If you’re my friend and a creative the reality is that I probably don’t listen to your music, haven’t read your book, am not regularly reading your blog and probably haven’t subscribed to your podcast. It’s not because I don’t like you. It’s not because I don’t respect you. It’s not because I don’t believe in your talent and it’s not because I don’t want to help you succeed. In fact, you’re probably exceptional at what you do and applying your skills to create something amazing.
As a content creator, this is something that will frustrate you, leave you feeling concerned that you’re not good enough or that I don’t respect you. You’ll probably feel a bit betrayed and you’ll feel a bit hurt. I know these are all still emotions I feel regularly as a fellow content creator. But, the reality is, it doesn’t make me a bad friend and it most definitely doesn’t mean your content isn’t good enough. As a content creator, this was a hard lesson that has taken me a long time to come to grips with, and even longer to internalize.
It doesn’t matter what type of content you create – perhaps you’re a journalist, a photographer, a musician or book author. One of the most difficult things to come to terms with, and something that leads many creatives to abandon their projects while feeling a deep sense of hurt, is the reality that the audience you expect to be the most passionate and automatic – that of friends, family and colleagues will, more often than not, disappoint you.
This blog includes a lot of advice. It includes a lot guidance, materials and assets which have taken me hours and a considerable financial investment to assemble. I’ve been running VirtualWayfarer since 2007 and post on a daily basis about the topics covered here – travel, photography, study abroad, videography etc. – and yet, not a month goes by that someone I know, usually fairly well, reaches out with a message to the effect of, “Hey Alex, you travel a lot right? Do you have any advice about X-Y-Z?”. For most of my blogging career this left me exasperated. After all, I’d spent years spoon feeding that very information to them, doing everything in my power to make them aware of it, and expecting that they’d be interested, curious and support me. All of which was, by and large, utterly ineffective outside of triggering a vague association.
It hurt. It pissed me off. It was disheartening. To make it worse, it also made an already difficult process a hell of a lot more difficult.
Why? Because getting content out there, discovered, and adopted by other people is hard. Like, really, really, freaking hard. The easiest way to leapfrog some of that is through the amplification of your social network. I have roughly 2,370 Facebook friends and an additional 400+ people following me. The vast majority of these people are people I’ve met in real life, know personally, or are travel bloggers themselves. Out of those nearly 3,000 folks how many follow VirtualWayfarer on Facebook? 379. On YouTube? No way to tell, but probably fewer than 50. If even 500 of those nearly 3,000 folks engaged with and shared one piece of my content a week, it would have a radical impact on the exposure and visibility of this blog. Especially because they’re very diverse people, spread around the globe, with very multi-faceted social networks.
But, there in lies the catch 22. They’re very diverse people, with very diverse interests, with very diverse priorities, tastes, and commitments. They’re already busy in the midst of what they’re doing and they have pre-existing preferences which, at any given point, will only overlap with what I’m creating and doing periodically and in a specific way.
It was only when watching my Dad launch his series of books, my Mom share her music, and other creatives run smack dab into the same challenges that I started to take a step back and realize that it wasn’t that my friend’s didn’t care or didn’t support me, that it wasn’t that my content sucked, and that ultimately our assumptions about what we presume to be our easiest and strongest audience are…well…wrong. What did it take? Looking in the mirror.
Let’s take a quick run through of some of the reasons we often overlook or take for granted:
We Have Set Interests
It took me far longer to read all of my Dad’s books than it should have. Which is silly, because, well, not only is he family and a pretty damn good author, but he’s also been one of the few people who has been incredibly diligent in supporting me. Reading my content, editing this blog, and looking at my photos, sharing them and offering feedback. The books that I was the quickest to read? His spy trilogy which revolved around travel and were loosely based on experiences gained during his year of travel in 1969. Why? Because they were the closest match to my primary area of interest. Over the years I’ve read quite a lot, but that material falls into four basic categories. Academic materials for school while studying, high fantasy / Tolkeinesque fantasy, online news and reporting and when traveling after running out of high fantasy to read, action based spy novels. Your genres might be different, but you’re probably fairly similar in having a few key areas your prefer.
Dads’ books on the other hand started with historical mysteries, included pieces on education and psychology, post-apocalyptic survival, an interpretive take on family genealogy and a spy trilogy. All of which are great topics which leverage and build upon his incredibly broad skill and experience set. But, ultimately, they fell outside the area where my consumption and primary interests. Add to this that I really only manage to read a book or two a year – almost exclusively while traveling or vacationing – and it’s a difficult recipe.
Ask yourself, how often you flip aimlessly through channels before ultimately turning the TV off because there’s “nothing on”. Fairly often, right? It’s not because there’s not quality content available, quite to the contrary – there’s an abundance of it…but it’s content that doesn’t align with your mood, your preferences, and what themes you engage with and prioritize.
