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The compelling logic of 1,000 True Fans
In 2008, Kevin Kelly (former editor of Wired) proposed the thesis that a working creative doesn’t need millions of fans. They need only 1,000 “true” fans: diehards who will buy anything you do.
The idea that working creatives can succeed with a such reasonable, human-scale fanbase is so compelling that it’s generated hundreds of responses over time. In my own life, this idea spontaneously came up in conversation twice in the last month alone.
And honestly, the empowerment and inspiration creators feel when they come across the 1,000 True Fans is extremely valuable in motivating action
But when getting those 1,000 True Fans, and keeping them, proves out of reach for almost everybody, and dejection and self-blame set in, it’s time for a little debunking.
Let’s go over the original thesis:
Kelly lays out two criteria for the 1,000 True Fans model to work.
- You have to find 1,000 fans who will spend $100 on you per year.
- You must have a direct relationship to those fans, unmediated by publishers or agents or record companies who take a huge cut. In other words, you need to have your own business and self-publish, or self-release, or whatever your equivalent is.
Kelly’s argument essentially hinges on the long tail of the market.
In a world of billions of people, there are likely to be 1,000 people who would be superfans for most people’s work…and the internet makes it possible to reach them. (In theory.) “Every thing made, or thought of, can interest at least one person in a million — it’s a low bar.”
The problem is that the math is wrong
Or, not wrong. $100 X 1,000 people does, indeed = $100,000.
But there’s more math. And when you miss that, you miss the huge honking elephant in the room.
Other people have taken a whack at finding the cracks in 1,000 True Fans
Lots of smart people have written smart things about what at first (and maybe second, third glance) sounds like a life-changing proposition. Here’s a sampling:
Mark Schaefer posits that among his 200,000+ follower base, there are likely 1,000 true fans, but they still won’t buy unless you promote to them heavily. He’s not wrong about the value of promotion, and he did an experiment that’s illuminating. But by (Kelly’s) definition, if the fans won’t “drive 200 miles to your concert,” they’re not “true” fans. So, how do you create or find “true” fans?
Paul@Lulu rejects Schafer’s analysis and points out (correctly) that Kelly didn’t say it was easy to find true fans. He adds his opinion that 1,000 True Fans is about creating a “framework” for success, not a guide. As in, you can make a math formula to figure out how many “true” and how many “casual” fans you need. Interesting, but that’s not the math I’m talking about.
Srini Rao of the Unmistakeable Creative writes that the key to finding 1,000 True Fans is to produce remarkable content, be generous with it, and play the long game. Pretty sure that’s what most people reading this article already do.
Brianna Wiest, on Forbes, reveals how to make a true fan: Create a life-changing product (on the regular, presumably), create a community (Facebook group?), and have one-on-one contact (with all 1,000 people?).
Oh, is that all?
(Spoiler alert: That is not all.)
Sometime after 2008, Kelly updated his article to address a number of omissions
- That $100 has to be PROFIT.
- You have to be able to create enough stuff—products or services per year— to generate that amount of profit.
- Generating true fans can be a full-time job.
Holy buried ledes, Batman!
The elephant in the room
The missing math part 1: conversion rates
First, a necessary definition: Conversion Rate
A conversion rate is the number of people who do a thing that you ask them to do, divided by the number you ask to do that thing. So, for an example: If you text your group chat of 8 friends to ask who wants to get brunch, and 2 of them say yes, that’s 2/8 or a 25% conversion rate.
Typical conversion rates for selling things to people when you’re not using a live sales call range from 0.01-2%. It’s very rare to consistently beat 2%. Any one person’s results may differ, of course! It’s possible if you have a highly engaged, committed audience, you might hit, say, 5%. But let’s go with 2% for this example.
That means, to sell to 1,000 people, you would need to offer your thing to 50,000.
Do you have 50,000 people to offer to? I don’t.
It gets worse.
(I know this is tough stuff, but knowledge is power. I’ll show you how making a living as an indie creator is not a lost cause…stick with me.)
You don’t/shouldn’t make an offer to total strangers. It’s like asking a total stranger on the street for a date. Uncool and frankly a bit creepy. Not to mention unlikely to be successful.
