You’ve created a stellar email newsletter, but few subscribe. You’ve launched an intriguing podcast, but listeners are nonexistent. You’ve published an exceptional blog post, a compelling research report, a remarkable webinar, a top-notch video, a stunning visual… but the audience just isn’t showing up.
In my experience, four root causes are to blame:
- You’ve produced something of low quality
- You’ve produced something of high quality, but low resonance
- You’re at the early stages of brand/audience-building, and need to keep investing before returns will accumulate
- Timing and luck simply weren’t on your side, but repeated, similar efforts are likely to work
The challenge with #1 is that most folks who’ve created low quality work believe it’s high quality (hence you believe it’s a stellar newsletter, exceptional blog post, etc). I’ve been there many times myself, certain that a video, presentation, graphic, post, whatever was “pretty darn good, so why aren’t people sharing it, dammit?!” The only advice I have is to continually consume work better than your own. It doesn’t have to be in your sector, but it really helps if it’s in your medium of choice.
Working on a podcast? Listen to incredible podcasters. Break down what makes an episode compelling. Reflect on what might have made it even better. Apply the lessons over and over to your own work, and keep at it. In artistic or content creation, practice alone won’t get you there; only practice combined with constant, critical refinement. And don’t conflate popularity and quality! If you need higher quality, consuming low-quality, high-popularity content probably won’t help.
#2 is what this post is all about. Resonance. Understanding why people share, rather than just consume, and how networks and systems amplify. More on this in a minute.
In scenario #3, it’s probable that, were your established audience larger, you’d do quite well. But, because you’ve only got a few dozen or hundred subscribers/readers/followers/fans consuming your work, the numbers just don’t work out.
In a marketing flywheel scenario, amplification comes first from engagement by your existing audience, and is then (potentially) boosted by algorithms on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, etc. If a good engagement rate with, for example, an email newsletter is 20% and a good amplification rate (i.e. sharing of any kind by those who’ve engaged) is 2%, your 200 subscribers might yield 40 readers and 0 sharers. Keep going! Perhaps next week’s 40 readers will include 2 sharers that lead to 20 more subscribers, and your flywheel can turn a little faster.
Scenario #4 is similar to #3, the difference being that you may already have that established audience, a flywheel that’s worked before, and you merely hit an unlucky bump of some kind. Often, that’s timing—maybe your audience is tired of this topic, or some other source they follow already covered what you’ve just produced. Perhaps the “conversation’s moved on,” or the inverse is true and you’re too early with a subject that might resonate quite a bit a month or a year from now.
Even more frustrating, it can come down to raw luck. Just ask all the Instagrammers, TikTokers, and Tweeters who’ve had their ho-hum, low-engagement posts copied by another account that’s been wildly successful with it. Don’t lose heart. That successful copy of your work is evidence you’ve got a good sense of what resonates, with whom, and how. Keep producing. Try to ramp up the visibility to the groups with whom it succeeded. You’re already on the right path.
But, this one: You’ve produced something of high quality, but low resonance. That’s the complicated kind of trouble.
If there is one universal in every part of marketing-focused creation, it’s this: whatever you produce, no matter what, where, or how you’re promoting, it requires amplification. Yet, to the surprise of many first-time creators, quality and resonance are two very different things.
Search engines, social networks, content platforms, publications with influence, word of mouth—none of them work unless people engage and amplify. That “amplification” looks very different from channel to channel, of course. In word of mouth, it’s literally whether someone talks or types about you. With publications, it’s whether their editor(s) choose to cover, curate, feature, write-about, or otherwise include your work. On search engines, it’s links, branded searches, clicks, and engagement that amplify (with ever-varying weights of influence). And on social networks and content platforms, of course, it’s the most direct: a share, post, upvote, or like (again, with varying degrees of influence).
Here’s the problem: most creators believe that high quality work is the key to amplification.
It. Is. Not.
A quality post, video, podcast, etc. might be more useful or enjoyable to consume, it might even earn you more business if it is consumed, but quality has only a minor influence on amplification behaviors. In fact, quality and amplification are barely correlated, because “this is quite good,” just doesn’t motivate people to share.
If you want to earn the sharing behaviors that lead to your work reaching a greater audience than the one you’ve already got, you’ll need a great answer to this question:
Who Will Amplify This? And Why?
That sounds like a simple proposition. It’s not.
If I had to assign blame to all of the underperforming campaigns I’ve worked on, more than 50% would sit squarely in my not-good-enough answers to that question. Solving for “who” and “why” is, in my opinion, the hardest part of earning traction with a campaign of any kind.
