How To Build An Audience

Today, we bring you a veteran creative producer -- learning from his father who was a television executive back when the few networks reigned supreme, Lee Schneider has intense insights from his career in journalism, writing, documentary production, and entrepreneurship. You can find him at his Digital Fundraising School, and he's doing a GiveGetWin deal focused on key insights for creative producers on making high-quality content, building an audience, and earning a living from your art and passion.

How To Build An Audience, insights from Lee Schneider as told to Sebastian Marshall

I started in words even though I was writing for picture. I was a newspaper reporter and writer for TV shows… on TV, I wrote the introductions, intros, and outros. 

I wrote for a newspaper in Texas and for A&E. This started teaching me the relationship between words and pictures. I went to writing for local television and Good Morning America. I learned how to write fast and how to write in a big noisy room, and how to write for picture. This is a key thing, the relationship between pictures and words. They get stronger as they relate, words and pictures, and sounds.

That led me to working for news magazines like Dateline NBC and a magazine for Fox, Frontpage. I was producing stories in the 8-10 minute range, and telling a story in that range of time is a very different animal than telling a story in 20 seconds like you would for a news broadcast. That led to longer form stuff; after Dateline NBC, I did Biography for A&E and started my own company doing hour-long documentaries for the Learning Channel, History Channel, and others.

Things are more fragmented now, and the attention span of the viewer is moving pretty fast, as there's so many choices. I don't think people lack an attention span any more like people say, but there are lots of distractions potentially there. You need to grab people's attention and hold it; that's a big challenge now.

Even when you do a long-form documentary for television, there needs to be a "cold open" or "tease" that gets people involved. We were doing a documentary on motorcycles, and the executive said "This is pretty good, but we need a chick on a motorcycle and a cop because we know it's going to get viewers." I was a little annoying because we were doing something different, but we did it -- and we got more viewers.

You need to respond to people's immediate needs, even if you're producing the highest quality materials. You need to connect with people and be aware of what they're looking for. If they want to see a cop on a motorcycle in a documentary and you're not going to give it to them, that's probably a mistake.

Even when I write prose for magazines now, I try to grab the reader's attention quickly. I won't spend paragraph after paragraph drilling down to my main point. Either in the headline, or the first few lines, I need to get people's attention and then build back in to the purpose of the article.

It's similar in all media right now -- video or audio, too. You need to get attention quickly, and then get into your ideas. You can't work like Charles Dickens any more with a few introductory chapters before going into it.

In making documentaries for cable networks, and I've done a few of them, we always had to find a "signature image" that would grab the fewer quickly. That was usually the hardest thing.

An example: I was doing a documentary about blowing things up. Literally. Demolition.

We he had hired the rock guy, Alice Cooper, to be the narrator and host. And we realized, how could we not have Alice Cooper break a guitar in his appearance?

That was like a viewer need. If we didn't smash a guitar, we'd be making a mistake. So we got a guitar, he smashed it for the ending of the piece, and it was used in all the promos. It became the signature image.

(As a side note, he knew so much about the physics of smashing a guitar. He placed the camera, explained where each of the pieces would fly when it broke… I've never met anyone so educated about smashing a guitar.)

Every piece needs a signature moment. If it's a visual piece, you need a visual. In a written piece, there might be a few of them. You need to deliver that signature moment to the reader, listener, or viewer, or you haven't succeeded.

These days, when you're creating material specifically for the web, you have to be very aware of your neighborhood and community for which you're creating. In the old days, when people were doing TV shows and there were only three networks, you could appeal to everybody.

You didn't have to worry about specifics then. You could just ask if it was a broad-based, broad-appeal show. Any show from your childhood or a big time show was like this.

Now, the world is so much more fragmented. People live in silos. Digital silos, conceptional silos, location silos. The big paradox is that people are super connected online and super conscious of each other, but their interests when you're creating media are pretty specific.

You need to aim at and connect with specific groups. You can't say, "This piece of video or blog I'm creating will appeal to everyone" -- you could try, maybe if it's a cat video it'll work, but for the most part it doesn't work.

You have to ask, "Who is watching? Who is reading? Who cares about this?" And the more specific you get, the better.

I was just talking to the people from Nation Builder, who are into building communities online. They were talking about the anti-genetically-modified food movement. That's a small group, but a very passionate one that is very active.

So ask, "Who is listening? Who is watching? Who is consuming? Who is your constituency? Who is your community?" Ideally build into connecting with those people first, before creating, if you can. Then when you're creating, you have them along for the ride and they'll help you know what to talk about.

