Why You're Struggling to Grow Your Following (and how to fix it)
Not all social media platforms are created equal
This article is an excerpt from my new course, “How to Be an Engineer Influencer,” where I teach you how to diversify your income streams by building an audience on social media.
The most important decision you can make when building a following online is deciding which social media platform to focus on first.
Many people build the wrong channels and burn themselves out. This is due to a misunderstanding of how social media works.
In this article, I discuss why you should treat social media like a sales funnel and focus more on growing your “top-funnel” platforms first.
How Social Media (really) Works
Social media is a sales funnel with three tiers: a top-funnel, mid-funnel, and bottom-funnel.
Top-funnel channels spur all the growth on the mid-funnel channels, and the mid-funnel channels drive traffic to the bottom-funnel channels where you make sales.
You can think of your top-funnel followers like “cold leads” in a sales funnel. They’re strangers who are discovering you for the first time.
Mid-funnel followers are “warm leads” — people who have seen you somewhere else before and whom you have a previous relationship with.
The bottom-funnel followers are “hot leads” — people you’ve built enough trust with who are ready to purchase something from you.
Every major influencer’s presence on social media follows this pattern. For example, Mayuko Inoue is an ex-Netflix engineer turned YouTuber with over 550k+ subscribers on YouTube.
She has large followings on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn as well.
In Mayuko’s case, her top-funnel channel is YouTube because it’s where she has her largest following.
She funnels her YouTube subscribers to her IG, so Instagram is a mid-funnel channel.
And her bottom-funnel channel is her shop where she sells merchandise.
You can see her social media funnel below.
I have the same funnel structure. Medium is where I have the greatest following at 12,200 followers so it’s my top-funnel channel.
And I just finished building out a course on Gumroad teaching people how to grow a following and monetize their brand. So Gumroad is my bottom-funnel channel.
So we can see the importance of winning a top-funnel channel for both Mayuko and myself. Not having Medium for me or YouTube for Mayuko would cut our online presence on all the other platforms significantly.
So the two main takeaways for you are:
Most people’s growth come from leading followers from another higher-level channel to that platform.
You don’t need to win every social media platform. If you win a single top-funnel channel, you’re in business. But if you fail to win any top-funnel channels, you’re in trouble.
You just have to find that one “top-funnel” channel that will spur your growth on all the other platforms.
How to Identify Top-Funnel Channels
Top-funnel channels have two properties:
Discoverability — They show you to people who don’t know you
Meritocratic— Your content’s success is based only on the quality of your content.
Discoverability is key because if you just post to the same people over and over again, you’ll never grow. It’s only with new people hearing about you that your channel can grow.
Meritocracy is the second property of “top-funnel” channels. When you’re starting off, you’re at a disadvantage compared to older accounts with bigger followings.
However if the algorithm on the platform rewards the best content, that means you can beat out older accounts if your content is good enough.
So the key mistake creators make is focusing too much on “mid-funnel” channels when they need to focus on growing their “top-funnel” channel first instead.
I see this particularly in the Medium vs. newsletter debate among writers.
Case Study: Medium vs. Substack Newsletter
So let’s say you’re a writer, and you’re not sure whether to build your following on Medium or your Substack newsletter first.
In my opinion, you should focus on building your Medium following first, and use Medium to grow your Substack newsletter because Medium is a top-funnel channel.
To show you why Medium is top-funnel, take a look at the view count and performance of my first two-articles below.
First off, my first article got 20,000 views, and my second article got over 100,000 views with no previous posting history. Therefore Medium satisfies the “meritocracy property” because the age of my account didn’t affect the distribution of the article.
Second, Medium’s curation algorithm distributed my first article to almost 20,000 strangers when my following was still at 0, so it satisfies the “discoverability” property.
Substack on the other hand, doesn’t have any built-in discoverability. People aren’t going to see my article unless they’ve subscribed. Therefore Substack is a mid-funnel channel, and you should use Medium to grow your newsletter.
You can see how I do it at the bottom of all my Medium articles in the screenshot below.
Common Top and Mid Funnel Combinations
There are several common top-mid funnel combinations that creators have settled on.
So if you’re trying to grow on a specific platform, it’s worth copying these funnel structures. Pay particular attention to how they seed their mid-funnel channels using their top-funnel channels. Two combinations worth calling out include:
1. YouTube + Instagram
The YouTube + Instagram combo is particularly common. Almost every YouTuber uses YT as a top-funnel channel to seed their growth on Instagram.
This makes sense because Instagram isn’t great at discoverability; if you post on your IG feed, it will only show your content to existing followers. So IG functions well as a mid-funnel channel, but not as a top-funnel channel.
It’s also less effort to make a few IG posts than it is to make full YouTube videos, so it’s better for cultivating engagement since you can post more often on IG than on YouTube.
You can see 3 examples of influencers with this YouTube + Instagram funnel combo below.
We can observe from these 3 YouTubers’ funnels that JomaTech and TechLead both have complete funnels, with YouTube as a top-funnel, Instagram as a mid-funnel, and a digital product as their bottom-funnel.
Sherry however doesn’t have a product the way JomaTech or TechLead have at the bottom of her funnel. So it would make sense for her to build a course or product to complete her sales funnel at the bottom.
2. Real-Life + Twitter
Sometimes your top-funnel doesn’t even have to be another social media platform. I‘ve noticed many creator’s grow their audience online just by being really well-networked in real life.
For example Michael Houck is a founder of Launch House, where they host a lot of events for founders and VC’s. In this case, the real-life networking events expose him to a lot of new people, who then follow him on Twitter. So his 18.4k followers on Twitter was more the result of him doing a lot of networking in real life, a natural part of his job.
This isn’t that crazy because if you go to a 3-day networking event, and exchange LinkedIn’s with everyone you talk to at the end of the convo, you could easily add 50+ people over a weekend. Do this enough, and you will have grown your following substantially over time.
Is Twitter and LinkedIn top or mid-funnel?
Twitter and LinkedIn can occupy both the top or mid-funnel channel depending on:
your existing follower count and
how you use it
If you’re starting off, I would consider both platforms to be mid-funnel. But when you reach critical mass, your content has a high chance of being re-shared among your existing follower base, exposing you to their followers. Then it would become top-funnel.
For example, when I only had 500 followers on LinkedIn, I made a post on my newsfeed and only got 13 likes.
However at the same time, I also posted in the Premium LinkedIn career group, and managed to get 300+ likes with the same following.
This is because the Premium LinkedIn group exposes me to so many new people, even with my smaller following. Therefore the Premium LinkedIn group is top-funnel, but the regular LinkedIn feed is mid-funnel because it only showed me to my small follower base back then.
I have noticed though that LinkedIn can become top-funnel if you have a critical mass of followers. Notice this post I made on LinkedIn that got over 4,200 likes and 1.2 million impressions when I had about 9k followers.
At this point, I reached a critical mass of followers where enough people could re-share my post and help it go viral. So at around 5–10k followers, posting in the LinkedIn newsfeed transformed from just a mid-funnel channel to a top-funnel channel.
Twitter is the same way. When starting off, it may feel like you’re tweeting into the void. However, as you gain a critical mass of followers your content starts to get re-shared enough that your followers’ likes and comments can expose your content to more and more people.
At that point, Twitter becomes a top-funnel channel.
So starting off, I recommend using LinkedIn and Twitter as mid-funnel channels. You may have to drive more traffic from another top-funnel platform there to grow.
Want to grow your following online?
This article is an excerpt from my video course “How to Be an Engineer Influencer” where I discuss these concepts in further detail.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out the course description here.