Building an audience for your work is easier and harder than it's ever been. It's easier because we have the tools and resources to create our work, and the distribution channels to spread that work.
- Every aspiring author doesn't have to wait for a publisher because they can self publish their books on Amazon. It's the most valuable thing aspiring authors can do for their careers.
- If you want a TV show or Radio show, you can record videos and post them on Youtube, or start a podcast and distribute it with iTunes.
It's harder than ever to build an audience because there's a scarcity of attention. Most people spend a few minutes on dozens of web sites instead of several days reading the books of one author. With such a scarcity of attention, the only viable strategy to build an an audience for your work is to focus on mastery instead of metrics.
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. Oprah didn't, even though Jerry was getting better ratings. Sometimes you have to start with an audience of one to reach an audience of millions.
The proliferation of tools has fragmented the media landscape in such a way that 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 the smallest viable audience is not. The new systems don’t reward compliance, waiting for permission to be extraordinary, or waiting for a gate keeper to approve. As Seth Godin says, “The internet is an amplifier of people who pick themselves.”
A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.
If you build an audience of 1000 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, one in which the people who love what you do become your biggest fans, who spread the word, who recruit more people to join your tribe, buy your products, and who would miss you if you were gone. There's no tactic more powerful than someone who is a true fan of your work.
What happened to 1000 True Fans?
Close to a decade ago, Kevin Kelly wrote about the idea of 1000 true fans. One thousand people who will support your work, buy everything you create, and allow you to earn a living. But as people become internet famous, bloggers became best-selling authors, and social media platforms quantified every aspect of our humanity, we became obsessed with metrics. We started to value hearts over eyeballs and reach over depth. And it kind of worked.
Youtube videos, articles on the internet, and Instagram memes went viral, leading to books like Contagious by Jonah Berger. 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 vouyerism 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 new book Digital Minimalism.
If you're serious about finding 1000 true fans for your work, you need to stop confusing attention with accomplishment and 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.
Not only that, building your audience this way is a commitment to the long game, to creating what Ryan Holiday would call “a Perennial Seller”. I've already noticed this perennial seller effect. My second book has sold the same number of copies as my previous book in one quarter of the time. As Ryan wrote in a recent piece, “the best thing you can do to market your book is to start the next one”.
Building your audience this way is a commitment to showing up day after day, year after year, and being 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. What I've outlined below is a 6 -step process for building your audience of 1000 true fans.
1. The Smallest Viable Audience
One person who reads everything you do, who buys every book you write, and spends the precious currency of their attention on your work from the day you start is more valuable than a million people who show up because of something that went viral and never come back. The lifetime value and lifelong attention of that person will be worth more than a million people who pay attention to you for a fraction of their day.
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. The Mindset
Fear is the biggest thing that stands in the way of most people who want to build an audience for their work. Fear that they have nothing to say, fear that their work isn't worthy of someone's attention. Fear that their work won't meet their own unreasonable standards. Out of fear, people don't take action or ship their work.
I've seen this fear play out in front of my eyes with our content strategist Kingshuk. He's been working on a 6000 word mega post which he's yet to publish. It's been so long I don't remember when he started.
But he recently wrote the content for one of our newsletters, which people raved about. They said it was one of our best emails ever and asked us if we could republish it as a blog post for sharing. I refused to take credit for it and encouraged him to publish it as a guest post on Unmistakable Creative.
Every time you ship, you plunge your sword into the dragon of resistance and you silence the fear.
A Story Worth Telling
As my friend Nikki Groom says, “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 though it went viral on the internet and led an amazing book, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch wasn't for us. It was for his kids, to make sure they had something to remember him by.
- It's likely Paul Kalanthi didn't live to see the freakish success of When Breath Becomes Air , but he'd die knowing that his daughter would have a way to remember him.
Even if the only people who are impacted by it are your loved ones, your story is worth telling.
3. Choose Your Medium
In 2014, the founders of Podcast Movement asked me to give one of the opening keynotes. 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 story teller, and podcasting just 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, audio is the medium on which the entire foundation has been built.