In the new world we live in, both super connected and super fragmented, you have to be quite specific in who you're trying to reach out to.

A strange/funny example: There is a coffee distributor production group called and I did an interview with them because I like coffee. I had no deeper interest than that I like coffee. But I learned from them that there's a huge group of people that love coffee -- barristers, online coffee communities, Twitter communities around coffee, and ancillary groups connected to coffee.

When I research, I often start on Twitter. If you look for all the biggest people talking about coffee, you get a pretty good temperature of the community that is out there.

You learn quite quickly that a lot of scientists and mathematicians are into coffee. Apparently mathematical theorems are built on coffee, you need to drink coffee to do math.

A lot of cyclists are into coffee. You wouldn't know that without looking, that both scientists and cyclists into coffee.

8point9 started marketing in general at coffeehouses, but then got more into writing about cycling and coffee when they realized how plugged in it can be.

I recommend Twitter to start for researching and figuring out who the community is. gets a pretty good fine-grained search to find the biggest Twitter accounts of people writing, thinking, and talking about the things you're interested in.

You can also use the Google Keyword Tool. You can sign up for a free adwords tool at, and put in search terms for popularity. Or look at Google Trends and what people are interested in. Is there an increased interest in the word Kickstarter, or is IndieGoGo getting ahead? You can get a sense of even the country's most active searches, and how popular they are over time. 

You want to figure out what the basket for the topic you want to produce information on. If you look around, you'd realize a lot of people in Scandinavia are passionate about coffee, pour-over coffee, Aeropress… and you could quickly find an interesting group of people to dialog with if you wanted to produce content on coffee.

This gets very specific depending on who you're trying to talk to. The different social media channels attract different groups, and not everything works everywhere.

People interested in wine and drinks tend to be on blogs and Twitter heavily. Post on your blog, comment on theirs, and start conversations through blogs, and then can easily go offline to meet and have a glass of wine together.

I've been involved in a lot of documentary film and filmmaker communities, and we often meet online. I'll beta test editing software after I connect with someone online and they reach out on Twitter at first, or I'll help a filmmaker launch their Kickstarter campaign.

Some people rant online all the time, and it can work if you're funny. But offering information, trading ideas, and talking about the topic is how to go. It sounds "soft core," but just offering information and helping others builds community.

Producing high quality content is key to, but what is high quality is very subjective. I tend to like -- and this is my personal bias -- I like information and opinion. I tend to go towards blogs and Twitter feeds written by opinionated people, and people providing information.

Different things connect with different audiences. Some of the most popular Youtube channels are comedy channels. There are people doing comic monologs and comic characters in their bathroom or kitchen, and I'd call that quality content too -- because it connects with the audience.

People love how-to. How-to fix a car, how-to fix an air conditioner, that's quality content for many people. One way you can find out what resonates with people is put in "how to repair a car" in Google Trends or the Google Keyword Tool and get a sense how the quality content might resonate. Some people are looking for a laugh, some are looking for information, and some are looking for a connection.

The hallmark of quality content is that it really serves the audience, and serves a need for the audience. It could be a need for information, a need for comedy, or a need for dialog and connection. You could take an example of GoodReads, the book-reading and book-sharing community. People post what book they read last and some comments on it. That's quality to me, since I can check out if a book is going to be worth my time before I read. An individual might only spend a few moments there, but if 50 people did it, I can read a broad aggregate of opinions that each person took only a moment, but in aggregate becomes valuable, and it becomes quality content.

To make sure you're producing quality content, there's a feedback loop you have to pay attention to. Usually online, we have pretty good access to it. We get a sense of the comments, the quality of the comments, the tweets and re-tweets, and reposts. Does your video drop like a rock in the ocean, or does it resonate again? And what are those people saying?

That's your first litmus test.

My other litmus test: When I go back and look at something I wrote or produced six, eight, ten months ago, I like to see if I think it's still good or if I missed the mark. A lot of online media is very situational, just for the moment, it's here and it's gone, and I have to question if that's quality content. If it's here and then gone, it could be valuable in that moment, but will it last? If it'll last and have relevance six months, 12 months, and longer down the line, that's higher quality. Will it be a resource people can check out later, and I can check out later and feel satisfied about?

Producing timeless things is one index for quality. There's a piece I wrote for Medium recently, where I was writing about how media can have a quick value. A Twitter newsfeed talking about a tornado has value. Twitter news feeds about political revolutions have immediate value. 

