It's been nearly three and a half years since I started my "1000 True Fans" experiment and a good two years since I've written about its progress. Here's the latest—and probably final—update on how it's been going.
People who don't know or don't remember what this is all about should read the following two columns and associated comments so they'll have the background for this column. (This is one of the great things about the Internet; writers don't have to repeat themselves ad nauseum. Unless they're getting paid by the word, that is. I'm not.)
Here are the summary results of this experiment: Economically, it was a success. I've netted about $30,000 from it; that's the real income in my pocket, less taxes of course. On a dollars per hour basis it was excellent money and paid for many, many hours of creative time.
Strategically, it was a failure. As a long-term stable source of income it did not work, and it failed for reasons I predicted in my earlier columns. (People who want to read the intermediate reports can read these three columns:
The real issue was not whether I could get the initial Contributors, but whether I could maintain and even increase the level of support. There is inevitably subscriber rot, well known to anybody who's running a subscription business. One problem is that no mechanism exists for doing this as open-ended ongoing billing; all the subscriptions have a finite run time and then you have to convince people to sign up again. This is the well-known "opt in vs. opt out" problem.
The larger problem is that tangible art works differently from experiential art; people will eventually decide they've added enough Ctein work to their collection and choose not to renew.
The first year, "1000 True Fans" brought in about one third of my living expenses, and that brought me a lot of free time to work on my art. The second year worked better than I predicted. Although the renewal rate was at about 70–75%, I picked up new subscribers and people moved to higher tiers of support. My final net was 95% of what it was the first year.
The third year the amount of money coming in dropped by over 50%. The 2012 level of support is negligible; the total money is under $1000. That's not worth it to me. Unless there is a huge uptick in Contributors between now and December 31st, I'm going to let it die (if someone wants to join in on this, they can do so by going here). This is unlikely.
Most of that meager income is still profit for me; there is no fixed overhead to this project and all the startup costs (in terms of both time and money) were taken care of in the first year. It's just that it's not serving the purpose intended, which was to buy me free time to work on art. The amount of time I get out of this level of money, spread out over a year, isn't enough to matter, and there is the mental distraction of having to track and take care of the occasional subscription fulfillments. It simply isn't worth the bother.
The solution to subscriber rot is to expand your audience. It's nice to think that as time goes on your existing audience will grow to like you more and more and more, but that's not the way it mostly works in the real world of arts and entertainment. You will not convert many of your existing audience from "fans" to "True Fans."
In my case, audience expansion failed. I tried several different kinds of incentives to bring in new people or to produce more of what are what are referred to as "Raving Fans;" fans who are so enthusiastic about what you're doing that they go recruit others. None of these incentives produced any measurable rate of return.
Emphasizing the difference between "fans" and "True Fans," with each of my print sales (save for the most recent) I included a promotional flyer (a version of the copy that appears on the CollectCtein webpage). Over the past several years over 500 of these flyers went out, mostly to people who were participating in the TOP print sales I ran here.
These are all people who laid out $100 and up for particular prints of mine that they liked. They're established as folks who like at least some of my work. So, what fraction of them do you think were interested in laying out $9.50 a month in return for two 11x14 prints of their choice at the end of the year?
Zero. Or it might be I picked up one or two Contributors this way, I honestly can't remember. Essentially, none of these folks who were happy to buy specific works of mine qualified as True Fans.
As I said, a palpable economic success; I'm entirely glad I did it. As a long-term strategy, still not proven to work. And please don't get me wrong. I am grateful to each and every person who ever buys a photograph of mine, for whatever reason, because you keep me going as an artist. You're all wonderful in my book.
That's the rap. And the wrap.
Ctein's <1000 true fans can find his weekly columns on TOP on Wednesdays.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Ben Marks: "Ctein's experiment has produced some very interesting results and I think his candid post is a huge benefit to folks who are trying to understand how to use social media to market hand-made objects. My instinct is that the initial enthusiasm and success of his project was some intersection of the worlds of folks who like his photography and those who like what they know of him from his technical articles and interactions here, which are always informative and respectful.
"However, most of us have a finite amount of space to devote to art display and storage. I, for instance, live in a 1,100 square foot house and much of the wall space is already spoken for (art of my genius children, friends, my own photography etc.) I did not sign up for Ctein's experiment because I just don't collect or display art in the way that a successful subscription run would produce. Also, if I wanted one of Ctein's prints—a single purchase that does fit into the way I purchase and display art—I could always go to his website and satisfy that need. So in that sense, I am not a 'true fan,' and not the target audience for this experiment. Paradoxically, because of my space limitations, I am not sure it is a different answer even if you were to collect 50 artists and generalize the subscription terms so that it wouldn't be just the work of one artist that comes to the house.
"Still, Ctein's experiment seems far from a failure, as $30K ain't chickenfeed and there are many folks who now have his prints who might not have purchased otherwise. I am sure that one of the motivations was that in the past (say, during the Renaissance) most great art was produced for patrons (church, Medicis, kings etc.). I view Ctein's experiment as an attempt to democratize this...successful, but only to a point. I think he did show that it is hard to hold the attention of 1,000 people (or even 10 people) over a sustained period of time for this kind of photography. (Question: Same answer for, say, cartoons (Doonesbury, Calvin & Hobbes, Larson), essays (insert your favorite syndicated columnist here) etc.?)"
Featured Comment by Gato: "It strikes me that the True Fans model may work better for intangible or ephemeral work than for physical work such as prints or sculpture. How many Ctein prints does a person want, unless one sees them as an investment? Hell, if I could afford Rembrandt paintings there are only four or five I'd really want. After that I'd move on to Van Gogh or somebody.
"The True Fan model seems more suited to writers or musicians, whose work takes up less physical space and doesn't require display. In the past it has worked for any number of newsletters and, of course, magazines. (Most people don't save magazines.) It seems to be working for a few blogs and websites. The New York Times finally got even a cheapskate like me to put in a credit card.
"Subscriber churn is a part of the business. No matter how compelling your product some people will lose interest or die off.
"If someone wanted to go for this model I think Mike would have a much better chance with TOP than Ctein with print sales. And a tech site like Strobist might have the best chance of all."