Is it ideal? Probably not. Is it flattering? Definitely not. Is it a bit self absorbed? Absolutely. But ultimately, is it also practical? You bet. We’re hardwired to digest large amounts of information, form preferences and then guide our future behaviors based on those patterns.
Another key barrier is scheduling. Ultimately, in the back of our minds, we all know that we’ll make time for things we really want to make happen or which we flag as high importance. Having said that, there’s a huge spectrum from totally free and open with nothing to do, and totally booked with absolutely no wiggle room. Where this creates confusion is when we see friends who are too busy or haven’t had the time to read our content, view our photos, or listen to our music wasting time, watching senseless TV or rambling about being bored.
The way we prioritize our lives is a combination of crafting a schedule that fits our needs and tailoring that schedule to our existing pool of interests. Supporting (and consuming) a friend’s creative content requires a fundamental re-arrangement of our schedule and is often relatively time consuming. This isn’t just the on-the-books time required, it’s also the mental energy and the opportunity cost that goes with it. This is something we may be up for doing as a periodic exception, but is rarely something we’re willing to integrate into our schedule unless there’s a interest overlap. Particularly because when we do set aside this energy, we want to be extra attentive and extra responsive. After all, we care – and we want to show it by doing an extra decent job … but that means investing a higher than normal amount of energy and time compared to comparable tasks.
Content Creators Are Horrible Consumers
Unfortunately, the people we respect the most and quite likely overlap with creatively or interest-wise, are also very likely going to be horrible content consumers. The lion’s share of the content out there is created by a relatively small group of people. These are often the very first people we look to for advice, feedback, and insights. They’re also the people we expect are in similar shoes and as such most likely to support us in our endeavor. Even more so if our endeavor overlaps with their area of interests and specialization.
There are a select few travel bloggers who are fantastic blog readers. As a point of contrast, I’m always flabbergasted by how well read Kate of Adventurous Kate is. She is a prolific content creator and manages to also consume content at a very high volume. She’s also a relative rarity. Far more common are people like me. I casually skim, keep an eye on a very select few blogs, read them intermittently and spend the lion’s share of my time creating content. This goes to the misleading, but still somewhat accurate, adage that content creators are always the worst audience you can have because they spend all their time creating content vs. consuming it.
Ultimately, what this means in my case is that while I’ll be happy to sit down and have an hour or two chat over coffee with you about your travels, your blog, an idea you have, or your book – all of which I can genuinely find quite engaging – it’s very unlikely that your material gets integrated on a re-occurring basis in my daily or weekly consumption pattern. In no small part because, well, to add it, I’ll need to remove or skip something else that’s already on my plate and there’s a lot more information I could or should be consuming than I’m able to tackle.
We Think We Know You Already
The better the friend, the better we think we know you. As friendships progress, we constantly over-estimate how much we know about each-other. Often our knowledge about certain areas of each-other’s lives is quite extensive. But, equally often knowledge of other areas is frightfully lacking. This leads us to assume that you’re already telling us or discussing with us or sharing with us the key parts of whatever it is you’re creating on a regular basis. For many friends, even if they’re close friends and are aware of where my last trip took me, they’ll assume that I’ve summarized the most important stories, experiences and observations from the trip in our conversations ruling out the need to read my post(s) on the trip. A lone photo posted to Facebook is much easier and simpler to digest, but a full album will quite often get neglected…unless of course, they have been to the same destination or plan to in the near future. This is similar for musicians with live shows/recorded music and significantly more difficult for authors.
The reality? Those that know us best often know the least about our content. It’s the casual observer who overlaps on the fringes of our social network, but who connects with our content, that likely has a much stronger grasp and will ultimately be a much more effective advocate externally. Again, is this because our friends don’t believe in us, don’t support us, or don’t care about what we’re creating? Not at all.
We Want Special Treatment
At the start of this post, I mentioned friends who reach out with questions and requests for information while showing an utter lack of familiarity with what I write about and do here on the blog. Just as often there are others who reach out with a casual familiarity with the blog, but who still skip the content or running a search on the blog and ask me directly for recommendations which leaves me either having to spend time answering the questions or feeling slightly dismissive while linking directly to the content already written and published on the blog.