- 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. Not only that, many of the people who are encouraging you to do something also happen to sell a course on how to do that thing.
- 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 writer and 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.
- Follow Your Curiosity: Mars Dorian spotted a stack of comic books next to the ice cream at a grocery store when he was 3 years old and he's been drawing ever since. He's managed to combine his love for drawing with writing.
While choosing a medium is important, you can always defy the limitations of a medium.
4. The Message
Figuring out the message of their work causes people lots of unnecessary stress. Your message will be revealed through the work that you do, and will also evolve with time. It took 4 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 the idea of what we should have learned in school but never did, and how to create things that stand out in a sea of noise. The interviews on The Unmistakable became my personal school of life that gave me an education that kicked the crap out of the one I got in school.
- The more you create, the more you'll learn about what resonates with people and what matters to you. Stick to a schedule and put your work out into the world.
- 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, and other pieces of my writing have come from things I've said to other people in interviews.
- Hire a Copywriter: Often we're too close to our work. 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 that you're not going to solve through courses, books, and articles like this one: sticking with something long enough to see a result, far past where the average person quits. Grit is a non-negotiable aspect of finding 1000 true fans for your work.
5. The Small Army Strategy
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 to visit every one of your first customers in person, but it worked for Airbnb.
- It’s not scalable to email the first 10,000 subscribers to your email list personally. But it worked for Chris Guillebeau, AJ Leon, and many others.
- It’s not scalable to get on the phone and talk to the listeners of your podcast or users of your app. But it's what I did for the Unmistakable Creative, and what I encouraged the founders of Reason8.ai to do with their users.
There's probably nothing that will get you to an audience of 1000 true fans faster than doing things that don't scale. It paradoxically takes longer, but grows your audience faster.
Do Things People Notice and Overwhelm People With Joy
At the Unmistakable Creative, we do a custom illustrated album cover for every person that's a guest on our show. It doesn't make us extra money. It doesn't increase downloads. But it delights many of our guests when they get one.
It's absolutely insane to custom illustrate every single attendees name tag at a conference. But that's precisely what AJ Leon did at the first Misfit conference, and it's likely nobody threw their name tag away.
- You can design breathtaking ebooks and send people gifts in the mail.
- 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.
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 way that's meaningful.
- Do you make them think?
- Do you make them laugh?
- Do you make them smile?
You want someone to have an emotional response to your work. If somebody feels something, they're much more likely to do something, whether that's buying something, spreading the word, or putting your advice into action in their own life. There's always going to be an option for something cheaper, faster, or better. That's why only is better than best.
Everything I've mentioned above is an act of generosity. When AJ Leon designs a breathtaking ebook and gives it away for free, when Seth Godin publishes something daily, and when Josh Spector curates some of the best stuff on the internet, they're all being generous. 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 seen witnessed in myself and in other creative people is to ask for people to support that work, even when it's extraordinary.
Samantha Benett said on the 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.
Now just to be clear, this doesn't mean that you do nothing but ask for money. It just means that you have to be ok with asking. By supporting your work, whether that's through buying your books, writing a review, or telling a friend about your work, they help make your work possible.
When listeners of the Unmistakable Creative buy my books and the books mentioned by our guests, it allows me to keep making more of my art for them. Every single time you support the work of an artist, you allow them to keep playing the infinite game of creativity.
Mars Dorian is masterful at one thing: designing book covers that stand out. They're impossible to ignore. When we recently spoke, I told him he should triple his prices. And he wondered if anyone would pay what he's asking. I told him that by doing so, there was no difference between having one person pay his new price or three people pay his old price. He could do 1/3 the work and earn 3 times as much.
Building an audience of 1000 true fans for your work requires a long term view. It requires you to care about having a significant investment of someone's time and attention for a lifetime, over a fraction of it for one day. You can't buy your way to 1000 true fans with Facebook ads and SEO hacks. It's something that has to be earned. In a world this noisy, the best growth hack in the world is what we've known since Kevin Kelly said it more than a decade ago: build an audience of 1000 true fans.