This is the latest installment in my series on running a "1000 True Fans" business experiment. The previous four articles about this were:
It's Year Two, and now is when push comes to shove. In the previous columns, I've explained why this model can be a good fit for photographers. Unfortunately, there's one way in which it's not a good fit, and that is in the matter of keeping the True Fans. With any sort of subscription scheme, subscriber loss is always a major concern. That's true whether you're publishing a magazine or runnning a charity pledge. Folks will often sign up the first time on impulse; keeping them signing up year after year is an entirely different matter.
The problem for photographers is especially acute, much worse than it is for writers or musicians. When it comes to "experiential art," such as literature or music, the True Fans are always in the market for more. Doesn't matter if you've read a dozen Terry Pratchett or John Sandford novels; if you've enjoyed most of them (and if you're truly a True Fan, you did) you're looking forward to the next one. The appetite of a True Fan for new work of this sort is essentially unlimited.
It's a different matter when it comes to "tangible art," like paintings, sculptures, or photographs. True Fans don't acquire unlimited numbers of such works. Every collector reaches a point at which they say something like, "Gee, I still like Ctein's work, but I think I own enough Cteins." Enough might be a large number. My most avid patron owns nearly 50 of my dye transfer prints. That's an astonishing number. But even she finally reached the point at which she stopped buying new ones. She likes my new work as much as my old, but she has enough.
Most Fans, no matter how True, are going to reach that point well before 50! After that, if they're still supporting the artist, it's out of the goodness of their hearts, not in an expectation of receiving new work. That's the problem I face going into Year Two of this experiment.
I'm doing exceptionally well by most measures. More than two thirds of the Year One contributors renewed for a second year. That's an extremely high renewal rate, and I worked very hard to make that happen. Still, looking at it from the half-empty-cup side of things, that's a 30% loss. If I can't make that up, this scheme will peter out in a few years.
So, what have I done to encourage people to renew? I've provided them with incentives, new and better options, and better gifts:
- People can now take one print as soon as they start their subscription, instead of two at the end (at the Tier 1 support level). Originally, people had to donate money to me for a year before they got their gift prints. I got resistance from folks who just couldn't imagine giving me money for a year on the promise that they would get something at the end. This is for those folks who feel that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
- When people subscribe for Year Two, they immediately get a gift of a limited-edition, signed chapbook (see my previous two columns). There are only 200 copies, and the only way to get it is to be a Contributor; it's not for sale.
- I surprised people with extras. Everyone got a set of holiday notecards last Christmas. When it came time for people to pick their gift prints at the end of their year's subscription, they discovered that I had added a dye transfer print to the choices, when I had only promised them digital prints.
- I enhanced the rewards. People renewing at the Tier 2 or 3 level will have the option of choosing one of two large digital panoramic photographs in lieu of several 11 x 14 prints.
Higher-tier Contributors are going to have the option of receiving one of these two large (44 inch long) panoramic digital prints in lieu of several normal-sized 11 x 14 prints. Will that bring in more Contributors, in particular Tier 2 or 3 Contributors? We'll see.
Is it working? Well, as I said, I'm running about a 70% renewal rate, and that's incredibly good. I'm also getting a slightly higher percentage of renewals at the higher tiers, so I'm seeing something more like 75% of the revenue I did last year. But, as I said, there's still that 25–30% attrition, and I honestly haven't figured out how to make that up. Yet.
It's an interesting problem. It may turn out to be an intractable one.
Will I have more to write on this in another six months to a year? Honestly, I have no idea. It's an adventure.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears every Thursday morning on TOP.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.