Close to a decade ago, Kevin Kelly wrote about the concept of 1000 true fans. The idea was that if 1000 people supported your work and paid $100 a year, you might not make millions of dollars but could earn a reasonable living as a content creator.
The creator economy has given content creators access to tools, resources, and distribution channels that make it easier than ever for anyone to start building an audience. But, it’s also harder than ever to grow an audience because if there’s opportunity, there’s competition.
The annual income of most creators is not enough to earn a sustainable living. As Cal Newport said to me when I was a guest on his podcast, Democratizing Access Doesn’t Change the Dynamics of Winner Takes All.
There are three fundamental content ideas you need to understand to find to build an audience in the creator economy. These are true whether you’re a blogger, podcaster, or app maker.
Thanks to the fragmentation of the media landscape, the concept of true fans is more relevant than ever. It’s easier than ever to start creating content and build an audience because it costs next to nothing.
That being said, it’s harder than ever to build an audience because attention is scarce. Most people spend a few minutes on dozens of websites instead of several days reading one author’s books. The only viable strategy to build an audience for your work is to focus on mastery instead of metrics.
Identify Your Target Audience
Catering to the lowest common denominator might give you a large audience. But, it’s worth considering if those are the people you want to serve. Jerry Springer did, and Oprah didn’t, even though Jerry was getting better ratings. Sometimes you have to start with an audience of one to reach millions of customers.
The proliferation of tools has fragmented the media landscape. There will never be another Oprah because the system is no longer designed for it. Media for the masses is a commodity, while media that serves a niche audience is not.
The creator economy doesn’t reward compliance, waiting for permission to be extraordinary, or waiting for a gatekeeper to approve. As Seth Godin says, “The internet is an amplifier of people who pick themselves.” If you build an audience of true fans, you won’t have to spend a fortune on advertising or keep implementing growth hacks. Instead, you’ll have a much more sustainable way of growing.
There’s no tactic more powerful than someone who is a true fan of your work.
Actionable Steps for Building an Audience of 1000 True Fans
The foundations of a platform that leads to a successful product or audience of 1000 true fans are premium content and an email list.
1.Creating Premium and Exclusive Content
If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless-which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online. – Cal Newport, Deep Work
The audience for great content is limitless regardless of your creative endeavor. But if your content is mediocre or average, you don’t have a chance. Ramit Sethi’s free content is as good if not better than other people’s premium content. Because he provides so much value with his free content, many subscribers become paying customers (myself included).
If you want to convert a subscriber to a paying customer or true fan, aim to make your free content as good as your premium content.
2. Have A Story Worth Telling
As my friend Nikki Groom everyone has a story worth telling”. Your story doesn’t have to reach a massive audience of strangers, and you don’t have to be the next Steve Jobs, Oprah, or Beyonce for your story to be worth telling. Even if the only people it impacts are your loved ones, your story is worth telling.
3. Choose The Medium that Amplifies Your Strengths
In 2014, the founders of Podcast Movement asked me to give one of the opening keynotes, and I agreed to do it on the condition that I would not have to talk about Podcasting.
I explained to them that I’m a storyteller, and Podcasting happens to be one of the mediums in which I create and tell stories. In addition to The Unmistakable Creative, I’ve written books, planned events, and produced an animated series. But the foundation for all that work has been our podcast.
4. Don’t Follow Trends
The one thing that all trends have in common is they come to an end.
In 2009 when I started a podcast, blogs were trendy, and everybody said Podcasting was dead.
Doing something that some internet celebrity says everyone should do is a recipe for mediocrity, mimicry, and creating pale imitations of what already exists. Just because something is trendy, it doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
5. Be Open to Feedback
One of the first pieces of feedback I received when I started a blog was from Sid Savara. He thought I was a much better interviewer than a writer. And he suggested that I’d be more successful with a podcast than a personal development blog. So I kept writing for myself and produced the podcast for my audience.
6. Follow Your Curiosity
Mars Dorian spotted a stack of comic books next to the ice cream at a grocery store when he was a kid. He’s been drawing ever since. He’s managed to combine his love for drawing with writing to create an unmistakable signature.
While choosing a medium is essential, you can always defy the limitations of a medium.
Figuring out the message of their work causes people lots of unnecessary stress. Your work will reveal your message, mission, and purpose, and it will also evolve with time.
It took four years, 100’s of blog posts and 100’s of interviews before I figured out the message of the Unmistakable Creative. When I looked back, all of my work had centered around two core ideas
- What We Should Have Learned in School But Never Did
- Standing Out in a Sea of Noise is Essential the Survival of Every Brand, Business or Creator
The interviews on The Unmistakable became my school of life. They gave me an education that kicked the crap out of the one I got in school
3 Things Ways to Figure out Your Message, Mission, and Purpose
- Stick to a schedule and put your work out into the world: The more you create, the more you’ll learn about what resonates with people and what matters to you.
- Get someone to interview you. This is something Danielle Laporte recommended in her book Firestarter Sessions. Many of my ideas for blog posts, copy for our website have come from things I’ve said to other people in interviews.
- Hire a Copywriter: Often, we’re too close to our work, and we can’t see the forest through the trees. And a skilled copywriter can find the nuggets in your story.