As a content creator, you’d think I’d know better and be above making the same error, right? Not quite. Recently, I was preparing for my first trip to Vietnam. For years I’d periodically read Jodi of Legal Nomad’s compelling posts about food, vendors, where to eat – you name it. But, when the time came to actually plan my trip and lock in on specifics more definitively, did I go back to those old posts, reading them, taking notes, and honing in on what to see, try, and do? No. I messaged her asking what she recommended. Why? Because I wanted special treatment, insider knowledge, and because I wanted a hand-picked synopsis of her best content. To be fair, what we’re often asking for is somewhere in-between – a mixture of being lazy but also a customized blend of feedback and suggestions from the individual based on their knowledge of us. Still, for the content creator this can be deeply frustrating and time consuming. In this situation and those like it though? It’s mostly just a combination of me being busy (see We’re Busy above) and lazy.
We Don’t Give Positive Feedback
In general, we’re conditioned to issue critical or negative responses, but to skip positive or supportive responses. I think this has a lot to do with our presumption of the status quo and implied appreciation. If we’ve consumed something and enjoyed it, short of being out-of-our-mind bonkers over it, we typically view/behave as though that view combined with the absence of negative commentary/feedback implies approval. This phenomena is well documented in online reviews and feedback forms. Unfortunately, when it comes to being a content creator, silent approval can be devastating.
In a given month, I reach tens of thousands of people across the various platforms I’m creating and publishing content on. Of those tens of thousands of individuals only a small percentage – likely less than a hundred – will leave any feedback at all, and even fewer will leave something positive. There are some exceptions – Facebook being one – where engagement and feedback is more common, but even there it’s often very limited proportional to the number of people who have actually engaged with the content….unless of course it is controversial. At which point, not unlike a small child acting out to get attention, regardless of if it’s good or bad, we do get feedback. This, however, is all to often more negative than positive further exacerbating the problem.
As a content creator, this goes beyond merely getting attention. It means that we’re fundamentally exposed to a very lopsided mixture of feedback. It means that it is often very easy to feel like our content is being ignored, that it’s not good enough, and that – based on the rare (or not-so rare) negative or critical feedback that people do give, is a waste of time, energy and actually something we should feel a level of embarrassment about.
Increasingly, I’m aspiring to not only give positive feedback when I enjoy something, but to be explicit in that feedback. While chasing a FB like may help offer some positive feedback or saying “nice” on a photo, if something speaks to me I try and offer something more specific. In so doing, I mirror the level of specificity and detail I’d provide if delivering critical or negative feedback. Which brings more meaning to that positive feedback and highlights that it wasn’t just content consumed in passing that got a smiley face, but actually something that resonated with me and brightened my day. This also means actively seeking out content creators when you see something you genuinely enjoyed and telling them. You’ll be amazed by who will respond and how much it means to content creators.
We Won’t Say No
Telling friends – the people you care about – no is difficult. Telling them no, in the face of a request tied to their passions or something they’ve invested a lot of time and energy in is even more difficult. Ultimately, this means that when we make requests from friends, “would you like to read a draft of my book?”, “can you offer feedback on my upcoming post?” etc. we all find ourselves in a situation where we want to help, we want to say yes, feel guilty saying no, and love the concept of being needed and able to help but at the same time lack the time, energy, or commitment to the creative content’s topical focus to follow through.
For content creators this ends up being a double edged sword as not only do you then feel as though the person must not have liked your content, you also spend time waiting for feedback that never comes or is extremely slow in coming, all while potentially investing financial and promotional resources which will ultimately end up warming a desk shelf or trash bin somewhere.
We’re Not Your Ideal Audience
Ultimately, what does this all boil down to? Friends and family aren’t necessarily your ideal audience. They’re the most convenient audience. They’re an audience that cares for you, that believes in you, and that wants you to succeed. They’re an audience that will, when approached properly or when the right conditions align, go out of their way to support you far beyond what you can expect from a stranger. But, ultimately, they’re an audience of convenience. They’re convenient for you, but the odds are good that you’re not convenient for them.
The challenge as a content creator is accepting this, being deeply grateful when friends and family are able to engage or do have their interests align with what you’re creating, and simultaneously focusing the majority of your energy on exposing your content to the people (friend, acquaintance and stranger alike) who are at a place in their life, with passions and interests that best align with the creative content you’re generating.
With this post I hope I’ve inspired you to re-frame how you relate to your audience. Your friends do support you. They do care about you. At the end of the day you’re creating content, and that in and of itself is a deeply rewarding process for you. Hopefully you’ll find an audience that shares (and communicates) an appreciation for what you’re creating with you. Maybe you already have, and just haven’t realized it yet.
Having said all of this, I also want to take a moment to single out the hundreds of absolutely incredible friends who have pulled me aside, offered me positive feedback, been ambassadors for my creative content, supported me, encouraged me, and constantly help spread the word about what I’m doing. You guys are incredible and the reason after all these years VirtualWayfarer is still here. Every time I face a crisis of confidence, or worry about my content, or am feeling lazy your feedback and encouragement infuses me with new purpose and direction.