True fans or just followers?

July 5, 2017

In a post I wrote a few years ago called “Everyone is a UX-Designer and Why I Hate the Term,” I said that I firmly believe if you want to please everyone, you end up pleasing nobody – not even yourself. I sincerely believe that it’s better to be loved by a few rather than liked by the many. This has been on my mind a lot lately as it’s been demonstrated to me in many different ways.

@randfish: Content folks: would you rather have 1,000 fans who read 100% of what you publish OR 100,000ppl in your audience who read ~10% of your stuff?

I loved this question from Rand and found the results of his poll to be fascinating. With nearly 1,500 votes the results are 50/50. Some would argue that having 100,000 people read 10% would get you at least the same number page views than the 1,000 true fans and may even exceed it. Still, I will always put my vote on 1,000 true fans. Why would I do that?

Valuing the fan

As I was reading Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans I was struck by his interview with Kevin Kelly. Kevin first launched his theory about 1,000 true fans in 2008 (pre-Kickstarter and most self-funded/published outlets). The core of Kevin’s idea is that to be successful, you don’t need millions of customers, millions of dollars, or even millions of clients. To make a living as a craftsperson – photographer, musician, designer, author, app maker – you only need thousands of true fans.

A true fan, according to Kelly, is someone who will buy anything you produce. If you publish a book, they’ll purchase the hardback, paperback, and e-book. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They’ll buy your “best-of” DVD with your YouTube outtakes. 1,000 fans like this is all you needed to make a living (read: not a fortune).

There are two things you need

First, you need to create something worthwhile. While they might be true fans, they’re not stupid. They won’t just throw your money at you. For the sake of math, let’s say you’ll be able to make $100 from each fan every year. Write a book, publish a course, or offer exclusive one-on-ones. This will give you $100,000/year which is more than enough to live comfortably in most parts of the world.

Second, you need to have a direct relationship with your fans. Selling on Amazon might give you a great customer base opportunity, but you’ll only keep 30% of the profits and you’re not able to communicate with your customers afterwards. Choosing to keep your relationship with your fans personal, you not only get to keep as much of that $100 as possible, but you are free to communicate with them directly. You can serve them better by asking them what they like, what they want more of, and how you can supply that.

“Fans, customers, patrons have been around forever. What’s new here? A couple of things. While a direct relationship with customers was the default mode in old times, the benefits of modern retailing meant that most creators in the last century did not have direct contact with consumers.

With the advent of ubiquitous peer-to-peer communication and payment systems — also known as the web today — everyone has access to excellent tools that allow anyone to sell directly to anyone else in the world. So a creator in Bend, Oregon can sell — and deliver — a song to someone in Katmandu, Nepal as easily as a New York record label (maybe even more easily). “

One of my favorite newsletters is Neil Cybart’s Above Avalon. Neil delivers an excellent, long essay on Apple every day that the stock market is open. While newsletters are no unique thing, Neil’s passion and knowledge about Apple and tech in general allows him to publish a newsletter that’s so high quality that he’s gained true fans that pay $9.99 monthly for his service. This totals more than $100/year/fan. His Slack channel alone has more than 500 members, so I’m confident that the list itself has more than 1000 fans.

Provide quality content, and you can make a living from writing a newsletter about a topic that’s close to your heart.

Tim Ferriss himself describes his process for selling to his fans with a twist:

“99% of what I do is free to the world (podcast, blog) or nearly free (books). I write on topics that A) I enjoy and want to learn more about, and that B) attract intelligent, driven, and accomplished people. This is what will allow ultra-premium.”

Ultra-premium is when Tim, once in a blue moon, offers a high-priced event to an extremely limited set of people (~200 people). Tim offers these events at $7,500-$10,000 per seat. If we still assume that you could live on $100,000 annually, you would only need to do one of these events every 20 years! Ironically, by making these events even more high-end, it frees Tim to charge more, supporting his ultra-premium tier.

Sell your passion, there are fans waiting

The Internet allows anyone to sell anything. There’s literally nothing that you won’t be able to find a following for on the Internet. While selling obscure stuff might be harder to get traction, you’ll have less of competition than selling something common. Then you can build your fan base by providing exactly what they need and start your journey towards success!

“If you lived in any of the 2 million small towns on Earth you might be the only one in your city to crave death metal music or get turned on by whispering or want a left-handed fishing reel. Before the web, you’d never be able to satisfy that desire. You’d be alone in your fascination. But now satisfaction is only one click away. Whatever your interests as a creator are, your 1,000 true fans are one click from you. As far as I can tell there is nothing — no product, no idea, no desire — without a fan base on the internet.”

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