Business Musings: How To Expand Your Target Audience 1: Choices (Branding/Discoverability)

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This miniseries about target audience came about because you readers asked how to define your target audience. In first How To Build Your Brand blog, I listed 8 steps to building a brand. Step 2 was Define Your Target Audience. I then explained what I meant by that in 400 words—and thought that was sufficient.

Defining, building, and expanding a target audience is as natural as breathing for me. But not for most writers. Most don’t have business experience, and apparently most have not worked in companies that jealously guard their brand and their image. So most writers have not learned how to operate in a business world that includes an audience.

And by that, I mean, consumers.

I’m not saying readers, because not everyone reads. But most people buy books—even if those people don’t read. That’s why I found the Targoz Reading Pulse Survey that started this entire branding series so valuable. Targoz talked to readers and non-readers about their book buying habits.

Why are non-readers buying books, you might ask. Because they have friends, family, and loved ones who read. A lot. So if the non-reader wants to give the reader a special gift, the non-reader buys a book.

Everyone buys a book at one point or another. Most people buy at least one book in a year.

But that doesn’t mean that people buy just any book. And that also doesn’t mean that when you start thinking about expanding your target audience, you will be able to expand that audience to include all book buyers.

Yet this is where writers start. When they think they need to define their target audience, writers immediately jump to “How do I get everyone to buy my book?” More savvy writers jump to “How do I get all fantasy readers to buy my fantasy novel?”

Neither of those approaches is very helpful, and most turn away more readers than they appeal to.

The reason I initially divided the target audience posts into three was because there really are three steps toward building an audience.

First, you must acquire an audience.

Second, you must recognize that you have an audience—a very specific audience.

Third, you might decide to expand that audience.

Please read the previous two blogs on this subject before you read this blog. I want to make sure we’re on the same page here. You can find the first target audience blog if you follow this link, and the second target audience blog if you follow this link.

For the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you have done the work from the second target audience post. You now have an idea as to who reads your work. (The enterprising among you might actually have more than an idea. You might have actual numbers.)

Most writers—most businesses, in fact—believe that the next step is to actively grow that audience. And that belief is a mistake.

In your writing business, as in all business, there is no one-size-fits-all model. That goes to everything from building a business to building a brand. Even if you’re in the same field as someone else, your business is different. What you do with that business is based entirely on your goals for that business.

Um, what? you might ask.

Yep, expanding an audience fits into your business goals, not just into branding. Change happens all the time in business, but growth happens only when a business actively pursues that growth.

You’d think that businesses would want to grow, but rapid growth can be harmful to a business. When Dean and I started Pulphouse Publishing, we had planned for slow growth only, and instead, we had exponential growth. It caught us flat-footed. We had not planned in any way for exponential growth—not in staff, or production, or expenses. We started behind, and never really caught up.

Writers who experience rapid growth, especially early in their careers, rarely make it past the first five novels. The writer expects the next books to do as well as the first. Sometimes the sophomore effort does better, but rarely. And by the fifth book, the writer is so deep in their head that they’re no longer having fun with the writing itself.

I’m watching that with dozens of successful indies, who are always chasing the same numbers they had on previous books or in previous months, instead of banking the money and going back to having fun with the writing. The fact that the writer had fun with the writing is why the first book (or books) did so well in the first place.

This is why, throughout the entire branding series, I’m telling you that the things I’m discussing in these blog posts apply only after the writing is over. Never take these principles into your writing office.

The writers who do take these principles into their writing office often end up writing a genre they hate or forcing themselves to write the same type of book over and over again, even if it bores them.

And the marketing-heavy writers, the ones who became successful because they had some marketing gimmick, realize within a year or so that the gimmick no longer works for them. Either the writer must come up with a new gimmick or they need to plant butt in chair and start writing again.

Most writers, though, are not heavy marketers. Most want to ignore marketing altogether. While that’s no longer possible in today’s indie world, writers can plan a marketing day each week or a marketing weekend every few weeks to focus on what they want.

Once the writer has figured out who their readers actually are (see the previous target audience post), then the writer needs to figure out if they want to grow their audience.

Or, let me rephrase that, the writer must choose whether to focus on growing their audience slowly or aggressively. Or ignore the idea of growing the audience at all.


Strategy One: Ignoring Growth

From the beginning of the modern publishing era, writers left growing the audience to their traditional publishers. That left most writers hard-wired to ignore growing an audience. Writers figure that the audience will take care of itself.

If you do the elementary things we talked about earlier in this series, branding to series, good covers, good blurbs, and (most importantly) writing great and compelling books, then some growth will happen, even without any action on the writer’s part.

Eventually, however, that growth will stop. The writer’s audience will actually decline. The decline comes from attrition or from inattention or both. Readers die, have life events that make them stop reading for a while, or they actually forget the name of the writer and miss the next book.