The root of amplification is caring. People don’t engage-with, and platforms don’t amplify things they don’t care about. That caring almost exclusively comes from an emotional place, not a logical one. The process isn’t: “is this high quality and reputable? If so, I shall share it.“
Instead, it’s, “that made me feel something powerful, and I want others to share in that feeling.“
Certain elements of share-inducing emotion can be analyzed, reverse-engineered, and applied to the work you create and how you earn amplification, like:
- Novelty – consider what makes the news and what doesn’t. An extremely unusual event like “Two headed seahorse born at aquarium,” or “vaccinated person gets Covid,” will often get headlines, even if the reporting is shoddy, the story of questionable value, and the sources specious. But a headline like, “99.999% of seahorses born at aquariums have a single head,” or “99.999% of vaccinated people do not contract Covid,” aren’t novel or unusual. This also extends to the temporal nature of publication. A new report about two-headed seahorses is far more likely to earn traction than a year-old news item on the same topic. People tend to amplify things that are new in both topic and timing.
- Belief Reinforcement (especially one that’s perceived to be frequently challenged) – Say you’ve long believed that astrology has a real, scientifically verifiable effect on behavior (to be clear, it doesn’t). If you were shown a research report showing correlation between behaviors and birth months, it’s quite likely that regardless of that study’s quality or source, you’d be likely to share it because it reinforces a belief you hold true, and one that others often challenge. This predilection holds true across people and groups with beliefs of all kinds.
- Relationship – when someone I’ve never met nor heard of asks me to link to their articles about the miracles of crypto-powered fish tanks, the answer is always no. But the closer that person is to me, the more likely the answer is to shift to a yes (well, maybe not for crypto-fishtanks, but certainly for more relevant topics). Relationships, professional or personal, have a powerful impact on our amplification behavior, and we’ll often boost something from a colleague or friend that we wouldn’t even glance at from a stranger.
- Fear – information, stories, or data about perceived threats has an outsized power to grab attention and earn amplification. Tragically, this is often abused by those who profit off that fear (including news publishers & broadcasters), but it can be harnessed for good in the right circumstances.
- Surprise – Similar to novelty, but more emotional, surprise drives a tremendous amount of the engagement and sharing behavior on the social web. Headline writing, by itself, can transform the content of a piece from something that feels familiar and comfortable into something surprising, interest-earning, and amplification-likely.
- Controversy – Side A says this, but Side B disagrees. Who’s right? Find out tonight on content that’s sure to receive lots of sharing. Controversy plays to emotions like anger (for the other side), caring (for your side), and even the popcorn-munching titillation of watching a conflict unfold. And while healthy, unbiased conflict can produce great results (e.g. athletes competing, or reasoned debaters laying out their arguments), it’s usually the loudest, most dramatic controversies that receive the most attention.
- Familiarity (or fame) – Wealthy couple gets divorced. Yawn. Bill and Melinda Gates get divorced. Click. Read. Share. Amplify. Speculate. Content around things with which we’re familiar bring up associations, preconceptions, and opinions, whereas the same information about an unfamiliar topic might fall flat. Disney keeps making movies and TV shows about familiar myths and worlds because even in mediocrity, we’re likely to engage. Remixes of songs, interviews with celebrities, casting of familiar actors, all leverage this principle.
- Rankings – The top 10 tacos in Texas. The best vacuum cleaners for your money. The most fun games to play on Nintendo Switch. Visit this state park, but skip these two. Follow the 5 best artists on Instagram. This structure leverages a seemingly innate desire for comparison and selection criteria, and it creates an incentive to share for three groups: those who care about the field/sector/problem overall, those connected to the winners (and losers sometimes), and those seeking to make a choice in that niche.
- Ego – Very few of us are so well-known or so immune to egoism that we can resist amplifying content that’s specifically about us, especially if that content is positive. The first time someone makes fan art about your creation, or writes an article about your work, or interviews you for a show, you are very likely to share it. That’s probably true all the way up to the dozenth time at least. But, as this type of coverage becomes less novel, it also becomes less share-worthy (one reason why ego-bait content marketing tends not to work so well with high profile people and organizations vs. less well-covered ones).
The above is by no means a comprehensive list. There are likely dozens more aspects, some straightforward and others, far more difficult to understand or replicate. A few may even be so serendipitous or luck-based that analyzing them makes little sense. Your job, as a marketer or creator isn’t to perfectly explain every piece of work that’s spread in your niche, but to use those elements we can understand to answer that difficult question:
Who Will Amplify This? And Why?
Think about the last thing you made that fell flat. When you created it, did you have a particular person in mind who would especially appreciate and benefit from that work? Or maybe a group of people?
If you’re in the world of marketing, that group is often potential customers, and I’ve written before about why creating for them (exclusively) vs. creating for potential amplifiers is a bad idea. Those are two different groups, and conflating them loses plenty of potential amplification on its own. That’s not to say everything you produce should be for amplifiers. But, when you’re intentionally creating for amplification, when you need it to turn that flywheel, you’ve gotta target an audience that can and will share.
