming your social media following are counter-productive. If you have followers who are not fans (because they are anything from friends who are also out to sell, to third-world fake fans or bots), you may pass the initial ‘social proof’ test but in the long term, these followers will not bring you influence or money. 

Back in 2008 Kevin Kelly proposed the idea of the 1000 True Fans, which was later taken up by Tim Ferris. These are not just well-wishers or casual friends. “A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce.” His maths was simple. 1000 fans who buy $100 of product from you annually - product you control so you keep the profit = $100,000 a year. 

It is the power of the internet that makes this possible. “Whatever your interests as a creator are, your 1,000 true fans are one click from you. As far as I can tell there is nothing — no product, no idea, no desire — without a fan base on the internet.” But these fans have to find you. And there is a great deal else out there to distract them as they search. You need to make it as easy as possible for them to find you and as clear as possible what is interesting about you when they arrive. 

Not every follower will be a true fan. Think of your audience as existing in concentric circles, the most invested in the centre. All are useful to you in different ways. And avoid the easy way out of expecting friends and family to form the foundation of your fanbase. They can love you without being invested in your great dream. You are going to need to reach out to strangers, and interact with them. 

Build consistently over time


What an audience does for you in each of the Adventure Funding Streams

Brand Ambassador

It’s all about your engaged social following. The brand is trying to reach & influence a wider audience. They are betting that your followers will trust your opinion about a product or service more than they will trust an advertisement.  Here bigger follower numbers will get you a better deal from the brand, but brands are also looking for engagement. You need to be seen to spend time with your followers, they need to be invested in your opinions.  

Sponsored Athlete

More women have broken into the extreme sport branded athlete space - a space traditionally seen as dominated by men, as athletes and as consumers - by proving the power of their presence through building a social media following. Athlete sponsorship is not a reward for top performance (although athletes may wish it was or think it ought to be). It is about brands trying to influence consumers to buy product. Your ability to engage and retain followers matters more than your absolute physical performance. 

“What sponsors are most interested in is what value you can add to the brand. Now more than ever, there are more ways to tell your story, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there.”
— Caroline Gleich, Ski mountaineer, @carolinegleich

Speaker

Schools may take you as a speaker just because your adventure sounds interesting. But they are as likely as any to Google you in search of proof of your claims.

Adventure Festivals tend to be trading a place on their stage for access to your fanbase. You are being invited to speak because they hope your name with attract attendees. They are probably also trying to pay you as little as possible, because you in turn will get exposure to their audience. 

Speaker bureaus - the easiest way for more adventurers to access the well-paid corporate opportunities - are going to expect you to have a national media presence. Social is not going to be enough. 

Writer / photographer / film-maker

Many millions of blogs are being written to an audience of no-one, just as many YouTube videos have no views. You need to be find your audience and bring them to your story. 

As a freelance writer, you may get a commission based just on the power of your prose. But some publications are specifically looking for writers with a following that can bolster their readership numbers. And all publications are likely to take no social following as a sign that no-one has (up until now) been moved by your writing. That makes them less likely to be the ones to take a chance on you. (The same goes for photography and films.) 

As for books, the moment of publication isn’t the summit, it’s more like reaching base camp. Self-publishing will net you 100% of the profit, but only if you have an audience who buys it. And increasingly agents and traditional publishers expect you to bring them an idea, some ability to write, and a pre-existing audience. Even if you are traditionally published, their marketing push will not last long. They’ll put all their efforts behind the titles that gain momentum and leave the rest to languish as a lost bet. You still have to market the book yourself to your own audience. 

Crowd-funding

It’s a common mistake to assume crowd-funding platforms provide the audience for your idea. They don’t. They just provide a way to present your message and take the money. You need to have the idea and the audience already. Or you have to have the PR campaign that will let you reach a wider audience. 

Sponsorship

Big-money sponsorship is going to want national/international media coverage, which means their PR team is likely to work with you to make that happen. What proof of an audience does is get your proposal considered in the first place. Beyond just social proof, they are gauging whether your message will amplify well onto a national stage. They want to know that you are capable of engaging an audience, even without PR and media backing.

Adventure grants

At this point in time, there are three types of grant. (Setting aside scientific exploration.) 

1. The original grants, mostly designed to support exploratory mountain expeditions. But there are some just for horizon-broadening foreign travel. No audience is needed! Just the ability to plan and execute your project to your best ability. However, even some of these ask for an article and maybe a speech on your return. An ability to tell a story is helpful.

2. Somewhat social grants. Often targeted at human-powered endurance adventures. Increasingly these ask that you share your adventure on social as it unfolds. So it helps if you have that set up already and you know how to use it effectively. 

3. Blatant social sharing gimmicks. They dangle a more or less generous grant at the end, and put you in competition with others, drumming up ‘votes’ via likes, comments and shares on their social media, to push your adventure proposal into first place. This is 100% about the reach and enthusiasm of your following. 

Your number of followers is massively attractive to sponsors. It proves that people are interested in us women and that we are valuable marketing tools.
— Rachel Atherton, Mountain biker, @rachybox

 

How to Build An Audience - useful blog posts (coming soon)