How to Build an Engaged Audience with Content Marketing

image of danny iny's engagement book

Most bloggers are after the same things.

They want traffic to their blogs, comments on their posts, and sales of their products or services.

These are all great goals, but they’re really just symptoms of something else: having an engaged and responsive audience.

You can’t have a lot of consistent traffic, comments, or sales without a great audience — your traffic source will dry up sooner or later (AdWords, anyone?), your commenters will stop commenting, and your sales will disappear.

But what if you don’t have an audience at all? How do you build an engaged audience if you’re starting from scratch?

That’s the question that I asked 30 different audience-building masters. Let’s take a look at their answers to these questions …

Many paths up the mountain

I reached out to the most successful audience-builders that I could think of; people like Guy Kawasaki, Mitch Joel, and Copyblogger’s own Brian Clark.

I asked them how they would go about building an engaged audience if they had to start from scratch. Something interesting happened: their answers were all different from each other.

Sure, there were some consistent threads (know your audience, provide value, etc.), but the differences were often bigger than the similarities, and the focus of each answer was distinct and unique.

So I broadened the net, and asked more successful audience-builders to weigh in:

  • I approached internet marketing experts like Derek Halpern from Social Triggers, Ana Hoffman from Traffic Generation Café, and Corbett Barr from Think Traffic.
  • I approached social media pundits like Mark Schaefer from {grow}, Danny Brown from Bonsai Interactive, and Gini Dietrich from Arment Dietrich and Spin Sucks.
  • I approached bloggers like Kristi Hines (Kikolani), Marcus Sheridan (The Sales Lion), and Linda Bustos, who blogs at Get Elastic.
  • I approached entrepreneurs like Anita Campbell (founder of SmallBizTrends and BizSugar), Dino Dogan (co-founder of Triberr), and Adam Toren (founder of YoungEntrepreneur, and many other businesses).
  • And I approached authors, like Alexander Osterwalder (Business Model Generation), Randy Komisar (The Monk and the Riddle and Getting to Plan B), and Sean Platt (Writing Online, Yesterday’s Gone, and many other titles).

Of course, these categories (blogger vs. entrepreneur vs. author, etc.) blur into each other. Mark Schaefer and Adam Toren are both published authors, Dino Dogan and Marcus Sheridan are experts on social media, Linda Bustos is a sharp internet marketer, and most of the people on the list are entrepreneurs.

But you get the point, which is that these people have a great diversity of knowledge and expertise!

Their answers, and those of a dozen others that I approached, started rolling in, and I started noticed the answers grouping around a few common themes:

  • Start with the Fundamentals
  • Know and Love Your Audience
  • You Have to Get Content Right
  • Add Social Media to the Mix
  • Be Your Passionate Self
  • Learn from Experience

The first group of answers was all about the fundamentals …

Start with the fundamentals

The very first step to building an engaged audience is be super-clear about what type of audience you need, and why you need it. For example:

  • Do you want an audience to feed an existing business?
  • Do you want an audience to drive a new business?
  • Do you want to be a celebrity?
  • Are you just trying to get the word out about a product or service?
  • Will success be measured in followers, in conversations, or in conversions?

You might not need a detailed strategy, and integrity are always going to be important — but if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, how will you even know where to start, and whether you’re moving in the right direction?

Once you know where you’re going and why, it’s time to start thinking about the audience …

It’s all about your audience

You have to know your audience — that much is a given.

If you don’t know your audience — their wants, their needs, their hopes and their fears — then you won’t be able to write stuff that they want to read, raise issues that they want to discuss, or create products that they want to buy.

So you have to know your audience, but just knowing them isn’t enough. If you really want to build an engaged audience, you have to love your audience, too, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, if you don’t love your audience, you probably won’t end up knowing them as well as you need to, and your audience-building efforts will be doomed from the get-go.

More importantly, though, building an audience is a slog — it’s a long, hard process, and you need to be committed enough to stay the course for the long haul. If you love your audience, then every email and tweet that you receive will give you a small boost of motivation to keep on going.

If you don’t love them, though, the tweets and emails will turn into an annoying distraction, your resentment will rise, and you’ll find yourself in a descending spiral of negative emotions directed at your blog — hardly a foundation for success!

