Mushing around 1000 fans in webcomics
Okay, if you’ve never heard of this (and I don’t blame you, you’re probably not into this stuff like I am…) but if you are serious about making any kinda coin with your webcomic (or anything else that’s creatively produced indepentantly in the internet, such as music, fiction, blogging, etc.), its a rather interesting theory.
Originally written by Kevin Kelly, the 1000 true fans theory states in a nutshell that if you want to make a living off your creative genious on the internet, you need to cultivate “1000 true fans”. A true fan being defined as someone who is so zealous about your work, they’d buy everything 10 times over, even your belly button lint if it was sold on Ebay. Basically someone who truely is ‘fanatical’ about what you are doing. This post turned out to be a pretty hot topic across many blogs, which even prompted further posts, against, defending, and comparing to similar theories, even some temperance from reality of doing it. Go ahead, read it, come back. You’ll need to know what I’m talking about for the rest of this post.
Although the vast majority of the examples and applications have been to music, its been put to other creative diciplines, from writing, to painting, to comics, to business. But I have to say, personally, as a webcomic artist, it intrigues me.
This is not to say I think this is the be all and and end all solution to the age old dilemma ‘how do I make money with my webcomic’, but rather a bridge. A goal to get from your day job to making your living on the web by providing direction and a target number.
The nice thing about this theory is that it sounds easy and friendly. Initially reading it, I caught myself going ‘1000? that sounds doable’, especially on the internet right? I mean there’s millions of people on the internet. Finding and keeping 1000 people around who worship your stuff shouldn’t be too hard just on odds alone. But as I thought about it, and did some math in my head (although admittedly I suck in math.. so take it as you will), it became a little more… shall we say, challenging?
I’m only talking webcomics in this post, to be clear, my numbers are based on my experience in webcomics and being involved in the webcomic community.
A ‘True fan’ according to the principle, is someone who is SO crazy about your stuff, they will buy ANYTHING you put out. In the terms of a webcomic, they own every shirt, even book, ever button, the UNDERWEAR, win art auctions regularly enough you know their screen name, donate regularly, and hassle their friends to buy your stuff. They are the sort of fan that asks ‘when do I pay?’ when you are still talking about a hypothetical product. I’ll tell you right now, these people are RARE. Rare enough that when you’ve got one, you will come to know them as good friends or on the flipside someone you dread but smile for because they help pay your bills. At any rate, these people are your bread and butter, and collecting them is quite a challenge, because they have a pretty high upkeep, and there are all sorts of challenges involved in paying that upkeep. These people, at most are only going to make up maybe 1% of your total fanbase.
Now, with every true fan, comes a gaggle of what I like to call just ‘fans’. People who like your work enough to follow it regularly, have probably saved every comic to their hard drive, and maybe have bought one thing here or there from your store, or are very patiently waiting for a product offering they feel is actually worth money. They participate in forums, polls, comment on your comics, etc. Overall they like you, they might follow your work for years, but they aren’t yet paying customers. Or at least not regularly paying customers. These people aren’t a huge group either, but there are more of them. Say 5% of your fanbase.
Out side of THAT level, there is what I like to call ‘casual fans’. These are people who like your stuff enough to follow it, to read it, maybe not regularly, but they like what they see. You figure on their entertainment radar, but they are just not invested in you for whatever reason. They are the sort of fan that might check back every month, or couple of months, and read through whatever you’ve posted, or maybe even as little as once a year. They might not even remember the author’s name, or only sort of vaguely recall the actual work. But they remember they liked it. However, you still have the foot in the door, in that they know your work, and they might like it, but something is holding them back from moving ‘inward’ towards being a ‘fan’. They are pretty much everyone else.
On the very outskirts of your ‘circle of influence’ as it were, there’s the rest of the whole damn internet and planet, just waiting for you to tap.