Longer-form things can have a more eternal value. 

If you're going to do a long-form piece of content, you're probably going to have to live with it -- meaning creating it -- for months and months and months.

The filmmaker and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola mentioned that he gets pitched on ideas all the time, but people pitching forget that movie becomes part of you for years.

Whatever you create long-form, you're going to have to wake up in the morning and get to work on it, and live with it, for years.

There's a paradox, that the most important thing in the world that matters to you, it'll matter to more people. In other words, if you want to be a generalist and make things that appeal to everyone, it usually fails.

Some people have a magic touch for generalist content, but usually not. Usually the more personal you become, the more connected with yourself becomes, the more universal the piece is.

Six or eight months ago I wrote a blog post about going to Starbucks, and how it's kind of like a methadone clinic for me, how I don't really like the coffee but I go anyways.

It was a very personal piece, just about sleepwalking through life, and I thought no-one would really like it. But it was picked up by Wordpress as "Freshly Pressed" and a bazillion people saw it, and my readership grew.

I was writing it for very personal reasons, but it somehow connected with a very universal feeling that people connected with. Even though it was a very individual personal piece, it connected with a universal feeling about sleepwalking through life, and people connected and wanted to dialog with me.

Step one for creative production is knowing you need to live with things for a good long time. It may take a while to incubate, it may take a while to execute, and your work has to be very, very personal in order to work. The paradox is, it has to be very personal to connect universally.

I've read a lot of books about writing and met a lot of writers, and writers specifically more than filmmakers have made this point. There's this weird paradoxical thing, that the more personal your media is, the more personal it is, the more universal it becomes.

Take the Sophia Coppola movies. They're extremely personal pieces that are almost impossible to put into words, but they're very popular. That's the emotional motor that makes things work. If you personally connect, you go very deep, and then other people can connect with them.

Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is showing up. You have to show up. You have to be present in whatever you're making. Whether it's a video, a blog post, a series of blog posts, or a documentary… you have to keep at it.

There's some mediums that can be quickly popped together and are fun to do, but most of the things that hang around for a while take a longer term commitment, and that's a tremendous challenge to anyone making quality media. You need to gear down for a long-term commitment and like working on it. That may mean living with it for a day, a week, a month, six months, a year, or years and years.

You have to commit to living with it.

You have to make it fresh and find something new about it almost every day. Whether you're visualizing the people you're talking to, or whether you're touching something inside yourself to connect with -- it's kind of like mining or digging. You have to keep going back to the well over and over for inspiration.

And give it a rest, if it needs a rest. It needs to be almost woo'ed or seduced out of yourself, by being nice to yourself.

It's counterintuitive. You need to be nice yourself without goofing off. You don't need to be a genius; you just need to show up and do the work. And if you're lucky, the genius comes out. But either way, write the pages or shoot the video.

If you've hired people and they're on set, and you say, "I'm not feeling it, let's go home" -- that doesn't work. But it's the same if it's just you in front of a computer writing. You have to say, "I'm here, this is my time to do this, and I need to do it."

It's another paradox: doing it, always showing up and doing it, and also having fun with it.

But there are some times when you're not going to have the creative juice to make it happen, and if you have the luxury of taking a break or a day off, you do that and it can be very valuable.

I used to write fiction, and I'd be working on a novel or screenplay, but since it was just me, I could read a magazine for an hour or go for a walk. What it means is, having the understanding that we're not machines. We work with machines a lot, and interact with machines a lot, but creatively when you're creating content, you're not a machine.

If you take a machine approach, you can burn yourself out. The creative approach is, yes, you have to show up. Yes, you have to be present. But if it's not working, take a swim, a bike ride, or a walk. Do something different. Get up and walk around. Or I'll go to bed early and set the intention before going to sleep, and let my subconscious mind go to work on it. A lot of times, I wake up in the morning and I've figured it out.

Use all parts of yourself. The work part, the play part, the intuition part… when you create the real stamina to keep going, you can create something of quality.

How to create stamina?

Well, gradually! Murakami wrote this book about running, and has a lot of application to writing and stamina. He said, the body will do what you tell it to do, as long as you go gradually. You have to train up to it. It applies across the board -- you need to train up the stamina. Create a minute of video a day, or a page a day. 

In the world of writing, if you're writing a page a day, you're doing pretty well.