Or the genre moves, or gets glutted, or changes labels. Urban fantasy was once part of contemporary fantasy. Then urban fantasy became its own subgenre. And then urban fantasy outgrew contemporary fantasy, and became a genre in and of itself.

If an indie writer ignored those developments, leaving the covers and blurbs (and key words) the way they were for the contemporary fantasy market, the audience would no longer find the books. The audience would fade away, because the writer had stopped doing basic marketing—had stopped paying attention.

However, the ignoring-growth strategy will work for years at a time. Think of it as plateaus. A writer focuses on growing her audience for a year, then manages to grow the audience. She turns her attention to writing a group of books, has a marketing plan for them, and puts them out, without looking at growing the audience at all.

Three years later, she realizes her audience has plateaued, so she focuses on growing the audience again. She’s successful: The audience grows. She then lets the audience plateau while she focuses on the writing again.

And so on and so forth.

The strategy is pretty simple:

  1. Focus on your core business.
  2. Grow your reach.
  3. Focus on your core business again.
  4. Grow your reach again.

And so on, as long as you would like to do that.

It’s a strategy that includes ignoring the growth for a while, and believe me it works. I do it for a different series all the time. I focus on them, then I move to a different series, and focus on it for a while.

However, you need to choose to do this. You can’t just close your eyes and walk through this modern marketing world. If you’re going to ignore audience growth for a while, plan it, and then come back to it. Otherwise, your audience will decrease rather than increase.

Ignoring growth is a short-term strategy. It does not work in the long term. For the health of your business over years, you must grow your audience and your reach.

For example, if your subgenre gets glutted, and you haven’t grown beyond your core audience, some of that audience will peel away because they’re tired of the same-old same-old. If you have slowly grown your audience over years, you can afford to lose some of those people.

You won’t make as much money, and your sales will go down.

Don’t panic. Start figuring out how to grow your audience again.

And no, I don’t mean write in a different subgenre (unless that interests you). Figure out how to market to the readers who’ve gotten tired of the same old branding, the same old blurbs, the same old sexy vampires (okay, that’s just what I’m tired of. Nothing to see here. Move along).

Refresh your brand—or find people who haven’t yet entered this market, and get them to read your book. You can do it.

Savvy companies refresh brands all the time, bringing in people who would once vow they never want to read about another sexy vampire again.


Strategy Two: Slow Growth

Most writers chose to slow-grow their audiences. Most publishers who actually know business and marketing do the same. Growing an audience slowly makes sense in the way the industry works now.

Due to a lack of shelf space decades ago, publishers worried about growing a writer’s audience only when a new book came out—and only for a few weeks at that. Readers had to be aware of that book in those few weeks and buy that book then, or the book would vanish.

Now, though, there’s no reason to buy a book until the reader is ready to actually read that book. Rather than subjecting readers to a fire hose of Buy! Buy! Buy!, the writer can make readers aware of the writer’s works bit by bit.

Slow growth means doing a promotion for Book #1 one week, doing a something to bring attention to the writer himself a few weeks later, doing a promotion for Book #5 a month after that. The attempts to grow the audience reach out to different groups with a different product at different times.

Rather than acquiring thousands of potential readers in a six-week period of time, the writer gains new readers by the handful—ten here, a hundred there, five later on, fifty in a month or so. Over time, those handfuls add up.

The audience doesn’t grow by leaps and bounds. Instead, the audience accrues, going from an anthill to an actual hill so slowly that the writer might not even notice the growth until she looks back a few years and realizes that her book sales were one-fifth what they are today.

This strategy is a bit more complex than Strategy One. For Strategy Two, the writer actually needs a marketing plan, with ideas on ways to grow the audience bit by bit.


Strategy Three: Aggressive Growth

Most of the strategies for writers to grow their readership that come from so-called marketing gurus are actually aggressive-growth plans that these gurus stumbled upon. Aggressive-growth strategies rarely work for the long-term.

Businesses that attempt aggressive growth usually have a reason for doing so—and that reason is not getting their product in the hands of millions rather than thousands.

There’s usually a business reason for doing it quick and dirty, because quick and dirty can hurt the brand if done incorrectly.

Aggressive growth strategies require a huge investment—usually of time or money or, most often, both. Done correctly, an aggressive-growth strategy can increase a brand’s audience by five to ten percent, but rarely more than that.

Aggressive-growth strategies also require constant nurturing. Businesses can’t do the same thing over and over again. There will be diminishing returns. So any business attempting aggressive growth needs a rotating plan of ways to promote to a variety of different markets in a variety of different ways with a set purpose in mind.

The most effective aggressive-growth strategies have a large data focus. They require the company to try something huge and expensive (in time or money). While that huge and expensive something is ongoing, the company rakes in data, judging whether or not the huge and expensive something is actually worthwhile.

If the huge and expensive something doesn’t move the growth needle at all, then that particular huge and expensive something gets abandoned.