No, you’ll spend a little time getting acquainted with that person, encountering them in a cafe and nodding hi, seeing them again in the library and commenting on a book, running into them in the park and chatting about dogs. Eventually, you’re a known quantity, and you can ask for the date. And you’d still be far from assured a yes.
Marketers say new people in your audience need a minimum of 7 touchpoints (possibly up to 20) before they’re likely to take any action or really know who the hell you are. Let’s make that an even 10.
Conversion from Who the Hell are You? to Oh, hi! Nice to see you! would then be 10%. This might be a high estimate, but if someone is getting your messages 10 times, it’s pretty likely they’re a decent match for what you do, so let’s go with it.
That means that, to be able to offer to 50,000 people, you would need to get your messages seen by 500,000 people.
If your conversions are worse, or people don’t see your messages enough? We’re easily talking millions.
Pretty far from that accessible 1,000 True Fans, isn’t it?
This is why a YouTuber with an audience in the millions only has a few thousand Patreon supporters.
In real life, these numbers may look different for any number of reasons. At a minimum, they’re messy.
For example, in my business, Autonomous Creative, we have had an active mailing list for over six years (a mailing list is where you’re most likely to find, and be able to sell to, your True Fans). Over the last year, it has averaged about 6,000 members, and there’s a hard core of True Fans, but people come and go all the time. So I don’t really know how many people I’ve offered to, precisely, over the last year, which makes it hard to come up with a concrete conversion rate.
Also, we ran three major campaigns last year, and offered our two programs—the Creative Focus Workshop and Authentic Visibility, each twice. We also open enrollment all year on a rolling basis. So how many offers did we make in 2021? I’m guessing in the range of 20,000, but I don’t really know.
We sold some to new people, and some to existing customers, but a lot of our truest fans have bought both our programs already, so there’s nothing for them to spend money on. That’s a real problem, but not one I can fix by constantly making more.
And then there’s the lead conversion number. If we made 20,000 offers, did we need to be seen by 200,000 people?
Maybe? I can add up all my social media stats and people who came to live events, plus podcast downloads, but have no idea how many people read my books, for example, or heard me on other podcasts. This number is necessarily going to be a round estimate.
However, pinpoint accuracy is not what I’m trying to get at here.
The point is that, in order to end up with an awesome crew of True Fans to sell to, the initial pool of people you need to put your work in front of is orders of magnitude larger than whatever number of fans you need to end up with to make the money work.
The numbers expand exponentially.
The missing math part 2: profitability
Definition #2: Profit
Profit is the revenue earned from selling a thing (whether it’s a physical product, a digital product, or a service), minus the expenses that go into that thing (including your overhead—keeping your studio going counts).
Figuring out expenses can get a bit complex, but the short version is, if you’re selling something for a small amount of money, the profit on each thing will be small.
If you’re selling physical things (not digital or services) it’ll be even smaller.
$20 self-published (physical) book? You might clear $4-$10 on that.
$75 print? It depends, of course, but maybe up to $50.
$10 enameled pin? Probably $2 or less.
And since the 1,000 fans idea relies on the notion that you make $100 profit per fan, if you’re making $10 per year per person, you’ll need 10,000 true fans.
I know, that’s $10 for one product. So maybe you sell to this person twice or even five times in a year. Selling five times would still mean you need 2,000 true fans.
How fast can you write?
Low cost = mass market
The lower the cost—and more important, the lower the profitability—of the things you sell, the more things you have to sell in order to make a living wage.
The more you have to sell, the more the exponential conversion math kicks you in the butt.
And that means a larger percentage of your time and energy has to go into marketing.
Now, let’s be clear: most authors, for example, are not really trying to live off their work. They’ve got day jobs. They teach. Often, that works out well for them.
And if that’s you, and your goal is to keep making cool things and to build a loyal audience for your work, this doesn’t have to scare you at all! It’s absolutely possible to develop a great audience who’s really engaged.
The missing math part 3: churn
To get back to the discussion of conversion rates: You’re not selling from scratch each time you come back to offer to your existing audience. Eventually, you’ll have built up a core audience of true fans. These people are your early adopters, your core audience. And they are AWESOME. (And as I pointed out above, unless you keep making new stuff for them constantly, they will run out of things to buy from you.)
