You Don’t Need to Get on Oprah. Instead, Find Your Smallest Viable Audience

Audience Nov 27, 2019

How would you like to be offered a spot on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote your product to millions of live viewers? How much would you pay for that? Would you cancel all your meetings, fly to Chicago right away? My guess is that many entrepreneurs would. But when famous marketer and former executive Seth Godin was given the opportunity to appear on Oprah, he turned it down.

If you think that’s crazy, it’s not. Seth was just following what he’s preached in his books and blog posts and courses for years: instead of trying to reach the maximum possible number of people, focus on speaking to the smallest viable audience.

“Don’t make average stuff for average people.”
— Seth Godin

I first learned about Seth more than a decade ago when my girlfriend bought me his book Purple Cow. It completely flipped my understanding of marketing. The core approach Seth presents in the book is the same he’s presented for years — don’t try to compete with every company out there. Rather, start small and focus on being different for a well-defined group of people: this is the smallest viable audience.

The whole point of finding the smallest viable audience is to be interesting, to be different. Or at the very least, to be not boring. Have you ever browsed your Instagram feed and seen an ad for a car that can “drive rough terrain,” “has outstanding interior design” and “offers premium comfort and protection.” It was generic, wasn’t it? Because that’s what every car does, and that’s what almost any commercial says while showing you clips of happy people driving through marvelous landscapes. Chances are that you wouldn’t be able to tell which commercial belongs to which brand if the branding was removed, because cars even look pretty similar now. That’s the result of marketers trying to please everyone.

Being specific, narrowing your idea down, is hard. Choosing a very small market is brave. Personally, I think that’s because we think that if we choose a particular market, people will expect us to stick with that market forever. But guess what? You can always choose another market later. At the end of the day, we, the people, don’t want to buy your product or see your ad, anyway. Not with hundreds of episodes to watch on Netflix and hundreds of friends to spy on over Facebook and Instagram!

In all seriousness, it’s not that people are arrogant or hateful. It’s just that we’re just too busy with our own lives to keep tabs on the markets you choose.

Why I Was Afraid of Marketing

I used to be afraid of promoting my products. I worried that if people didn’t like my product, they’d tell their friends how terrible the product is — and how terrible I am. After some short period of time, everyone on the internet would know about my terribleness, and no one would ever buy anything from me. If I had to guess, my personal fear stems from high school. Whenever I had to present something in front of the class, I was acutely aware that if I said something stupid, everybody would laugh at me and remember that moment for the rest of my life.

To avoid marketing my products myself, I hired other people to do my marketing for me. But that didn’t work, because I was still required to publicly announce what I was doing on my own.

I procrastinated with marketing for so long that I even considered going to a therapist. But before doing that, I decided just to try and see what would happen. (I was embarrassed that I’d have to tell a therapist that I hadn’t even tried to market my product. There’s that fear of being embarrassed again!) So I built a landing page and launched an ad.

And…nothing bad happened. People were seeing the ad, some of them were clicking it, some were visiting the landing page and some even signed up to download what I had to offer.

That ad ran for about a month. Then, someone pointed out that I had a spelling error in my creative.

Can you imagine? I had been running an ad with a spelling error for a month and it was still working. Nobody called me names or hunted me down on social media to tell me how much of an idiot I was and how I should quit right now. Most of the people either hadn’t noticed or ignored the error.

No matter what kind of reputation the internet has, it isn’t like high school. Ads are like billboards on a highway — everyone has their eyes on the road. They might take two seconds to read your ad, then they forget about it forever. Or, if they’re interested, they drive to your restaurant or shop to grab lunch or buy a souvenir. But after that, they’ll forget all about you forever unless your product really touches their heart.

The point is, you can pick your smallest viable audience now and change it later without facing consequences. You can either choose another niche or expand the one you were working with. You’ve seen this happen before: Starbucks used to be a hot coffee shop only, but then they started selling iced coffees. No one told Starbucks that they couldn’t do that. They just created a completely new product and entered a new market of fast-moving consumer goods.

Instead of thinking about marketing as a constant battle and fighting for a place under the sun by appearing on Oprah, Seth used an approach reminiscent of Aikido, a Japanese martial art and philosophy that teaches you to use the energy of the attacker to defend yourself. You never make the first move in Aikido. You only react to your opponent’s move. It’s the same way that Seth offers us founders and marketer a way to use the desires and needs of the market — and the energy that is already driving our potential customers — to define our strategy.

Alex Ponomarev

Passionate about software development and building great products