Which comes first: audience or product?
After watching thousands of online course businesses launch using Teachable, there’s a big question I keep coming back to.
“When I’m starting something new, should I focus on building a product to sell, or an audience to sell to?”
It feels like a “chicken or the egg” scenario, and I’m sure businesses have taken both approaches. But before we get ahead of ourselves and weigh out the pros and cons, what does it mean to build an audience or a product when it comes to online businesses anyway?
Option 1: Start with an audience
Who is your audience?
When we talk about your online business audience, we’re talking about your email subscribers, blog readers, podcast listeners, social media followers, and of course, your customers. These are the people who know, like, and trust you, and they value the content and services you produce.
Now it’s important to note that not all audience types are created equally in terms of business value. (I’m sure they’re all equally wonderful people.) I could (and will!) write an entire blog post on the different audiences you have in your online business and which to focus on, but for now I’ll just say that the way you communicate and engage with your email list is much different than the way you might engage with your Instagram following.
Why you need an audience
You need people to sell your products to. (“I know that, Melissa. Tell me NEW THINGS.”) But more than that, an engaged following is the best product research you could possibly ask for. If you’ve done smart work to build your audience and attract your ideal customers, they will tell you what they need, either with their words (comments, likes, emails) or their actions (podcast listens, freebie downloads, page views, purchases, love letters, chocolate in the mail...wait, this is getting out of hand).
How to build an audience (1 min version)
Well isn’t this the million dollar question. There are endless ways to grow your audience, but I’ll name just a few that you might choose from:
YouTube-ing (video creation)
Engaging on social media (Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest)
Engaging in online communities
Building a community (ex: Facebook group)
Sharing free resources to grow your email list (like my Business Topic Matrix)
Paid efforts like Facebook ads
Speaking at conferences or other in-person events
Different methods will suit different personalities and topics. I included this list just to show that audience building takes different forms….and it takes work! Unlike Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they WILL NOT come.” Audience building efforts rarely pay off overnight because most of us don’t have a network of 100,000 people to immediately tap into. However, although grown might start off slow at first, there are plenty of proven methods (see above list) to grow consistently over time.
Why should you start with an audience?
There are two big advantages to starting your business by building an audience:
It’s hard to sell to an empty room
There are ways to sell a product directly to cold leads, and many people run conversion funnels into free coaching calls or free PDFs/email courses that work really well. However, if you start by building an online course - for example - and you build your site and early business around that product, it may take you a bit to find those early customers because you have to go out and find them first.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! But if you do start by building an audience, whenever your product is ready to go, you’ll immediately have people ready to buy.
An audience is an incredible feedback loop
This is the big one. When you start by building an audience, you’ll naturally start learning which pieces of content resonate best with your audience because they’ll tell you what they like. They’ll like, comment, and email you about what sticks out to them, and those insights will help you build a strong product that you can feel confident your audience will love.
On top of that, you can proactively survey your audience and ask them what they want before you build it. This can save you a ton of time and energy because one of the major fears we have as business owners is always, “Am I doing the right thing?” (At least it is for me.) By building an audience, you’re creating your own focus group, and when they tell you what they want and you offer it to them, making a purchase will feel like a no brainer.
The #1 drawback
Building an audience, unlike selling a product, isn’t profitable. If anything, building an audience will cost you both time (a lot) and money (a bit), and until you have something to offer your audience, you aren’t fully in business.
Option 2: Start with your product
What is your product?
There are many businesses that do business online. For example, I could go to Madewell’s website and buy a soft t-shirt, and that would be an online transaction. (Hang on one second while I finish my purchase…)
But the Madewell example is a broader example of eCommerce, or the act of buying something on the internet. When I talk about starting a blog, podcast, or online business, I’m specifically talking about businesses run fully online, where there are no physical storefronts, and (typically) no physical products. I focus on businesses in the knowledge commerce industry, or businesses whose primary revenue comes from sharing knowledge and expertise.
Products in the knowledge commerce industry include:
Freelance services (graphic design, website design, virtual assistance, consulting)
Coaching (health and wellness coaching, dating coaching, business coaching)
Online membership communities
I do talk about physical products occasionally, and any makers (like Etsy sellers) interested in building their own website or business would still benefit from the knowledge in our community. But our primary focus at The Kindling is on sharing knowledge in exchange for revenue.