Assuming you’re targeting an audience that you know and love, or love enough to get to know, you’re ready to start working on content.

It’s also all about content

Strategic, high-quality content, as Copyblogger readers already know, is the cornerstone of your audience-building strategy, for several reasons:

  • Without publicly available content, it’s hard to get people to come check you out. (What are you going to tell them about?)
  • Without content, it’s hard to get them to discuss or engage. (As Cory Doctorow put it, “Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.”)
  • Without content, it’s hard to get people to tell other people about you or your stuff. (What will they point their friends to, if not content?)
  • Without content, it’s hard to get people to come back. (Even if they liked you, they won’t return, and eventually they’ll forget.)

Which is all fine and dandy — I already knew that content was important, just like you do. But the experts said a lot more about content than just to say that it is important. They shared what content to create, how to create it, and where to put it to get maximum effect.

In a nutshell:

What content to create: Content that is relevant to the needs and wants of your audience — content that is useful, and entertaining. Extra points if you can get people talking about your stuff by creating content that is in some way taboo, unusual, outrageous, hilarious, or remarkable.

How to create it: By buckling down, and doing the work. All of the experts were very consistent on this point — there is absolutely no substitute for hard work; so spend the time that you need to research your audience’s needs, find solutions to their problems, and give it to them. Extra points if you can do it in a way that is different from your competition (for example, by using a different format, like short vs. long content, or text vs. audio vs. video).

Where to put it: Where people are going to see it. If you’re just starting out, that means on other people’s blogs (yup, I’m talking about guest posting). Alternatively, put it on your blog, but have a plan for how you’re going to get people to actually read it!

Once content is covered, it’s time to start reaching out with social media…

The trick is social media

It turns out that social media is a lot more about being social, and a lot less about the actual media.

That’s good news, because it means that while it’s easy to get confused by all the different social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+) and tools (Triberr, Klout, etc.) that are available, as long as you focus on the “people” part of it all, you’ll do just fine.

So how do you focus on the “people” part? In the words of Gini Dietrich, you just need to “stroke people’s egos.”

Marcus Sheridan expanded on this in a discussion of the “Five Levels of Networking Like a Superstar”:

  • Level I: Comments/RT 101 — These are the very basics of leaving a “great post”-type of comment, and RTing when you notice a tweet that you’d like to share.
  • Level II: Advanced Commenting and RT — Your comments become more thoughtful and insightful, and your RTs include a personal touch and recommendation.
  • Level III: Learning to Give Love — This is all about mentioning others. When you see people do good work, mention it to your friends. Share the links, and share the love.
  • Level IV: A Complete Focus on Promoting Others as Much as Yourself — At this stage, your attention shifts; you aren’t just promoting people because you want them to return the favor. At this stage, you’re promoting them because you genuinely want them to succeed.
  • Level V: Above and Beyond — This is when you go above and beyond, and there’s no script you can follow, because it arises from genuine caring. When you see that someone needs some help, or that you have an opportunity to be thoughtful and nice, you do it.

As you work your way up the ladder, you’ll notice that your social media relationships are getting stronger, and your sphere influence is getting wider — all because you’re actually being helpful!

While you’re working on content and social media, it’s important not to lose sight of yourself.

Be yourself, and be passionate

The fact of the matter is that building an engaged audience can be a scary proposition.

  • It can take forever …
  • Rewards, if they come at all, can come very slowly …
  • You may have to share more of yourself than you’re comfortable sharing …
  • People will judge you …
  • There’s a ridiculous amount of competition …
  • And worst of all, failure is a very real possibility …

For all of these reasons, it’s easy to fall into the trap of emotionally distancing yourself from your audience — both to be whoever you think your audience wants you to be, and to shield yourself from criticism and judgment.

Don’t fall into that trap. Be yourself, be passionate, and eventually, the audience will respond.

And to avoid some bumps in the road, you can learn from the mistakes of others.

Learn from the mistakes of others

It’s great to have a list of things to do (know your goals, love your audience, create great content, network like a superstar, etc.), but it’s even more useful to know what not to do.

