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Putting a Web3 lens on ‘1,000 True Fans’

Discover how Kevin Kelly's '1,000 True Fans' concept resonates in the Web3 era. Learn about building dedicated communities, direct fan relationships, and modern crowdfunding.

Putting a Web3 lens on ‘1,000 True Fans’

If you’re an entrepreneur, there’s a good chance you’ve come across Kevin Kelly’s 2008 essay titled ‘1,000 True Fans.’ If you haven’t read it yet, I’d pop over to Kelly’s website to give it a read. It’s quick, to the point, and has tons of impact for anyone trying to grow a company.

I read this essay in 2010 and I’ve made it a loose habit to to revisit it 2–3 times per year. The first time I read this, I remember it making the entrepreneurial journey feel a little less daunting. The basic premise of the essay was that with the rise of the modern tools and technology, creators (artists, entrepreneurs, authors, developers, etc) can make a decent living by building small, but extremely loyal, fan bases (customers) and monetize them directly.

Earlier this year, I made my way back to the essay and it struck me how relevant this essay is today within the context of Web3. Kelly penned this essay just as the Web2 infrastructure was starting to scale, but after my most recent read of the essay a few weeks back, I realized that it has even more relevance to how we think about acquiring and retaining fans/customers/community members in the Web3 world.

Here are a few of my favorite passages from the essay and a few thoughts on how they’re relevant to the Web3 world that we’re moving towards.

It’s not about millions, it’s about thousands

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

We have seen this trend with the rise of the big social media platforms over the last 10 years. It created an entire category of spokespeople that we call ‘Influencers.’ No doubt about it, Web2 social has made it a lot easier for people to publish content, reach audiences at scale, and monetize those audience directly (via ad revenue) or indirectly (via brand partnerships). YouTube channels built by these creators have effectively become their own TV Networks akin to ABC, NBC, Fox, and CBS.

But in 2022, it seems like you actually do need to have millions of fans to be a creator in the Web2 framework. The marketplace for creators on the big social platforms has become so crowded, that in order to stand out, and to monetize your audience, you have to work back towards the big media model of accumulating millions of fans, followers, and subscribers. A lot of the benefits regarding social media Kelly spoke about, are no longer assets to new creators, they’re liabilities.

That’s where the Web3 mindset comes into play. You’re seeing some of the earliest Web3 brands and projects focusing on building small, tightly-knit, micro-communities. They’re having synchronous dialog with them via a Discord Server, rather than a one-to-many relationship on the big social platforms. They’re trying to build communities of tens of thousands, rather than millions. And in the case of NFT projects, they are essentially going to their community to raise seed capital to help them execute on a product or service for their community.

LinksDAO is a great example of a community that raised over $10 million dollars from their community members. Their goal? To build a company that would acquire golf courses for their community.

A small, but passionate, community providing seed capital for a pre-revenue idea? That’s got to be one of the best example of a ‘true fan.’

Don’t let big social get in-between you and your fans

Second, you must have a direct relationship with your fans. That is, they must pay you directly. You get to keep all of their support, unlike the small percent of their fees you might get from a music label, publisher, studio, retailer, or other intermediate.

As someone who has spent over a decade in digital marketing, I’ve always advised my clients to ‘own their audiences.’ Having a million followers on Instagram isn’t owning your audience. What happens if IG decides to cut you off their platform? The pipeline to your audience gets shut off immediately.

No doubt about it, social media made it MUCH easier for creators or brands to connect directly with their audiences. If you created great content, the algorithm would (generally) show it to the masses. You’d then start to build more brand awareness. As I mentioned earlier, you didn’t need to go through distribution channels like the big networks to get heard by the masses.

Undoubtedly, the media platforms that exist today provide many more opportunities to connect creators with audiences, however as revenue and profitability become increasing important for the big tech companies that control these platforms, creators and brands are having less “direct” relationships with their fans. These creators and brands are now prisoner to social media algorithms or pay per click advertising to get their content shown to their audiences or to reach new audiences.

Social media started with us being able to have a direct relationship with fans, but as the need for revenue and profit have grown, I would argue that we have LESS direct connection with our audiences than ever before.

This is an older chart from Convince and Convert, but it was a widely circulated study done in 2016 when we really started to see this drop-off in organic reach.

Note: Data is from 2016 | Source: Convince and Convert

Do you really feel like you have a “direct” connection to your audience on Facebook after seeing a chart like this?

The mindset with Web3 swings the pendulum back in the other direction. Many of the early Web3 brands are trying to build a direct connection with their audience. This means they’re focusing on placing their prospects and their customers into closed communities where they can have direct and synchronous communication. Everyone is voluntarily opted-into these Slack Channels and Discord Servers.