Why you need a product
If you’re building a business, you need to offer something valuable that customers can purchase. Products are the cornerstone of any business, and unless you’re choosing to build a blog or podcast as a hobby, you’ll eventually need to create a product or service you can sell.
How to build a product (1 min version)
I can loosely group knowledge commerce offerings into two types:
Online products (courses, eBooks): You package your knowledge into an offering someone can buy.
Services (coaching, freelance): You create a sales page and describe your promised offerings to prospective clients, who pay you in exchange for your time.
The most relevant difference for now is the time investment up front. It takes much longer to build an online course than it does to build a sales page for your coaching offering. But in either case, the main work you’ll have to do is pinpoint the problem that your audience is facing and offer the solution or transformation they’re searching for. For example, a sleep coach might offer clients the solution or transformation of “sleeping through the night with ease.”
Why should you start with a product?
As I mentioned, having a product available is what turns your passion project into a real business or side hustle, and the main benefit to starting with a product is that your audience will have an immediate way to pay you for your knowledge.
And though this might sound obvious, getting paid in the early days is a great way to earn money to cover your (small) operating costs and start reinvesting the money back into your business. Especially if you want to earn a side income (or eventually a full-time income) from your online business, you’ll inevitably need to spend money to grow your audience, create great products or service offerings, and reach the right people.
The #1 drawback
If you create your product first, there’s a good chance you’ll launch to crickets. You won’t be able to follow the advice all over the internet about doing an email launch for a new course, or “offering a free coaching session to your list” because, well, you don’t have a list yet.
But to me, launching with no audience isn’t the biggest drawback. The biggest risk I see to creating a product first is offering something that no one wants. The risk level varies for different product types, so as an example, creating a full online video course with sleep tactics would take a lot more time and effort than offering sleep coaching services, which can change as easily as you can update the offering listed on your website. But generally speaking, when you create with no audience, you can’t be fully sure that you’re building something people want.
And ain’t nobody got time for that.
Hidden Option 3: Start with both
Aha, plot twist! What if you didn’t have to choose between the two? What if, instead of a “chicken-or-the-egg” scenario, I told you this is a “who cares, let’s make omelets” situation where you could do both at once? 🤔
A lot of online business pros recommend this dual approach because you get the benefits of learning from your audience while working on some kind of product offering. The way I might approach this is to primarily focus on building a blog, but have a “Work with me” page where you offer either coaching or freelance services (like Squarespace website building or logo creation) to your website visitors.
What’s great about the “both approach” is that you’re giving people the opportunity to pay you if they want, but you’d be choosing a product that doesn’t take you too much time and effort to create. In our logo creation example, it wouldn’t take you too long to create the “Work with me” page, and you truthfully may not spend too much time or effort in the earliest days finding clients. But because it’s available on your site, you never know when someone might find you and offer to take you up on your services and help you fund your business.
The #1 drawback
As with options 1 & 2, starting with both audience building AND product creation in tandem has a major drawback: overwhelm. When you try to do everything, it can often feel like your efforts are never enough and there’s always something else you should be doing to grow your business.
So what’s the right choice?
Oh, sweet reader. How I wish such a thing existed. Although I can’t prescribe one right option as a one-size-fits-all solution, I do think I can offer you a bit of guidance before we go:
If you’re just getting started, and don’t feel 100% confident on what you’re passion or products should be, start with the audience. Creating and sharing content will help you naturally figure out which topics resonate with your audience, plus it’ll help you gauge your own interest in different subjects at the same time.
If you know you have a valuable service or product in mind, start with the product. If you’re confident that you’ve identified a problem to solve and an audience to serve, you can go right into product creation and find customers directly. This is often a great option for freelancers or coaches, but perhaps less so for online course creators.
If in doubt, try both out. Many experts do recommend trying both at once, and I see the appeal of listing an easy-to-create service first, but then focusing on building your audience in tandem. This approach might help you decide if you gravitate toward content creation vs. service selling.
And if you’re STILL in doubt, start with a blog. (It's the easiest to get off the ground quickly at a low cost.) Start with anything. Start right now.