Some of the pitfalls that I was warned away from include:

  • Brand your name, too. Sure, you can go ahead and create a brand around a business or blog name (like Copyblogger), but make sure that your audience knows who you are, too. (Who doesn’t know Brian Clark or Sonia Simone?)
  • Don’t wait to start your list. This was the most commonly reported newbie mistake — even if your traffic is in the single digits, you’ve got to give your burgeoning audience a way of raising their hands and following you.
  • Stick with the good crowd. As you go about making friends and forming alliances with other audience-builders, pay attention to how they treat their other friends. If they’re too quick to turn on them at the first perceived transgression, then you might want to look elsewhere.
  • Don’t skip the preparation. You may have been able to skip your homework and just wing it in school, but when it comes to audience-building, that isn’t a good strategy. Take the time to research what they really need, and how their needs are currently being met — it’s the only way you’ll be able to offer a better solution.
  • Don’t genericize yourself. Don’t try to blend in, and adopt the same practices that everyone else is adopting. Be different, and be unique. Sure, some people will judge you, and some people will complain — but others will remember you, and want to follow.

Do any of these mistakes sound familiar?

They did to me, but hopefully you haven’t made them yet, and now you can avoid them! 😉

Is this enough information to make your head spin? Then I’ve got just the thing.

Get 239 pages of audience-building insight … free!

I compiled the answers that I got from 30 audience-builders into a book called Engagement from Scratch! How Super-Community Builders Create a Loyal Audience, and How You Can Do the Same!

Today, the book is launching, and I’m very excited to be able to share it with you — for free!

Yep, that’s right — the book is free. You can download the entire book without paying a cent. Just visit the book’s website, click on the download link, and tell me what email address to send it to, and moments later you’ll the full-length PDF waiting for you in your inbox.

You see, I wanted to be sure that anybody who wants access to the book could have it. Which is why the digital version is free.

But I do want you to buy the book, and I think you want to buy it, too. That’s why there are tons of launch bonuses that you can get when you buy a paperback copy of the book.

And let’s be honest here… 239 pages is an awful lot of content to read on a digital screen. These aren’t 239 pages that you’re going to be skimming and skipping through, either — every single one of the book’s contributors put their heart and soul into giving you the best advice that they possibly could — so you’re going to want to read it.

Isn’t it worth spending a bit of money to get the paperback version, so that you can read on the couch or in bed, and write notes in the margins?

About the Author: Danny Iny (@DannyIny) is an author, strategist, serial entrepreneur, expert marketer, and the Freddy Krueger of Blogging. Together with Guy Kawasaki, Brian Clark and Mitch Joel, he wrote the book on how to build an engaged audience from scratch.

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Reader Comments (85)

  1. says

    Hey Danny Iny, your article is really impressive, my attention had beginning with the first paragraph of your post (of course it also comes from your blog post title), because I will launch my blog on the beginning of December (from scratch) – so your tutorials are really useful for me, it shows to me someways to get my engaged audience, great – that’s great goal for all bloggers. Thanks so much.

  2. says

    15.46Mb for a free e-book — So impressive – I cant wait to read this free e-book, and of course, it will take a lot of time of mine, but I really want to say thank you for provide great and value e-book (241 pages for FREE – I can’t believe).

      • says

        Hi Danny,

        I had received your email to ask me what I think of the Engagement from Scratch e-book, I really wanted to answer as soon as possible but I thought I should reply your comment on Copyblogger instead of answering your email. So what a new English blogger like me think of this ebook?

        First word is WONDERFUL

        This book is a collection of dozens of tutorials, formulas, the experiences of the successful blogger and entrepreneurs that just hearing the name I wanted to read.

        The most things I could not believe is I can get a copy of the e-book for FREE. I was quickly notified for my friends about this special free e-book I thought they also got a copy after hearing about this. As I know, It’s very rare when we can get value-ebook such that for free. I just do a little comparison – if you want to read 52 pages of the ProBlogger’s Guide to your First Week of Blogging (writen by Darren Rowse) – you must pay $19.9 – that means if you want to read the same e-book like Engagement from Scratch – you must pay nearly $80. However, just thinking – you will get Engagement from Scratch for FREE – that’s wonderful – that’s viral.

        The second thing I think the value of Engagement from Scratch is it contribute of dozens successful bloggers, entrepreneurs such as Brian Clark, Danny Brown etc.