If an NFT project wants to talk to their community about what types of partnerships they’d prefer, all they need to do is set up a virtual event, a poll, or just post a message directly in their community platform. They don’t need to rely on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter’s algorithm to talk to their community members. They don’t need to worry about an email to their community members going to spam. They effectively have a channel akin to a text message that allows them to reach their community members. And guess what? These “text messages” aren’t annoying to the community members because they WANT to get them.

This passage really struck me when I read it again because we’ve actually moved away from a direct relationship with our fans by using the today’s Web2 infrastructure like social media and email. It’s fascinating to see some of the early Web3 brands actually taking this concept to heart and trying to build that more direct relationship with their fans/community. I expect to see more of this as we see more projects and brands adopt the Web3 mindset.


Strong communities can provide new funding mechanisms

One of the many new innovations serving the true fan creator is crowdfunding. Having your fans finance your next product for them is genius. Win-win all around. There are about 2,000 different crowdfunding platforms worldwide, many of them specializing in specific fields: raising money for science experiments, for bands, or documentaries. Each has its own requirements and a different funding model, in addition to specialized interests.

When Kelly first wrote this essay, early crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter were on the rise. There are some interesting parallels between these early platforms and some of the things that are happening in the Web3 space.

Again, using NFT projects as an example, I see that many successful projects start by focusing on building a community around a specific passion, interest, or niche. If the community is a strong community, it will grow organically because of the quality and purpose of the community. Poorly managed communities that don’t have a clear purpose ultimately fail.

Many projects that build quality communities will have the opportunity to seek fundraising from that community. In the case of NFT projects, this fundraising takes shape in the form of a public mint of an NFT collection. In many cases, NFT projects don’t fully disclose exactly what the funds from the mint will be used for, but typically treat these funds as “seed capital” to help them secure resources to build a product or service for the community members that just gave them their initial capital.

NFT projects are just one example of how builders in the Web3 space are taking the concept of crowdfunding and taking them one step further. Not only does the project’s community provide funding to get the project off the ground (just like Kickstarter), the community is also involved in guiding the development of the product or service. In some cases, NFT projects actually source talent from their community to help them execute the development, production, and distribution of the product or service.

Kelly was on to something when we presented crowdfunding from your 1,000 true fans as a different funding model. It was interesting to see how relevant this concept is to the approach that many Web3 projects are taking today. The approach is to build a community first, then see if that community will fund your idea. If the community funds your idea and you can execute, you have a very high probability that you have a captive audience to sell your product or service to.

I love this approach, because I think it’s the modern way of building a new company that reduces time, capital, and resource waste.


It’s still going to be hard

The truth is that cultivating a thousand true fans is time consuming, sometimes nerve racking, and not for everyone. Done well (and why not do it well?) it can become another full-time job. At best it will be a consuming and challenging part-time task that requires ongoing skills

This has never changed. Whether you’re trying to build an Instagram account of million followers or building a community of 1,000 in a Discord server, getting true fans is tough.

If you’ve ever tried to build a community from scratch you know that it’s hard because you need to ACQUIRE new members into your community. But it’s equally hard to RETAIN those members in your community.

Yes, there has been a ton of wealth created from the Web2 business models that emerged over the last 10–20 years. However, I think that a lot of people looking from the outside in don’t realize how difficult it was for many of the Web2 creators to see the success they’ve seen. For every influencer on Instagram that “made it” there are a graveyard of accounts where someone abandoned the dream of becoming an influencer.

In fact, if it was tough to build 1,000 true fans back there, it’s even tougher now. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to build a tightly knit Web3 community, it’s going to be really hard to get their attention and to keep it. The spirit of what Kelly says in the essay hasn’t changed — so don’t think it’s just going to be easier because we have new tools and a new mindset. The competition for attention has NEVER BEEN HIGHER, so if you’re going to set the intention to build a community of 1,000 true fans, make sure you’re aware of the uphill battle that you’re going to fight.


Wrap Up

It’ll be interesting to see how the Web3 world evolves and if some of the principals in this essay will continue to hold true when it comes to acquiring new fans/community members.

It was particularly interesting to reflect how big social has evolved during the Web2 era and how some of the principals start to contradict each other as the need to monetize big social has increased.

Do you think Kelly’s essay applies to some of the new mindsets that are starting to emerge in the Web3 world? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Want to learn more about some of the bigger picture growth trends that I think entrepreneurs, marketing, product, and sales teams should pay attention to? Check out my monthly podcast Members Welcome (Spotify).

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