In 2008, Kevin Kelly, writer, author, and founder of WIRED magazine, published an essay title, 1000 True Fans. In this article, he presented readers with an (at the time) alternative perspective for those aspiring to make a living as creators. Today, we’ll be examining this concept and exploring the relevancy of the 1000 fans theory for modern-day creators.
The 1000 first fans concept is great if you are building an online business, blogging, selling courses, creating an online community... as your first hardcore fans are the ones who will become ambassadors and spread the word.
Summary of 1000 True Fans Concept
Let’s say you’re a musician. You make money by selling your music to people who are willing to buy your records, your merchandise and attend your concerts. As recently as a few decades ago, you would have to work with music labels, promoters, and venue managers to reach your audience. And every intermediary that made up this chain took a piece of the overall sales of your music. As a result, if you wanted to live off of being a musician you would need the support of many fans paying for your music.
With the advancement of technology, particularly with peer-to-peer networks, the need to work with intermediaries is less essential. And because of that, creators need only a small subset of their fanbase to make purchases.
In today’s world, creators can rely on two things to become successful. First, they need to consistently create something of value that people are willing to buy. Second, they need a direct relationship with their fans. The latter is the most crucial piece of their entire equation. By connecting with fans directly, you no longer need to pay the various costs and fees associated with traditional intermediaries. That means no book publishers, no music labels, no big-box retailer to siphon off your hard-earned dollars. The support you receive from your fans is entirely yours. Kelly presents this concept as a figure of 1000 fans. A thousand true fans who are willing to pay $100 for your products, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good living.
What are fans?
Fans are simply people who have taken an interest in a particular person, product, or service and have a positive attitude towards it. As a creator, your fans are the direct consumers of the things you create. They will also be the people most willing to pay for your creations.
And then there are the true fans. This small subset of your fanbase is the most passionate and die-hard. They are the people who have the strongest connection to you as a creator and are willing to, regardless of the obstacles, pay to receive anything and everything you create.
- They are the people who will travel hundreds of miles to see your next show.
- They are the people who will wait for hours in the freezing winter cold just to buy your latest product.
- Any venture or path you take, they will support you.
- As a creator, your collective energy should be on cultivating these true fans.
Why you should connect with your 1000 fans?
In his research on the subject, Kevin Kelly observed an interesting point when looking at aggregators such as Amazon. The most obvious was that the highest selling and most popular items make up a small proportion of the total catalog. But when you examine the volume of purchases of the most obscure items being sold and compare them against that of the most popular items, their total sales are about the same. In some cases, sales of the obscure items even exceed that of the popular items.
This observation confirms two things:
First, is the confirmation that no matter what niche, category, or how obscure your product or service may be, there is an audience or a group of people who likely are fans or very easy to convert.
Second, is that technology has changed to make such obscurities available to people. Companies like Amazon have invested heavily in recommendation algorithms and curation to service these types of niche markets. Oftentimes, an immensely popular item may be advertised on the same page as an obscure one.
Kevin Kelly explains in his essay:
“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. Everything made or thought of can interest at least one person in a million. The trick is to practically find those fans, or, more accurately, to have them find you.”
In short, fans exist in just about any market. And it is now so much easier to find them. Once you do find them, work hard to transition them into your true fans.
Advantages of the 1000 fans
The common belief for creators was that to be successful, you had to be a superstar. You had to have a skill or personality that was so unique that it would make you stand out among everyone else. And by attracting the masses, only then would you be successful. A million fans (or more) would be the goal and anything less and pursuing this path wasn’t worth it.
If you were someone looking to strike out on their own, looking at this proposition would sound like a tall order. And oftentimes the anxiety of trying to get a million people to listen to your song or read your book, much less pay for it, was discouraging. So your dream would remain that and you’d keep your talents hidden.
But the idea of getting just 1000 fans makes the dream so much more achievable. It presents a reasonable and, more importantly, realistic target. A thousand is obviously easier to count than a million. If you broke it down, if you gained at least three fans a day, you’d achieve this within a couple of years.
To be a creator, your job is to fill a need that isn’t being met. The needs of 1000 fans are much easier to handle than those of a million. If you subscribe to this, then you’ll get your product or service into the public sooner. This gives you feedback. This gives you time to experiment and refine.
By catering to your true fans you are also indirectly nurturing your entire fanbase. Remember, these are the ones who will support you no matter what. But these won’t be your only fans. As you expand outwards, you will encounter circles of fans who will be willing to offer varying levels of support. While not as passionate, they still hold some level of interest in the things you create.