        In this e-book, I was read the story of the successful blogger about how they build audience for their business, the inspiring story. Through these stories of them, I know how they succeed and realize the way how I can be successful as they.

        I strongly recommend you should get a copy right now. I quoted Kemya Scott as mine the end of thinking: “I can’t wait to get a copy of this book. I feel like I can actually build my own dynamic community. I’m new to blogging and I fad not considered the possibility of my blog evolving into a community. Now it seems quite possible!”

        Thanks Danny Iny and all contributor.

        P.S: My favorite is Brian Clark’s story: Build the Audience, Opportunity Will Come – just read the title I think you will know why. LOL

  3. says

    Like your style man. Giving away that much quality content for free is incredible. Just downloaded the book and look forward to reading it. Will certainly get a hard copy if it’s up my street.

  4. says

    I just read your post at Problogger, and then I get an email about your post here at Copyblogger. They’re right. You’re like Freddy. I should definitely do a guest post blitzkrieg as well.

    • says

      You definitely should, Josh – just give yourself enough time to write it all… I’ve had 27 guest posts this month, and about a dozen of them are going up today… I feel like my brain has been wrung out like a sponge! 😀

  5. says

    Got my copy in the mail, and I’m not just saying this because Danny is a good guy: it took me 2 hours to finally put it down, it’s that good of a read.

    Keep killing it Danny, anyone that misses out on this book: I guarantee you will regret it.

    • says

      Thank you so much, Greg. I was really lucky to have so many wonderful contributors participate in this project, and I’m really overwhelmed by how great they made the book! (I wish I could take more credit, but really 90% of the book is them!)

  6. says

    Are engaged and loyal audiences realistic goals for social media?

    Well that sounds like a silly question. But it goes to the heart of what social media really is. It’s causing many to drop out of social media efforts.

    I read articles from the best and brightest in social media and I’m constantly being told that I need a loyal audience of engaged fans to accomplish my goals.

    Really? Do all or most of us have the pizzazz to do it so well that we constantly drive the same people back to our sites time and time again?

    The social media experts I pay attention to got in early and are quite good at what they do “but” I wonder whether or not they exist in a bubble unrecognizable to the rest of us.

    While not the sites I’m referring to, I love “This Week in Tech” and CNET podcasts, but even they debate whether their observations apply to the average person.

    A new vision of social media:

    I believe that a new version of social media is coming into clearer focus, one that simply invites people to the conversation via search and Twiter, Google+ and Facebook. I believe that successful social media is not dependant on a large and never-ending audience of frequent visitors.

    The vast majority of us who have been running social media sites for five years or longer understand that we are not oracles who drive hundreds of thousands of regular visitors to our sites producing lots of daily comments. Our website numbers are impressive and but the bulk are new to the site and interactions with visitors are infrequent.

    New data supports my observations:

    First example: An article from Media Post titled “Social Falls Short On Customer Loyalty, Traditional Methods Encouraged” reexamines the issue of building a base of loyal customers.

    The article states, “While much of the marketing community is focused on sealing better relationships between brands and consumers via social media, a new study from Pitney Bowes suggests that their efforts would be better spent in other areas.

    In fact, the new study — based on a survey of 5,000 consumers in the U.S., U.K., France and Germany — found social media to be one of the least effective engagement techniques for encouraging customer loyalty for larger and small businesses alike.”

    Second example: It gets back to an article I wrote for this site asking “Is Social Media Really Social.” The premise is that customer interaction with the vast majority of social sites is minimal.

    I stated, “Social media has no clear definition as to content or purpose; it depends on your audience and what you are trying to achieve. You create material that matches learning styles (audio, video, fact sheets, story-based articles) and you offer unique perspectives that no one else is providing. You place all on a website and additional channels (i.e., YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google+) and you sit back and see what happens.

    Whether you represent government or nonprofits or associations or corporations, social media represents an “invitation” to converse. It’s not a requirement. So our critics are right, it’s mostly a one-way street.

    Additional examples: There’s a growing number of research (corporate Facebook pages, news organizations not responding to customer interactions on their own posts) indicating that social media sites rarely engage with their audience.

