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Updated: March 27th, 2020
Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, wrote an article on his blog in 2008 called 1,000 True Fans. The content is still being debated, dissected, and continuously adapted by entrepreneurs, marketers and artists trying to understand how to build meaningful connections with customers and audiences. The word ‘fans’ here is not necessarily interchangeable with the word ‘customers’. The people you’re trying to win over need to be more than customers.
The premise of Kelly’s thought is that every business, creator, or brand should try to appeal to the most specific niche that it can. If you understand what a small niche of people are looking for, you should be able to create something compelling enough to make them your fans. It might seem counterintuitive to focus on the smallest segment of people that you can, but we all know that no business can be all things to all people. Narrowing the scope of your offering will allow you to fulfill more of the precise needs of your core customers, and will allow you to differentiate yourself from competition offering a similar product or service. If you create and share content that really matters to people in your niche, they’ll look to you for guidance whenever they think about anything related to your domain.
So, using Kelly’s thesis, the question is: can you build a sustainable business with just 1,000 fans? By ‘fans’ we mean people that really care about what you’re doing. They’re invested in your success because they believe in you and your brand. These are the people that will talk to other people about you. They follow you because they trust you.
Think about the businesses you trust. I can think of one restaurant in particular where I’ll try anything they put on the menu. I’ve experienced a genuine sense of loss when they’ve stopped serving a dish that I love. I harass people who live here but have never been. I will proudly send people from out of town there. If they closed, I’d mourn.
If you don’t have customers that feel that way about your business, ask yourself why not. Imagine having 1,000 customers that feel this way. 1,000 people may not sound like a lot, but those 1,000 people know a lot of people who need what you’re selling. Once you’ve won over your true fans, they’ll help you grow.
So, how do you start? Consider whether or not anyone would recommend your service or product. A lot of people may passively like something well enough to continue buying it for years, and yet never recommend it to another soul. It’s not that what you offer isn’t worth recommending, it’s that maybe it’s not worth talking about. Are you giving people a reason to talk about you?
There’s a million ways you can get people to talk about you. This is about experimentation. You can create a uniquely inviting atmosphere suited exactly to your clientele — thoughtful decoration, tasteful design or a killer playlist. You can give next level customer service. You can remember peoples’ names and what they like. The best way to get people to talk about you is to really understand them and to listen to their needs. For now, don’t focus on trying to please too many people. Who is your #1 customer? What is it about them that loves your business? What are they like? What can you do to make them love you even more?
Brands today are not only competing with other brands. They’re competing with every other bit of content on and off the web. People only have so much bandwidth to give you their attention. In order to connect, you have to give them a real reason to care about you. If the only thing you’re offering is your product, they’ll always continue looking for something that adds more value than you do.
If you really understand your top customers, you’ll have enough information to build a growth strategy. It’s never been easier to build audiences and find customers online. The ad targeting in Adwords and on Facebook allows you to get really precise. Maybe your fans are on Pinterest, or Instagram. Advertising on Facebook, for instance, is simple. Facebook’s advertising platform allows you to use sophisticated tools that were once only available to professionals at ad exchanges. From granular targeting to a/b testing, Facebook’s advertising tools empower you to reach exactly the people you want to on Facebook, and because Instagram is owned by Facebook, you can reach people there as well. Don’t worry if it seems overwhelming at first. There’s so much you can do, anyone would feel overwhelmed starting out. Begin with the basics. If you’d like to learn more about Facebook advertising, check out their resources to get started. To see how other brands are using Pinterest, check here. If you know exactly what your customers are searching for, Adwords may be the solution for you.
The essential thing is to find your audience where they already are, and become a native of that place. Speak their language. Create content that resonates with them. Merely targeting a few ads by area and age group is not enough. You need to laser in on who these people are, what they find funny or cool, what kind of content they want, what they care about, what their day is like.
Once you’ve found your 1,000 people, it’s up to you to decide where you want to go with your business. Jason Fried, the founder of popular productivity application Basecamp, says “Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself.” But if you want to take over the world instead, you’ll be off to a great start with your first 1,000 true fans.
Michael Jones is a Senior Editor for Funding Circle, specializing in small business loans. He holds a degree in International Business and Economics from Boston University's Questrom School of Business. Prior to Funding Circle, Michael was the Head of Content for Bond Street, a venture-backed FinTech company specializing in small business loans. He has written extensively about small business loans, entrepreneurship, and marketing.