Although similar because one tends to precede the other, audience building and viral marketing are sometimes confused these days. Most people think “viral marketing” is when you post a video on YouTube and get 100,000 views. Nope, viral marketing does this:

  • Free word of mouth marketing
  • Exponential growth
  • ISYOT Effect (“I’ve seen you out there”)
  • Quickly Become #1

According to Kyle Graham, there are two steps to viral marketing:
1. Give users a Strong reason to talk about you
2. Make it easy for the conversation to occur

For many businesses “Free” can be that strong reason to get people talking about your business. It may not go viral but it has the potential to build up a large audience of qualified prospects for your offer. Plus there are many SEO benefits for implementing an audience building strategy (earning links and authority, for one).

For your pleasure here are a few real examples to get you thinking about audience building in your own biz.

Audience building via WordPress plugins (or apps)

Yoast SEO has become a popular WordPress plugin that makes implementing SEO with specific types of content easy. The main plugin is free, well maintained, updated regularly and effective – each of these benefits are essential to keep up with the ever changing environment that comes with managing SEO.

If you use Yoast SEO, you’ll receive frequent updates to the plugin, an email newsletter and offers in the dashboard of the free version for additional Yoast products, services and licenses. If you upgrade to the pro version, the offers go away, but you’ll continue receiving the newsletter.

Years ago after WordPress became a popular platform there were a few plugins that helped with SEO. All in One SEO Pack plugin was the leader when Joost de Valk launched his plugin, WP SEO (its original name).

Joost created his plugin to do more than any SEO plugin had ever attempted to do before. Needless to say, it was a complicated plugin and not intended for common users. But not long after the SEO community started buzzing about it, Joost’s WP SEO became the new leader among SEO plugins for WordPress.

Millions of sites use the free version of Yoast SEO and with that large audience, Joost continued to improve the free version and began introducing paid products within the plugin that aligned perfectly with specific applications of WordPress. All of this feeds a pool of prospects for consulting.

Yoast SEO plugin offers

Joost’s plugin is popular in part because he created it to solve problems for his own sites. As he created plugins for himself, he released them to the public and got plenty of feedback in the process. Yoast SEO handles more issues than any other SEO plugin, making it the closest thing to an all-in-one SEO plugin.

When asked how he got where he is today Joost said,

As soon as you’ve acquired knowledge worth sharing you then need to start giving away that knowledge through a blog, articles in magazines and speeches on conferences. It’s not something that happens overnight… So it takes hard work, dedication and you need to forego monetary reimbursement for quite a while. I would never have been where I am now if I’d decided to sell my plugins early on, or if I’d kept my WordPress SEO knowledge to myself.

Over time Joost’s growing audience of WordPress plugin users gave him expert status on SEO, WordPress and Web development. You may not be a programmer or have a tech audience, but Joost demonstrates how to build an audience who will pay for products and services when the time is right.

Build an audience with an interactive buyer’s guide for online retail offers a free online closet designer tool that helps people better utilize storage space for the closet, pantry, garage, laundry, entry way or entertainment room. The DIY tool provides you with various styles and templates to choose from that guide you through measurements and finishes. That leads to their products that fit perfectly with your design, or create your own custom design and have their team build it for you and shipped out the next day. free DIY tool

Online retailers who offer lots of product variations can benefit from an online tool like this to guide people to the specific product(s) that best fits their situation.

Why is this such a great tool for ecommerce stores?

  • Audience building and lead gen – does not collect contact information to use their DIY designer tool unless you want to save your design or buy it, then you create an account. However, there are ample opportunities to request emails and phone numbers before, during and after using the tool that do not cause users to drop out.
  • Product sales – while using a DIY tool, prospects engage with your style and way of doing business as they imagine what it’s like to possess what you offer; this type of exchange often builds trust and credibility that can lead to sales.
  • Word of mouth – DIY tools that are easy to use, solve a common problem, give users a strong reason to talk to others about it and are easy to share have all the components needed for word of mouth marketing to get up and run. The design a closet tool includes a “Share your design” call to action, but it could be made stronger with a deeper understanding of its users and broader social sharing to image sites.
  • Brand awareness – people who like the tool will remember it, especially when they need it again or have a friend who has the same issue.

Buy your competitor’s followers with free services/products

Google’s search results are free and useful. If it weren’t for the huge volume of people who frequent Google daily to access the free, organic search results, few businesses would pay for Adwords. But, how did Google turn a free tool into cash flow?

Google was not the first search engine, but it was the first to focus on nothing but search while the other players in the space, like Yahoo, were more of a portal to all types of other content where they sold ads.

In the beginning Google did not sell ads at all but when they did introduce ads, they still prioritized search relevance over ad dollars. Back then, some search engines/portals allowed companies to pay for placement which influenced rankings and lowered the quality of search results. Google never did this or even considered it. If Google ever allows organic search results to be influenced by paid listings, their name would soon be added to the long list of search engine failures like LookSmart.

Early Google Adwords enticement

There are several other factors that got the buzz going for Google back in their early days so that by 2002 they had eclipsed Yahoo as the leading search engine. Once Google was known as the search engine with the most relevant search results, the audience escalated, the ad platform rolled out and advertisers got busy using it.

Consider Google’s long-term vision and emulate it in your own business. From the beginning, Google took a risk and bet that they could win over a huge following with their free product and when the time was right, they made an attractive offer to that audience. By the way, this is Google’s basic business model for most of their products – audience based businesses built on free products.

Audience building success tends to flow:

  1. Position your free product/service so that prospects perceive you to be an expert or authority.
  2. Get user feedback from ideal prospects to improve your free thing.
  3. Execute a long-term promotion plan that builds a relationship with your audience.
  4. Be patient about monetizing your audience, if at all, until your audience growth plateaus.
  5. Align offers perfectly with the wishes of your audience.
  6. Watch sales escalate.

Sometimes long-term audience building introduces a business to viral marketing.

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Tom Shivers
Tom Shivers

I'm a ecommerce SEO consultant and President of Capture Commerce. I've managed digital marketing campaigns for scores of clients since 2000 and found that every business is unique with its own challenges and opportunities. When I see that I have contributed to the success of a business by helping them grow, it makes me feel awesome! That’s the coolest thing and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to do this.