Lately I’ve been seeing talk about this idea that being able to make a living as an independent writer, artist, musician or insert your creative craft here _____ hinges on achieving a magical number of “true fans.” The number that crops up most often is 1000. Kevin Kelly talks about this idea pretty extensively in a Technium post here and Copyblogger’s Brian Clark also takes a swing at the idea here. The basic notion behind the hypothesis is that a true fan will buy the vast majority of what you produce directly, as well as any related merchandise, to the tune of some guesstimated figure. If you do as Kelly does and put that figure at $100 per year/per true fan, you get annual gross earnings of $100,000. In other words, you can make a living without achieving some kind superstardom.
The true fan hypothesis can be equated to ideas like micro-patronage that drive websites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and BandCamp. The runaway success of a handful of projects and the surprisingly high number of projects that at least hit minimum funding goals on these sites seems to support this idea. Yet, as Kelly details in much less frequently discussed posts here and here, there seems to be a distinct lack of real world evidence to support the 1000 true fans idea, which jives with my intuition about the hypothesis.
One of the problems I see with this idea relates a problem I discussed with the idea of essentially purchasing exposure on blogs with guest posts and giveaways here. The problem, of course, is time. True fans are fans that you interact with regularly in person, by email or via social media. Granted, you don’t interact with every fan every day, but you’re going to have to devote a lot of time to interacting with a lot of fans; a problem musician Robert Rich discusses. Time is probably the single most valuable resource creative types possess, aside from the actual skill set they use in creating. Time is also finite and not fungible.
All of this brings to mind Seth Godin’s book, We Are All Weird. In it Godin discusses how marketers have to adapt to the slow collapse of mass marketing as a strategy and he predicts future success will depend on marketing to niches. His contention seems to be that eventually, all businesses will be looking for their true fans as their primary source of income. Yet, as someone who reads and writes a fair bit about marketing, I’m inclined to think that even if Godin’s prediction pans out, the niches he discusses are not niches composed of 1000 people. I think he probably means niches composed of 100,000 or 1,000,000 people. Compared to a 6 billion-plus global population, those are tiny niches. For the purposes of marketing, though, you can’t use a true fan strategy to capture a market share that size.
Even for an individual creator looking to secure a livable annual income, I don’t think the true fan strategy can be your only or even your main strategy. I think you should make it a point to develop true fan relationships, but you should develop them with what marketers call influencers. For creative types, these are bloggers, reviewers, Facebook personalities or Twitter personalities that hold sway with the niche market you’re trying to capture. For the rank and file fans you hope to develop, those who can be more or less counted on to pick up a copy of your new book or album most of the time, you still need some level of more traditional marketing. It should be much smaller scale to reflect the smaller size of your intended market, but, in my opinion, you cannot be replaced those marketing techniques by securing 1000 true fans.
Please leave a comment and tell me what you think about the 1000 true fans approach.