    While there is a difference as to large numbers of “returning” fans and “interactions,” both indicate that people who use the net may not be all that loyal to one site regardless as to it’s usefulness. They come and go based on a variety of things; brand loyalty may have limits (which is why e-mail is crucial to our success).

    Social is still the future of communication:

    I said previously that it’s a matter of quality versus quantity. Look, social media has the power to destroy or lift any organization and I believe that social “is” the future of communication “but” the ability of any organization to find that unserved niche and to create a well crafted social media presence takes a ton of time and lots of hard work.

    When all that time and effort doesn’t create a loyal audience of endless thousands of people and hundreds of daily communications, we feel like failures. This is silly; the unrealistic perceptions of social media success are driving lots of people out of the market.

    People “will” come to your site and the interactions will greatly profit your organization. We just need a more realistic understanding as to social media brand loyalty and what results are accomplishable.

    Best, Len.


    • says

      Thanks for sharing this, Len! I really appreciate your putting so much time and energy into this response.

      I’m not sure if I’m completely following you, though. If the audience or community is congregating on channels like Twitter or Facebook, it’s still an audience or community, it’s just in a different place, no?

      And nobody is suggesting that you need to get hundreds of thousands of people to interact with you on social media every day to be a success; the numbers and targets will depend on your purpose, niche, and goals.

      Am I missing something?

    • says

      I can dig what you are saying. Most of the time with social media I feel like I am doing anything but connecting no matter how good the content. But I think the premise of the article is right and my own experiences are confirming what he is saying. Go long term, go for quality, be consistent be real and expect it to take awhile. I wish there was a magic pill. I would take it. But it looks like it just comes down to consistently delivering value over a long period of time. The good news is that it does work.

  7. says

    Great post about the importance of content! If you want to survive online it’s necessary to create content that will attract target audience members and the search engines. People go online to find information about the products or services that you offer. If you can’t be found or don’t provide enough helpful and relevant information you won’t be as trusted as a company that does.

  8. says


    This is a work of art dude… There is so much great content in here. If I wasn’t backlogged with like 10 books on my Kindle I’d already be reading yours. But it’s on my Wish List and I will get to it. It’s great to see you all over the place.


    Ryan H.

    • says

      Thank you so much, Ryan, that’s so kind of you to say. And don’t worry, I’m in the same boat – there are piles of books everywhere in my apartment. The important thing is that we get to them eventually… 😉

  9. says

    I write a niche blog about insurance for Baby Boomers. Since so many older folk avoid doing anything but email, I do not expect a large number of subscribers but a few more than what I have now would be nice. I’m looking forward to reading your book. Hopefully, it will give me some ideas.

    • says

      Actually, there are tons of Boomers on Facebook. FB is a great place to build engagement with Boomers, with email used to develop the relationship & ask for the sale.

  10. says

    Interesting stuff – and thanks a ton for sharing the results of your hard work for free! Downloading the book now and looking forward to putting it into my holiday learning collection :)

  11. says

    The ‘from scratch’ theme is the killer phrase. Particularly with B2B, hightech companies, who have no clue where to start. ‘From scratch’ also means that companies must switch their mind set from focusing on themselves (e.g., more marketing pitches..) to thinking about what interests their audience. Great post.

  12. says

    Thank you for making this book available for free: I’ve just downloaded it, together with all the additional information you offer, and I can’t wait to read it all and put it into practice.
    This is exactly the kind of information I’ve been needing for a long time to boost my writing business, and help me identify my target audience.
    Of all the emails which arrive in my inbox, those from Copyblogger are the ones I read immediately.
    Your amazing commitment to helping those of us who are fumbling in the dark is very much appreciated!

    • says

      Hilary, I couldn’t agree with you more – there are very few email lists that I’m still a part of, but Copyblogger is one of them, and it’s an honor to occasionally write for them. :)

      I’m glad you found the post helpful, and I hope the book will be even more so – let me know what you think when you have a chance to flip through it! :)

  13. says

    In summary we are all bloggers for different reasons:Know what you want and why you want it,PURPOSE,apply the use of STRATEGIC HIGH QUALITY CONTENT:FOCUS,Be yourself:Ability and willingness to try,fall,learn and grow,Good and educative post,Thank You for the tips and for taking the pains to do the research.

  14. says

    wow..Iam impressed..I am a newbie and you shown me the path to reach succes…im sure i will bang on my target.