High budget feature films only shoot a page a day. A low-budget film might need to shoot 10 pages or 20 pages a day, but train up to it. If it's a team, you have to get the team ready for it. And if you're alone, you have to get ready for that.

There's no use to max out and blow all your energy in one day, and be unable to get out of bed the next day. Training. It's like athletics, like Murakami talks about.

The biggest pitfall is worrying about what other people think. Yes, you have to be aware of your audience, and yes, you have to respond to people. But you have to silence the inner critic, tell your inner critic to take a walk.

The first moments of writing or shooting something, you have to be willing to make mistakes, be free with yourself… that can be pretty hard. The biggest block is that, "What will other people think?" In this process, there are mistakes. If you're writing, you can erase your mistakes or cut them out. If you're filming, you need to own them or pretend they didn't happen.

Those are the two biggest things that inhibit people from the work they could be doing.

Finding the right people to collaborate with is kind of trial and error. People who have worked in the news business and media production, in my experience, are get-it-done people who I can depend on. I've met super creative people who are wonderful, but if they can't get it done on time or don't show up, they can't help me.

I'm looking for people who are like-minded. I'm looking for people that are a good fit to collaborate, and that takes trial and error. You need to figure out who you like working with and work well with, and sometimes you need to try and see.

Wanting reliability is me reflecting out of my personality. Reliability is a core characteristic for me, I deliver, and I'm reliable. So I tend to look for people like that. Others with different values might find others who reflect those values, and might want someone really playful, or someone who has a million ideas, or something else might be more important.

There needs to be harmony.

From time to time, you might want to throw a wild card in it. If you have a group, maybe you take someone who does a few crazy things to liven the group up. But the values people bring, you have to respect that. Wild creativity or reliability, you need to have a respect for those values to work with that person.

Teams are very personalized. They're like organisms that work together. Especially if you're shooting a film, everyone plays a role and it's a very complex relationship among the director, the producer, the writer, the sound guys… it's a very complex organism that gets tuned over time.

It's remarkable to me that people come together, work together, become really cohesive, and then when the film ends, they go apart again. And sometimes, you make films with the same people. And the reason people make films with the same people over and over is because they get attuned, and bring out the best in each other over and over again. It's worth looking for, and you're very lucky if you can find those people.

To find the right people, you have to ask for personal recommendations. They trump everything else. You can put ads in Craiglist, you can send out tweets, you can ask a Facebook community… but asking trusted friends, a few trusted friends, that's the best way to go. Your friends recommending a third party can give you an idea of their personality. 

People take it seriously when they recommend someone. Hyper-tactically, you have to go personal. Ask a small group of friends; don't put a general LinkedIn thing out to everyone. You'll get a lot of suggestions, but you'll have a long curve of interviewing all of them and trying to learn about their work. Start closer, that's step one.

Step two is to look at their work. Their work will tell you a lot; you can see right away if you're going to resonate with them a lot. Take a look at a writing sample, a graphics sample, a picture from them. You'll get a quick impression, and trust that quick impression.

If you see a sample blog or movie, and you don't feel it at all, you should realize that's a problem. But if you're fascinated about it, that's good. Ask for a writing sample, a clip, a link.

If you don't know anyone to ask for a recommendation, then find a way to start with some kind of connection. Maybe see if there's some film school, a film course, a writing course.. anywhere you can get a "plus one" going. Sometimes these pursuits are solitary, but even still, they're community pursuits.

If you have to make an online decision, that's fine -- but look for something offline. Even a community college, a local connection, anything. Invest a few weeks to go through something where you can learn -- but more importantly, where you can connect with collaborators who understand what you want to do. 

And then start asking for those personal recommendations on other good people. You're going to get a sense, if you take a course with a bunch of people, or do a workshop, you're going to start to get a sense for who you work well with and what it's like working with them. And they have friends of friends, and you start seeing a community of creative people.

Especially in filmmaking, you need to connect with a bunch of people to do it. These are collaborative arts.

Look for ways to build the relationships. It probably comes down to doing it in person; you have to show up some place where others are doing it.

In terms of getting paid, I think social capital is where it has to start. People talk about monetizing their work and getting paid for it. But these days in particular, unless you're a huge talent or win some contest, you have to build some social capital first.

That goes back to the beginning -- how do we find the communities that appreciate what we're going to do? Those people will help you monetize.

You can start out with, "I want to be paid for this," and sometimes it works. You see blogs with tip jars, and maybe some of those do well. But mostly, you'll have to prove yourself before you monetize.

