Though trends and technology change so rapidly, great theories stay relevant, even as the world moves on.
In 2008, Wired editor and author Kevin Kelly wrote a seminal blog post, detailing a philosophy based on building a lasting, sustainable business or movement on the back of a small amount of raving fans.
A couple of merging trends and platforms have made Kelly’s concept even more interesting to artists and creators.
Firstly, it’s never been easier to connect with people who have like minded interests. 15 years ago, if you were interested in a relatively niche area of culture and didn’t live in a big city, you had little option to explore further. You could be isolated.
But now, social media platforms and YouTube have supported the idea of a ‘long tail‘ of the web, and global culture is even more pervasive. Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a random message board, Facebook group or YouTube vlogger interested in the same thing.
The tools to connect with people are free, you can build huge followings based upon creating great content consistently, and this fame within a certain sector can then be parlayed into bigger projects. Just look at how YouTubers like Zoella have grown from vloggers to fully fledged beauty influencers, movie stars and authors.
In Ireland, food bloggers like Caitriona Redmond have had success with a similar strategy, building their fan base one person at a time, and eventually using a small, committed community as a stepping stone to bigger things.
Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter have also fuelled this trend, while it’s also never been easier to make recurring revenue online. Micropayments are big business, and if you’re influential enough, people will pay you for speaking engagements, teaching online classes and book deals. Facebook ad guru John Loomer is another good example.
In his original blog post, Kelly spoke of how small, committed groups of fans could support creators and of how ‘you don’t need to be a mass market hit’. This is still true.
He defined ‘true fan’ as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work.
Sure, the economics of the web have certainly changed since 2008, but that’s part of the reason why the theory is still important.
It’s now more difficult than ever for a small blogger or publisher to make money from display advertising. Before a certain threshold (usually millions of weekly page views) most brands or media agencies won’t even talk to you, and Google Adsense isn’t exactly going to make you a millionaire either.
So why not trial other ways of monetising your most committed fans?
Podcasts have emerged as another avenue for the amateur creator to make money from a small, committed band of avid fans. Comedian Marc Maron has grown his fan base through the excellent ‘WTF podcast’ series, and is now a fully fledged global star.
Irish comedian Jarlath Regan has done something similar on a smaller scale. Regan uses his excellent interview skills to great effect on his ‘Irishman Abroad’ podcast, and uses a ‘soft sell’ approach to get his listeners to attend gigs. Next month, Regan will host his biggest gig yet in London, partly because of the success of the pod.
Others, like Second Captains, have taken podcast success and used it to become TV stars.
One of the best examples of the 1000 true fan theory comes from another podcast source. Last year journalist Graham Hunter trialled a new interview series with football stars. ‘The Big Interview’ has been so successful, and grown so much that Hunter is now putting a call out for support, asking fans to pledge to keep the project going. It’s an interesting case study in ‘micro media’ and shows why you don’t need an enormous scale approach to be successful in online content.
Overall, the theory is much overlooked. In an era when mass scale and massive profits is the hallowed goal of most entrepreneurs, aside from creating a billion dollar business, these examples give hope to creators.
Sure, it’s not feasible everyone will find 1000 fans, and not every journalist, artist, comedian deserves to be backed.
But media and marketing has been democratised, niche is now normal and it’s never been easier to find, or indeed sell to people with similar passions as you.
Scale isn’t always the answer, and while you may need more than 1000 true fans to keep yourself afloat, it’s a good rule of thumb.
It represents an alternative way to support doing what you love.
And if that’s not a noble pursuit, then what is?
Here’s to the little guys.