    Thank you for giving such a wonderful timeless content.

  15. says

    Hey Danny,
    Thanks for sharing. You are also being very generous. Giving out a 239 page book for free. I’ve downloaded it and looking forward to read it. Hope it can help me in my blog business.

  16. says

    I really enjoyed this post, especially the question of how you will measure your blog’s success whether that be in terms of followers, conversations, or conversions. I recently finished Social Media ROI by Oliver Blanchard – you can read my book review here:

    Many individuals and companies that create blogs tend to miss these first few steps you mention such as defining a purpose, audience, and strategy for hosting and maintaining a blog and your article does a good job with summing up all of the important points.

  17. says

    I especially love the thought of “Learning to Give Love” and “A Complete Focus on Promoting Others as Much as Yourself”. Isn’t social media about sharing anyway?

  18. says

    Your without-content list is certainly true, especially the fourth one–that without high-quality content, folks won’t come back. What’s the point of working hard to get visitors if they show up only once? Thanks for the insights!

  19. says

    I have one more item to add to your awesome list. Make friends with people who are well known in their fields or who are building great reputations. If you publicly acknowledge your relationships with them, some of their traffic will become your traffic.

    I am glad to see you mentioned hard work more than once. Building an online audience requires far more effort than adding neighbors on a social networking game. You might not work 18 hours a day. You should expect to put in 8 hour days to build a lasting business.

    • says

      That’s a great addition, MaLinda, and you’re right – without relationships, nothing else is really possible, because nobody can do it alone.

      And yes, it is a lot of work – 8 hours/day for a long stretch of time. :)

  20. says

    Hello Danny,
    You really have done a lot of work. A good idea to interview all the ‘experts’. Thank yoy for sharing your analysis and conclusions. Even worth is -in my opinion- the contribution of Leonard Sipes. I am a newbie as blogger and just as I advice small entrepeneurs tot take small steps and one by one, I will do so with building an audience, doing research en analysing the resonance. Yes, one way it is all about loving your owm blooging activities, your audience, loving making quality content etc. But being in love can be coming out as a great pitfall , many gifts later, a broken relation and an exhausted mind&mind at the end.
    In Holland, where I live, blogging isn’t a big thing in contrary with twitter, facebook, linkedin and our dutch Hyves. So I have to make a strong connecting and building up a communication with that channels and link that comminication with my website. Nevertheless I love writing, so a blog is a nice way to express myself while building up more audience at the same time.
    I wish yoy, all the commenters and especially Leonard all the succes and pleasure you wish. And thanks for your amazing free book.

    • says

      Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful words, Hans. Of course the path that is right for each person will vary depending on their skills, circumstances and goals – but there are still some universals that apply across the board.

      I hope you like the book! :)

  21. says

    Great article! I especially appreciate the information in the “Learn From the Mistakes of Others” section. The last point is particularly significant, as so many companies are afraid to stand out. Fitting in is always the simpler and safer choice, however, and you’ve got to take the big risk to reap the big reward! Thanks for sharing!

  22. says

    What a terrific resource. I can’t wait to read the book. I definitely rank this info up there with Mike Stelzner’s book, Launch. Thank you!

  23. says

    This was a really great post and the idea about finding the right content to present to your audience is very valuable. You must offer something that would make you stand out in the ever growing blogging world so that your potential audience understandings why they should continue to follow you.

  24. says

    Hey Danny, how come I’ve just come across your STUFF?? Guess I’ve been hanging out in the wrong places! This is awesome again. Very impressive and informative. Thanks,

  25. says

    Great information, important as well. I recently had two product launches and two digital media launches. Needless to say my general audience is the key to my success. Being able to engage and connect with them is the biggest challenge of all. The information here definitely helps to make it all come together. Looking forward to learning more in your book.

    • says

      Absolutely – engaging and connecting is the real challenge. I’m glad the post was helpful, and I hope the book will be even more so – please let me know what you think once you have a chance to flip through it! :)

  26. says

    We keep hearing about,Keeping it real,being passionate,being focused and appealing to your audience by writing or posting what endears them which is what i will term as fsticking to the fundamentals here,For this to be emphasized over and over again,it must really be important.Good post

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