Even if you’ve done it right, and effectively targeted your content toward an amplification-likely audience, you’ll still need to put in the work of asking who, exactly, will do that amplification.
The biggest impediment I see to making that a priority is the seeming ease with which already-successful creators earn sharing of their work. That other popular Instagram photographer doesn’t try to create a list of people who’ll amplify her work, so why should I?
BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT ALREADY POPULAR AND WELL-FOLLOWED.
Phew. Sorry. It’s just a tough, frustrating conversation to have over and over. The people I want to help most in the marketing universe are those whose work is great, but whose audience is still small. And if you fall into that category, then simply publishing and promoting your work on your own channels probably won’t be enough. You need the added firepower of people and publications that can extend your visibility and reach. Simply being “out there,” isn’t enough.
Let’s look more closely at those potential amplifiers:
The people with followings, or those gatekeepers at the publications, events, email newsletters, blogs, journals, broadcasts, and accounts have three unique qualities when it comes to sharing your work (or writing about you, inviting you to their event, including your link in their newsletter, etc):
- They’re driven by incentives to earn engagement and amplification on their own platforms. This means they’re unlikely to amplify, reference, or publish your work unless there’s an obvious connection to that goal.
- They are almost certainly inundated with options for what to amplify, and thus standing out from the crowd is even more difficult than it would be for your “regular” audience.
- They have audiences with affinities and preferences of their own, and unless your work resonates with *both* the amplifier and their audience, you’ll struggle to get the share.
These hurdles make earning amplification, and creating content that’s both high quality and high resonance really frickin’ hard!
The good news is:
A) That difficulty means your competition will be less likely to engage or succeed at the practice
B) By applying the knowledge above, you can angle your work: a product, an announcement, a piece of content, whatever to embody qualities that will make it share-worthy
That brings us to the process. When you answer this question…
Who Will Amplify This? And Why?
… the more detailed, precise, and thoughtfully-connected your answers are, the more success you’ll have.
Let’s say you’re launching a newsletter for empathetic managers who want to lead from the heart, like Amalia Fowler did yesterday:
A bad answer to the “who will amplify this? and why?” question would be:
“People who care about upgrading their empathetic management skills.”
What’s wrong with that? It’s far too broad a group. It doesn’t give any specific examples of people or publications. And it fails to make a connection between the who and the why. *Why* will those people who care about upgrading their management skills want to amplify this precise newsletter’s launch before the first edition’s even come out?
A better answer to the question, “who will help amplify this? and why?” would be:
“Current managers in tech, agency, and CPG fields who’ve read books like Radical Candor and No Hard Feelings, listen to podcasts like Culture First or Business of Empathy, and subscribe to newsletters.”
This answer isn’t perfect, but it does give specific, verifiable criteria we could go seek out in potential amplifiers. We could look at the social accounts of those publications, books, and podcasts mentioned, see who’s following them that we might already be connected-to, or who has a big following in those worlds. We could search Google for publications that covered launches or content from those sources before. We could plug them into SimilarWeb or SparkToro and see what else those audiences engage-with.
What the answer lacks is that actual list of people and publications, as well as the specific motivation we believe is likely to drive them to share Amalia’s newsletter launch.
But, the best answer to the question, “who will help amplify this? and why?” looks like this:
- Kim Scott – author of Radical Candor, 2nd degree on LinkedIn, I might be able to get an intro through XYZ, and the angle with newsletter #3 features some of her work.
- Meghan M. Biro – CEO of Talent Culture, she runs a weekly Twitter chat on similar topics I could participate in.
- Psychology Today – oddly popular in the management world, they take guest pieces and it looks like they let authors mention what they work on, which could include my newsletter.
- More broadly, people who’ve used hashtags like: #culture, #leadershipdevelopment, and #employeeengagement on mostly Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
Technically, I’d urge you to make a list longer than this, but even a handful of specifics make a world difference.
Now here’s the paradoxical secret: you do not have to reach out to Kim Scott or Meghan Biro or Psychology Today. If you can get them to amplify your work, and you’ve got a connection or a good plan to get a yes, go for it, of course! But, if the thought of doing that actual outreach scares or unnerves you to the point of discomfort, that’s OK. Merely by making a list with actual people, publications, and behavioral audiences, and noting how and why you *could* craft a compelling pitch for amplification, you’re setting yourself up for success.
That’s because a funny thing happens when you start thinking in terms of specifics around who will help you amplify and why: you start creating things more likely to earn sharing from people and publications like them. You start promoting and marketing your work in amplification-earning ways. It’s not merely the mindset, but the targeting that works. Try it. I promise that within a few attempts at both the creation and promotion of your new, amplifier-targeting work, you’ll find more resonance, more sharing, more turning of that flywheel.