The company then moves to the next thing on the list. Yes, that thing too is huge and expensive, but it’s completely different. The company tries that second huge and expensive something, doing the same data analysis, until the company succeeds at getting what it wants from its aggressive-growth campaign—or until the company runs out of time and/or money to run an aggressive-growth campaign.

If a slow growth strategy is complicated, an aggressive-growth strategy is complicated on steroids.

Personally, I would love to see a writer-business do a proper aggressive-growth strategy, pulling in big marketing firms and big data. I’d love to know what works or doesn’t work.

But we’re talking about a sustained three- to six-month campaign in which the company invests hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of work time. To my knowledge, no traditional U.S. publishing company has done this in the 21st century. I know of a few that did this kind of marketing work in the early 1960s, essentially inventing book marketing as traditional publishers do it now, by finding what works and what doesn’t work.

For your indie business, an aggressive campaign to grow your audience would require you to do the opposite of Strategy One. Rather than focusing on writing, you would focus on marketing 24/7, and write only when necessary to add to the product base.

All of you have heard of writer-marketing gurus who do that. They go on blogs and talk about their marketing strategies, then mention that they need to take a month “off” to write the next book.


Strategy Four: The Combination

The combination strategy combines ignoring your growth with aggressive growth. You write for a few years, then market aggressively for a year or so, then go back to writing. Or compress the timeline—write for six months, aggressively market when the new book is done, then ignore marketing for another six months and write the next book.

It sounds good, but you’d have to be a good marketer and a good writer to pull this off. Most writers are good at writing, but not at marketing. And most marketers are good at marketing, but not all that great at writing.

It’s rare to find both in the same individual. Of course, if the writer has a lot of money, then she might want to consider partnering with someone who has a lot of marketing expertise to figure out a new, aggressive, marketing plan that will get that writer’s work in front of thousands of people—without doing the same thing that traditional publishers have done for years.


Details, Please!

By now, you’ve noticed that I went vague on you with Strategies Two through Four. I did that on purpose.

I realized as I started into this post, that I could write 400 words on each topic and get tons of letters from you asking for more explanation or I could actually devote the kind of time that the topics need.

So next two posts will explore growing your audience slowly and growing your audience aggressively. You can figure out on your own how to combine marketing strategies.

Things to remember as we move into the next two weeks—slow growth rarely interferes with building a brand. Most people aren’t going to notice if you promote to one group or another, or try to find a new audience and fail.

Aggressive growth risks alienating everyone. Done incorrectly, it can piss off existing customers and drive away new customers. Marketing that focuses on aggressive growth will often result in consumers forming an opinion about the brand without trying the brand, which is antithetical to what you’re trying to do.

Your goal is brand loyalty—getting readers to return every time you put out a new book. If they form an opinion about you without reading your work, they won’t pick up the next book or the next. They might be curious about your work, but they won’t be loyal to the brand.

And if that happens, then you’ll have to rebuild the trust in your brand—with people who have never even tried it. That requires a whole new marketing strategy, and often one that’s subtle and sensitive and the exact opposite of aggressive.

So, your assignment this week is to think of how many brands you have opinions of because they did a massive marketing campaign that bothered you or made you feel like the brand was not for you. Maybe look around your community and see if someone is doing aggressive marketing right now.

Notice who hooked you with a hardcore marketing campaign or figure out if any anyone ever caught your attention with that kind of campaign.

These campaigns and brands should not be books or writers. Everything else is fair game. But remember, the book business has been unbelievably crappy at both branding and at growing an audience, so taking lessons from the book industry is like taking lessons on skydiving from someone who has never gotten into an airplane.

Have fun with this, and I’ll see you next week.


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“Business Musings: How To Expand Your Target Audience 1: Choices,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.


6 thoughts on “Business Musings: How To Expand Your Target Audience 1: Choices (Branding/Discoverability)

  1. — So, your assignment this week is to think of how many brands you have opinions of because they did a massive marketing campaign that bothered you or made you feel like the brand was not for you. Maybe look around your community and see if someone is doing aggressive marketing right now.–

    Those commercials with the little bladder following a woman around. Really?

  2. So, your assignment this week is to think of how many brands you have opinions of because they did a massive marketing campaign that bothered you or made you feel like the brand was not for you.

    That one’s easy — Musinex. I wouldn’t buy Musinex if they gave away a gold nugget in every box. Whoever thought that making an anthropomorphic blob of snot a product’s spokes-symbol was a neato-keen idea needs to have their head examined. Disgusting! [shudder]


    1. Mucinex perfectly captured how I feel about mucous with that personification. That reaction of being totally repelled? That’s how I feel about myself when I’m really sick. Some people don’t make a whole lot of phelgm when they’re sick — I am not one of them. When I saw a print add with that character for the first time, I knew they got what I was dealing with. And I bought Mucinex the next time I was really sick.
      Here’s the thing: that add isn’t meant to appeal to everyone. It appeals to the people who need the product. And It is highly memorable — a unforgettable, ‘sticky’ campaign is what every marketer wants (pun intended).

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