Even if you're going for traditional media like cable television, you need to prove you can deliver a documentary, a show, or some aspect of the show.

So guess what? You need a reel. So let's make a reel.

You need to make things. That's how you get hired, monetize, and build a community. Make things.

Then it becomes easier to do the Kickstarter, or plain old get paid for what you're saying.

What a lot of people don't think about is, there's this expression, "What's on your reel?" You need a sample. They go in to a potential employer or pitch to a television network, and say, "I've got a great idea for a show" -- they listen with a smile on their face. But unless you've got some clips on your reel, a sample reel, a clip reel, or writing samples, for people to start to have faith in you.

Tactical recommendations for building reel and portfolio are hard to give, because it's so industry specific.

I once was up for a big television writing job, and I said I'd write a sample for it. The famous producer of the project only gave me one piece of guidance as I was getting up to leave. "Hey Lee, one thing: Make it really good."

That's the main thing. Make it really good. Make it get people's attention, have its own integrity, and work on its own terms. It needs to work without much ancillary explanation.

Pick up that blog post, film, anything -- the piece should work without explanation about who you are, or why you made it. If you have a bunch of things on your reel that go "pop," that means they work on their own terms, and have their own integrity and commitment behind it.

Make sure your work has good craft behind it. Study the underlying craft, and make sure your work isn't sloppy. Don't do the "I did this in five minutes" thing; do "I really cared about this, and built it really well like an extremely well-made piece of furniture" -- people sense things aren't good if the technical aspect isn't good. Writing that isn't focused, or bad audio in a video, these things matter. And as more media hits the internet, there's more basis of comparison and we can look at things really good or bad… the things that connect well with people tend to be well-made.

Ask, "How well made is this? Did I do the best I could do with the equipment I had?"

With building social capital, the biggest factor is time. It takes time to build. We all become obsessed with the viral video that takes off and gets millions of views right away, or the Kickstarter campaign that has to get a ton of money in 30 days or it fails… there are plenty of things that blow up after being built in a day, but it's not common. Plan to take weeks and months of sticking to it to build social capital. One of the most respected and popular bloggers in the world is Seth Godin; he writes every single day.

Godin says, not every blog has to be great, but he shows up every single day and ensures they're pretty darn good every single day. He's built some pretty powerful social capital. When he recommends a book, people buy that book. When he offers a workshop for five people, people want it and he can charge a lot -- and it's worth it.

You can also build social capital by sharing other people's work. Collect lots of good things and share them. Brainpickings is an aggregate of things that interest the woman who makes it; she finds things and shares it. There's lots of ways to build social capita; it doesn't all have to be original, but the Brainpickings woman shows up every Sunday in my email inbox. Plenty of people show up on Twitter every day or every hour.

One of my favorite Twitter feeds is @pourmecofee, he posts things that are interesting and he has lots of followers. It's basically a political comedy feed, and he has things go up there every few hours.

Focus and iteration are key concepts. You have to change, you have to keep trying different things in different ways. But eventually, you have to settle on becoming a trusted authority in something. You have to go with that and like it.

Seth Godin has become a trusted authority in marketing. The guy that does @pourmecoffee does political humor. Steve Martin does general off-the-wall humor. Demetri Martin does palindromes, and I follow him for that.

So you need a willingness to change, and you need to settle on what works.

I'm in an area with a lot of incubators and startups. The joke is, there will be a guy named Joe with a dog-walking app, it'll fail, and the next day he'll have a cat-sitting app.

You can't change all the time, because then you won't have any authority and on one will believe you. But you do have to keep changing and adapting as you work towards that sweet spot.

Me, I'm very good at explaining things. When I did news magazines, I did investigate reporting explaining complicated court cases. When I did History Channel documentaries, I did lots of explaining engineering and complicated topics -- engineer, law, crime stories.

Recognizing what you do well and doing a lot of it is where you want to end up.

We all have to change and reinvent. We don't know if Youtube is going to be the biggest thing ever, or if it's going to not exist in 10 years. The media is evolving faster than ever, but the sweet spot for you is unique to you, and that won't change that much.

Ask yourself: What do you bring to it that's unique, that you can do, that's better than anyone else could even approach -- just because it's you doing it?

If you're making ANY sort of creative media, you need to check out Lee's GiveGetWin deal built around creating quality content, building a thriving audience, and monetizing your art and passion. You should also definitely check out his Digital Fundraising School, where the first lesson is free.

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