You can do all of the above. But there’s one challenge you’re not going to solve through courses, books, and articles like this.
You have to stick with something long enough to see a result, far past where the average person quits. Grit is a non-negotiable aspect of finding true fans for your work.
How to Grow Your Audience and Build an Email List
First, let’s dispel one of the biggest myths about building an audience in the creator economy: the value of social media. The biggest issue with social media is that you don’t own the data, and the companies that provide the platform does.
When you are overly dependent on a platform you don’t own; you have a significant vulnerability in your business. But if you have someone’s email address, you can reach out to them directly.
A Social Platform is a Tool for Creating Awareness, Not Commitment
As many content creators who were dependent on Facebook have learned, one change in the algorithm can hose your business overnight. Every time you post content on social media, you’re growing a social media company’s business, not yours.
Social media makes people aware of your content. When they click on a link you share, they express interest. But when they sign up for your email list, they commit to becoming part of your potential customer base.
1. Start The Smallest Viable Audience
One person who reads all your blog posts and buys every book you write is more valuable than a million people who find out about your work when it goes viral. : The lifetime value and lifelong attention of that person will be worth more than the temporary attention of a million people.
Reaching your first 1000 fans begins with shifting your mindset from “how can I reach more people” to “how can have a meaningful impact”? Instead of wondering how you get somebody’s attention, you focus on creating something worthy of their attention.
2. Do Things That Don’t Scale
One of Paul Graham’s most sage pieces of wisdom for entrepreneurs is to do things that don’t scale. It’s not scalable. There’s probably nothing that will get you to an audience of true fans faster than doing things that don’t scale, and it paradoxically takes longer but grows your audience more quickly.
3. Overwhelm People With Joy
For Unmistakable Creative, we do a custom illustrated album cover for every guest on our show. It doesn’t make us extra money, and it doesn’t increase downloads. But it delights many of our guests when they get one.
You can use an app like Bonjoro to send a personalized video welcome to people. Remember, there are human beings on the other end of every email you write, every tweet you compose, and every message you respond to.
When people feel you’ve seen their humanity, they connect at a much deeper level to everything you’re up to in the world.
When it comes to overwhelming people with joy, there are no limitations. As AR Rahman said, “imagination has no budget.” Overwhelming people with joy turns fans into fanatics.
3. Create Something Unmistakable
In a world full of noise, standing out is essential to the survival of any brand, business, or creator. You can stand out with shock value like excessive profanity or naked pictures. But that’s not going to have a lasting impact on the people who could become your 1000 true fans. You have to stand out in a meaningful way.
4. Be Generous
Everything I’ve mentioned above is an act of generosity.
AJ Leon designs a breathtaking e-book and gives it away for free. Because of that, his Kickstarter campaign for the print edition of his book was funded in less than 3 hours.
Seth Godin publishes something daily, and when Josh Spector
With generosity, you build up a balance of social currency. When you do that, it’s much easier to make withdrawals.
One of the biggest fears I’ve witnessed in myself and other creative people is asking people to support that work.
Samantha Bennett said on The Unmistakable Creative, “You are always getting paid. And you are always getting paid in the currency you’re asking for.”
If you ask for likes and comments, that’s what you’ll get paid in. They don’t put food on the table or keep the lights on. If you’re asking for money, that’s what you’ll get paid in.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that you do nothing but ask for money, and it just means that you have to be ok with asking. By supporting your work, t buying your books, writing reviews, or telling a friend about your work, they help make your work possible.
Listeners of the Unmistakable Creative buy my books and the books mentioned by our guests, and this lets me keep making more of my art for them. Every time you support an artist’s work, you allow them to keep playing the infinite game of creativity.
You can’t buy your way to 1000 true fans with Facebook or optimizing your blog posts for search engines. Attention for your work and audience are things you have to earn.
1. What happened to 1000 True Fans?
As people became internet famous, bloggers became best-selling authors, social media platforms quantified every aspect of our humanity, and we became obsessed with metrics. We started to value hearts over eyeballs and reach over depth.
And it worked. Youtube videos, articles on the internet, and Instagram memes went viral, leading to books like Contagious by Jonah Berger. But our obsession with metrics comes at a cost.
The Consequence of Obsession with Metrics
We became obsessed with reverse-engineering virality, and the internet got littered with clickbait, cat videos, clever headlines, and false promises. We have slowly wasted the potential of the internet, using it as a tool for digital voyeurism instead of meaningful contribution.
We’ve become addicted to what Cal Newport referred to as “the reality show of other people’s lives” in his book Digital Minimalism.
If you’re serious about finding true fans for your work, stop confusing attention with accomplishment. Make a shift from metrics to meaning. This is not an easy shift because, as a society, we are programmed to seek out status. And more is the ultimate indicator of status: more followers, more money, more traffic.
Play the Long Game
Building an audience of 1000 true fans is a commitment to playing the long game. You are creating what Ryan Holiday calls a Perennial Seller. You have to be ok with the fact that you might not hit a home run. But instead, you’ll win through a lot of base hits. It might take you 1000 days to reach 1000 true fans.
In a world this noisy, the greatest growth hack is something we already know. It’s what we’ve known since Kevin Kelly said it more than a decade ago. And it’s even more relevant today.
Build an audience of 1000 true fans.