It is much easier to scale to a million from 1000 fans, especially if it’s a thousand very passionate and very eager fans. This group becomes your biggest cheerleaders and advocates, working to spread your creations to more people.
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How to build a fanbase?
In today’s technologically advanced world, there are so many ways to grow your fanbase.
First, there is crowdfunding. This method allows your fans to directly contribute funds towards a specific project you create. Crowdfunding has led to hundreds of thousands of projects being funded, just on the passion of fans along. The premise, introduce an idea, whether it’s a song or a book or a documentary to the crowd. The ones who sign on to support you at its inception are your true fans.
Another way is through social media. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest, you can connect directly with your fans and showcase all the different things you’re working on.
Finally, leverage aggregation platforms to get your creations into the public. Do you have a song or album that you want to sell to your fans? Promote your music through Spotify or Soundcloud. Do you have a book that’s been turned down by all the publishers? Self-publish through services like Amazon Kindle Direct.
Misconceptions of the 100 true fans concept
Although Kevin Kelly’s essay was praised as an innovation of thought, it was met with skepticism and criticism by some. The biggest criticism against his idea was its over-simplistic view on acquiring fans.
Yes, one thousand people spending $100 annually on your stuff seems very realistic and do-able. But in practice, there are so many subtleties and challenges to overcome that make it more difficult.
Kelly has since gone on to clarify his original intention of the idea in subsequent articles and interviews, including this one he did for LondonReal. He clarifies that his figures of 1000 fans paying $100 are approximations based on his research and the anecdotes he came across. It was never mean to taken literally or serve as a definitive target for numbers for people to strive for.
The exact number of fans and the money they need to spend on you will vary greatly depending on your area of focus and your unique circumstances. The products you produce may not be able to sell for $100, and so you would need to adjust the number of fans you need to attract.
Perhaps your fanbase has a higher willingness to pay and so you’d get by with less true fane.
And if your venture involves multiple people, your fanbase will also need to adjust.
The biggest takeaway people need to remember is not on the exact numbers but the fact that you no longer need to appeal to the masses to make a living as a creator. Technology has allowed catering to lesser audiences, several magnitudes less.
Moreover, this concept is not proposing that every creator should be communicating directly to their audience. It merely presents an option. If you are a painter, a singer, or a filmmaker who is not interested in talking to their fans, that’s okay. You can fall back on the traditional way of distribution, especially if this way has been working for you. And quite frankly, not every creator should be communicating directly with their fans either.
But if you are a creator who is struggling because they can’t seem to find that one thing they think will make them influential among millions of people, know that it’s not necessary. With the help of technology and so many different platforms out there, you can now connect with many paying customers. Focus on the work that will make these people happy.
Examples of successful application
The idea of 1000 fans has been practiced by many successful entrepreneurs, artists, influencers, and companies. Below are just a few examples that illustrate the power of its application.
Renowned author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss credits his success to a focus on his 1000 true fans. He explains in many interviews that trying to appeal to this smaller audience was immensely helpful in finding the theme he wanted to focus on when starting. When he first started his blog, he concentrated on creating quality content that would impact his fans. He didn’t run ads or make intrusive sales requests. It helped him to gain trust and credibility among his audience and he gained an impressive following as a result. Then when it came time to ask his fans for support, mainly with his book, “The Four Hour Workweek”, his fans turned out in droves to support his venture. This support has carried through to his later ventures including subsequent books, his podcast, and his speaking engagements.
Grammy award-winning hip hop artist Travis Scott’s road to superstardom got off to a rocky start. Before he was performing at Super Bowl halftime shows, he was honing his craft by performing in front of smaller audiences. His manager recalls Scott’s early years were spent attending music festivals where there would only be a dozen people in the audience. These early days would have a profound impact on Scott’s music. It was during those intimate performances where he knew who his true fans were and he would always approach his music thinking about how he could make them happy. He carries this mindset to this day as he sells out stadiums of hundreds of thousands of people.
If you are prepared to put in the time and effort to directly communicate with your fans, the barriers to making a living as a creator diminish significantly. Work to garner a following of true fans who will support your endeavors. This group may be made up of 1000 fans, it could be more, and it could also be less depending on your unique circumstances as a creator. But whatever the number may be, you must make nurturing them your top priority. Doing so gives you a higher chance of scaling up and attracting additional circles of fans who will be willing to support your ventures.