When we look at our work, our art, or any value we’re adding to the world, at some point, we have to ask, “Would they miss me if was gone?”
This isn’t a life or death hypothetical. “They” can be customers, “me” can be a product. But regardless of what type of creative space we’re in, we need to know where we stand with our audience.
Ask yourself: “Who’s looking forward to what I do next?” Put another way: “Do I matter or am I being tolerated?”
Because of all the metrics we use to measure success—how much we matter is the most important.
What does it mean to matter?
Long Island rock band, Brand New just released their 5th studio LP, Science Fiction, selling 58,000 copies in its opening week, making it the number one album in the world.
What’s most impressive about this is that the album was released without any press, a single, or a hint from the band that new music was on the way. In fact, from the outside, it appeared the band wanted to be forgotten. Fans had been begging for new music for 8 years and gotten mostly silence and a few cryptic hints of a breakup.
It was as though the band finally caved in and said, “Fine if you insist…Here you go.”
Think about the media machines used propel most releases to number one. Press tours, radio singles, music videos, strategic “song leaks” and planted “stories.” Yet, Brand New managed to top the charts with just one social media post.
That’s what it means to matter. When your audience not only waits but frantically begs for more.
How many of us can say that about our work? More importantly, for how many of us is that the goal?
Where Do You Stand?
It doesn’t take 50,000 die-hard fans to matter. And most creators have to be tolerated by the masses before they can ever hope to matter to a few. If you think about your favorite TV shows or podcasts, you’ll notice there are varying levels of those which matter—and I’ll bet some of them you at first only tolerated.
There are three tiers of the newsletters I subscribe to:
- The ones I only open if nothing else is happening in my inbox
- The ones I’m happy to see and make time to read
- And the ones which I actively anticipate. The newsletter where I’d feel a personal loss if they didn’t arrive as promised.
As someone who sends out a weekly newsletter of my own, I humbly aspire to reach that third tier.
So how do we measure how much we matter? Most metrics don’t tell us the whole story. New followers and email subscribers are exciting and a sales spike looks great on a spreadsheet. But as Seth Godin—who’s spoken at length about what it means to matter—points out, being effective doesn’t mean we matter.
“Commercials are effective,” he says. Commercials sell beer, cars, and diamond rings, but they are something we tolerate. Something we actively avoid when possible.
The quickest way to discover where we stand with your customers or audience would be to simply stop producing. Of course, that’s unrealistic for those who depend on their work for income. Something less drastic would to remove our ego and objectively look at the type of feedback we get. Who’s asking questions? Are they asking for more?
Is the feedback you receive mostly, “Nice job.” Or, “Love this!”
Rick Rubin famously said, “The best art divides the audience.” In order to matter we have to strike a deep chord. We’ll probably have to piss some people off. And we’ll certainly need to take bigger risks than what’s required for a few hundred, “well done,” pats on the back from our peers.
Overwhelm The Audience
If by reading this you’ve come to the conclusion that, at this point, your work is mostly tolerated, don’t worry—you’re in good company. Most of what we consume doesn’t actually matter. Would you miss 80% of what you see on social media if it just disappeared one day? Probably not.
And it’s not to say that work which is merely tolerated now won’t deeply matter to people some day. The road to creating work that matters is long and uncertain. It often requires a perfect storm of quality, timing, and luck.But the first step towards making work that matters is easy—make it the goal. When you sit down to create, don’t focus on what headline will get the most SEO play or the most shares and clicks (sharing and engagement come later as a result of making work that matters). As creators, we need to have the courage to connect with our audience on a personal level; not create for the masses.
But the first step towards achieving this is easy: Make it the goal.
That might mean sending out new surveys to our customers or emails to our audience asking for deeper feedback. It could mean going back to realign or reinvent your mission. It will almost certainly mean showing a little more than we’re comfortable with and dividing our audience.
Making work that matters is about overwhelming people with immense quality or emotion. If you want to matter—create something that would throw your audience into a panic if it were to disappear.