This basically boils the 1000 fans theory down to the general consensus that, of ANY fan base, only about 1% is going to reliably spend money on something. And of that only a percentage again is going to buy everything you do. Its a really tiny number, and its REALLY freaking hard to get exact numbers of fans over the internet. You can get a clue, but never really know every life you’ve touched.
Here’s an actual example of the above math:
With comic rank, I get an idea of how many readers I have for my comic, Brymstone. My highest number was about 1400 or so. With that number, the amount that are ‘fans’ that might spend money is 70. The amount of people who probably WOULD spend money is approximately 14. If I was making a sales projection for merchandise this would tell me ‘don’t make a lot of it’.
You know, this type of math makes things more depressing. However, this does provide me with a sort of target number, and working in the marketing industry, I really like target numbers.
In terms of a webcomic, this generally means steady traffic of numbers in the 100,000s on a daily basis. If you are getting over 100,000 uniques a day (or better), the chances of you actually having 1000 true fans in the mix, is pretty good. And even if your true fans are a little scarce, the ability to ‘convert’ from the fans to true fans, is better the more fans and casual fans you have. But you do have to work on that whole ‘conversion’ process. Matthew Ebel is champion at this. You have to make people CARE about not only the work, but you as a person as well. People help people they like, and your true fans, you have to treat them like friends. Good friends. Special friends. Personal friends.
This is a very important part of this theory. It is based a lot on new media making this possible through facebook, twitter, blogging, whatever. These people have to feel close to you to spend money 0n you. Cultivating these fans is like growing a garden, they must be tended lovingly, gently, and often with frequent nutruring of webcomicy (in our case) goodness. You can’t let them forget, and you can’t disappoint them too much, or they will cease to be true fans.
This is sort of part of the catch 22 of this. It takes a lot of time and effort to cultivate these fans. How do you find time for this if one of the secondary key points to this theory of success is creating new content? And as often as humanly possible.
Let’s face it. Content is king. The way people come to your site, the whole REASON they come is your content. Be it writing, comics, music, or whatever, the people come when you update. So in order to keep people coming, to keep their interest high, and nuture the want to buy shit from you, there has to be a regular stream of content flowing out of your website. Not only THAT, but a regular stream of merchandise too. If you want to keep the true fans spending, you have to keep coming up with new things to spend stuff on! No one wants 12 of the same shirt. Also, not every thing you make is going to be consumer gold. You’re going to have a lot of misses to your hits, so you have to be prolific. If you look at those who are succeeding in this theory, the are, for the most part, extremely prolific. We’re talking weekly content here people. AT THE VERY LEAST.
For webcomics, this isn’t entirely bad news. We are kind of used to putting out on a weekly, bi-weekly, or tri-weekly basis, some people are daily, or 5x a week. The more you update, the more people come back, the more your stuff gets known. In my experience, anything less than 1X a week, and you’ll be struggling. Regularity is also a huge key for the webcomic industry, you need to hit those update days if you are serious about growing your fanbase.
Although that’s not obviously the ONLY thing you need to do, as Robert Rich points out in his letter to Kevin Kelly, you can’t limit yourself to only fishing in one pond for fans. You can’t pander to one group forever, or even one set of tastes forever or you are setting yourself up for a sort of creative suicide. For webcomics, a lot of creators don’t reach past existing webcomic readers, cannibalizing over and over otherwebcomic’s audiences. The comics that really succeed have to bridge the gaps between subcultures, and into untapped markets. Webcomic creators that see opportunity in non-webcomic places and seize that are the ones who usually blaze their way to some kind of quazi success. Daily funny type comics tend to do this more easily that serial manga, which is probably why one sees more success with the daily. I’ll write more on that bitch later.
But on a whole, the theory, if you can wrangle and convert 1000 people into being true fans, you can make money. Maybe not enough to make a luxurious living, but a living. And obviously once you’ve got the first 1000, you have to continue adding and converting, because ultimate people on the internet have attention spans that are about the equivalent to that of a ferret with ADD on speed and drowning in coffee.