I’d guess I have probably 50-100 true fans right now, and I value them immensely.
I have had many more over time…but they’ve moved on.
There was no big break, but the time in their life when my work was important to them is over, and, while they’ll pop up again every once in a while, they don’t need what I do in the same way any more. We think of each other fondly, but infrequently.
True fans are fans (and friends!) for life, but they’re not “true” for life. You have to keep finding and making NEW true fans if you want your creative business to stay viable. This part of the work never ends.
It’s not just you: I didn’t understand the math, either
I’m a cartoonist and author, and I tried for a long time to make a living with comics and books, and failed. I mean, I made some money, but not enough money. (I wrote about that dynamic over here).
Even though my work was well-received, I constantly had to scramble to make a living, and I didn’t really get it. Every time I came up with a new project I was like, this one really has LEGS! It’s gonna be a big hit!
But I never understood just how big a hit it would have to be in order to make enough to support my family.
And at that point, I still didn’t understand the conversion rate math, or what it would take to create a sustainable business based on selling books.
Here’s the good news. Once you understand the math, you’ve got choices.
I know this is sobering.
Me, I want to know.
If you didn’t want to know? I’m sorry.
But the upside is, knowledge means you have choices, and they’re yours to make.
What are your choices?
1) You can sell more
Devote yourself to getting really really good at mass marketing (meaning something like becoming a YouTuber and/or Instagram influencer, combined with other approaches), and probably eventually use ads to reach ever-larger audiences.
2) You can make or do something that you can charge a lot more for…
…So you don’t have to have as many True Fans. If you are charging $1000 for your thing, you need 100 True Fans to get to $100,000. If you’re charging $10,000, you need 10.
I know that kind of pricing might sound pie-in-the-sky, but I’m betting there’s a lot more room in your price structure and what you could offer than you realize. I talk about how to start from your needs and design an offer built to get you there in this article and in this podcast episode.
3) Or, you can not need to make as much money from your creative work…
…And build the fanbase that feels right to you. (Meaning, get a day job, or lean on a generous partner, and take the pressure off your work to pay for itself.) This is a totally legit option.
Those are the three choices
Of course we’re going to aim for more sales. We’re going to aim to build a larger audience.
But unless something magical happens—and things do, but it’s very rare—there won’t be a hockey stick moment where all of a sudden, you’ve got thousands of raving (paying) fans without doing the painstaking work of building up your marketing machine.
Yes, your book could get picked up by Hollywood and then actually get made into a movie. But the chances of that are vanishingly small, AND you don’t have direct control over any of it.
As independent artists, we need to make our assumptions and take action based on what we can control. And we must assure that we can meet our needs—time, money, flexibility, autonomy—based on what we have control over.
The biggest danger of learning this math is that you’ll feel helpless and hopeless
That’s NOT what I want. The point is that the math is there whether you’re looking at it or not, and once you understand it, choice is in your hands.
Until you choose to know your numbers, and act on them, these hidden dynamics control you.
When you uncover your numbers and then take brave action—make fundamental changes—to make more money…
You take control.
Even if your situation is dire, knowing that you’re moving in the right direction, building to meet your needs and with your life and interests factored in, is life-changing.
This article is part of a series of resources designed to help you understand your choices, and to make better ones
- Why just making more work doesn’t lead to making more money [article]
- How to go from making some money to making a living as a creative, with Matt Madden [podcast]
- What does it actually take to find 1,000 True Fans? with Matt Madden [podcast]
- Run your own numbers to pinpoint the actions that will lead to a sustainable income from creative work with the Income Clarity Calculator.
If you are committed to meeting some or all of your financial needs with your creative endeavors, pin down what that would actually look like with the Income Clarity Calculator.
Do you know how much you need to be earning per hour to meet your needs?
Do you know what that would mean as far as how many of your thing you need to sell in a period of time?
Knowing your current reality is the first step to building a new one.
Are you meeting your income goals with your creative business?
...or are you stuck wondering why your blood, sweat, and tears are leading to diminishing returns?
Check out the free Income Clarity Calculator and get clear on how you need to change your strategy so you can go from "making some money" to actually making a living as a creative worker.
Yeah, that's right. We're gonna do some math.