Searching for Haystacks

Why you should attract people who are not your customers.

In the quest to build brand awareness, the natural inclination is to focus on potential customers. However, as all marketers know, the search for customers can sometimes be maddening. Trying to capture them can feel like trying to hold onto quicksilver. When faced with these frustrations, one might wonder if there’s another way to approach the problem of eliciting exposure.

There is.

Rather than focus on the customer, first, take a step back.

Above your customers is a large funnel.

Little by little, this large group at the top is filtered down until you are left with your subset of the overall market. But let’s pause here. Most people think of the funnel just as a means to an end — but the funnel should also be considered as an end in itself. It is important to also cultivate the widest part of the funnel and realize the inherent value that lies there.

When you are looking for a needle in the haystack, first you need to find the haystack.

So let’s take a step back and examine a few haystacks. The bigger you can build your haystack, the more needles you will find in it.

First Round Review

First Round Review is a newsletter and blog run by First Round, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. They create extremely high-quality content around startup culture, interviewing smart people at leading companies.

They state in their manifesto, “We believe that there is powerful, untapped knowledge out there… The Review is about liberating this knowledge to inspire and accelerate action.”

First Round Review is a haystack. It is a large haystack. It is a genuine and high-quality product made for people who are not the end-customer. Instead, it is for people who aspire to be the customers. It is for the entrepreneurs aspiring to raise money from a VC firm someday.

By creating this content, First Round is cultivating a haystack. They are building trust, awareness, and engagement, which informs and drives actual customers.


To understand the art world, you need to understand cognitive biases and perceived value. Many of the cues that drive the top of the art world come from the very bottom. The desire and taste of mainstream masses get translated into multi-million dollar pieces only a very small selection of buyers can afford.

Artists raise their prices and clout when people who are not their customers engage with them. There is a correlation between the popularity of an artist and the price of their art. This sounds like simple supply and demand but it is slightly different. The mainstream popularity of an artist is not the same thing as potential customers. It is aspirational demand. We aspire to own a Banksy — but will never afford one. So even though the majority of Banksy fans are not lining up to purchase million-dollar pieces, the price rises — because those who will actually purchase the art use this as a metric to determine its value.


Unless you have attended the TED conference, you are part of the TED haystack. TED practices an extreme freemium model. They publish all of the talks as videos and podcasts for free (months after they first appear live). This is part of their strategy to drive demand for ticket sales to the actual events. Most of us will never spend the several thousand dollars it costs to go to the conference. But those who do purchase the tickets are riding a wave propelled by the millions of people who consume the free content and look enviously at those who can afford it.

Realize that sometimes you are the hay. You are the aspirational demand that is meant to ultimately lead to actual customers.

What can we learn from haystacks?

Create genuine, high-quality content. Don’t act with the hidden goal of converting readers to customers — but with the understanding that non-customers may surface customers.

Engage with people who aspire to be your customer. This drives interest in the product for those who actually can afford it.

Develop content that is peripherally related to the product. This approach applies the transitive property. People seek your product because it provides A. People want A because it leads to B. So focus on creating rich content around B because it will lead these people back to your product.

Aspiration leads to actualization. Aspirational customers grow to such a force that they drive actual customers. At a certain point, the haystack itself surfaces the needles. That is why it is important to cultivate your haystack. There are many specific tactics to cultivating haystacks, whether through free reproductions or peripheral content. But what is often hidden when inspecting these tactics in detail, is the common overarching strategy of building haystacks.

Building awareness starts with people who are not your customer. In the tireless search to find needles, don’t miss the haystacks.

— Grant Wenzlau // Visuals by Eun Hee Kwon