Kickstarter and the Artist-to-Audience Ratio

Kickstarter and the Artist-to-Audience Ratio
Photo credit: Dan Parham

Lately, I’ve spent far too much time trying to understand Kickstarter and crowdfunding. There’s a surprising amount of information out there: statistics about which day to launch, which publications and journalists to pitch, pledge level metrics. That’s all fine and interesting, but it’s a little like cutting butter with a chainsaw. The simple secret to Kickstarter is understanding who you’re trying to reach and how you plan to engage them. I’ve distilled all my crowdfunding research and experience into one easy-to-understand idea: the Artist-to-Audience Ratio (A:A Ratio).

I first came across this concept while perusing photos by Dan Parham, who had a series of photos from a local Legong Dance Performances in Ubud, Bali. Although the photos were visually stunning, I was more impressed with Dan’s observation that there were 15 percussionists and 10 dancers entertaining a crowd of 10 people. An Artist-to-Audience Ratio, he noted, of 5:2.

My first thought was that the planning, preparation, and execution of a performance with a A:A Ratio of higher than one required an entirely different perspective on audience engagement. I imagined the Legong Dance performers fixating on exactly how each member would perceive the performance. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the A:A Ratio could be an important lens for all artists and makers to consider. The applications (and interesting milestones) spread far and wide in the realm of artistic creation as well as entrepreneurial endeavors.

A recently documented reference to A:A Ratios was Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans. Kelly first articulated True Fandom in response to what he believed to be the artistic aftermath of the long tail; a creative middle class defined herein:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

Kelly uses this graph to orient exactly where this middle ground lives in respect to the blockbusters and “the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales.”

I love this idea. Not because I think that 1,000 Fans is exactly the right number, but because I think it’s exactly the right idea. If you’re game is T-Shirts, you’re going to have a higher number. If your gig is custom-painted Ferraris, then obviously it’s much lower. It’s not the number, it’s the idea. If your art or product is revered enough to provide you with a living, it’s your job to sift through the other 7 billion people on the planet to find your 1,000 True Fans (or whatever your number is).

As much as I philosophically agree with this, I have one huge problem with 1,000 True Fans as a theory. My problem is that it doesn’t look at fandom as a dynamic number; a number that changes over time in direct correlation with your skill, experience, and exposure. The 1,000 True Fan theory, as it stands, is that there are either 1,000 fans who’ll buy your work, or you’re stuck. I think the minimum viable fans required to earn a living is an important milestone, but I think it’s important to examine other milestones along the way. More specifically, the 100 True Believers.

Here’s my definition:

A True Believer is someone who knows you, the person behind the art or product. Someone you’ve confided in by showing them your art or explaining your business plan. They care about your product, because they also care about you. Not only will they buy your product, but they’ll tell everyone they know about what you’re doing; they’ll get the word out.

The 100 True Believers are there before you hit the big time (or medium time). They’re the group that knows you, sees your budding potential, and wants to contribute to your future success. 1,000 True Fans doesn’t come overnight. It happens 1 fan at a time until you reach 100 True Believers. They are the medium through which you’re able to attract and communicate to your 1,000 True Fans. Again, the number isn’t important. It could be 100, but it might also be 10. Before you can get to 1,000 True Fans, you have to establish your 100 True Believers.

With crowdfunding projects, I think the natural tendency for creators is to spend too much time thinking about the pitch and not enough time thinking about the audience. Not that the pitch isn’t important, but more time should be spent thinking about the audience. What is the goal? The goal determines the audience and the audience determines the pitch. To really reap the full benefits of a crowdfunding project, you need to effectively understand where you (as an artist, creator or business) stand in terms of an A:A Ratio. Kickstarter can be an effective tool for multiple strategies, but there are two that seem to be most applicable: to develop your 100 True Believers or to catalyze them.

Developing your 100 True Believers
If Kickstarter is the first time the world will hear about the project, then it probably doesn’t have 100 True Believers. That’s fine. The nature of this type of project should be to find them. A perfect, non-committal way to test your idea in public.

If you understand your A:A Ratio and your goal is to develop your 100 True Believers, you will probably have to reach out to each one of your backers; family, friends, and friends of friends. Expect to be sending a lot of follow ups: Facebook posts, emails, events. Be careful, though, because too much follow up can quickly alienate and annoy. Plan on this and develop your pitch accordingly. It’s a grind, certainly, but it can still work.

Kevin Kelly recently launched his project, The Silver Chord, which was a graphic novel about robots and the afterlife. The Kickstarter project was the first time the world had seen The Silver Chord. As such, Kevin and the team spent a good portion of the campaign informing and explaining their project. It narrowly passed it’s goal of $40,000 in the final days of the project. Even though Kevin has a strong following of fans, the project was still searching for their 100 True Believers.

Every once in a while, one of these projects will break through to be a smashing Kickstarter success, like the PrintrBot or the RoboCop Statue. More likely, though, it will be a month-long campaign to gather the necessary support.

Catalyzing your 100 True Believers
For those artists and projects that are ready, crowdfunding is also a great way to go from 100 True Believers to 1,000 True Fans. In my mind, this this is the true genius of the Kickstarter model. It’s much more fun to watch your project spin around the internet by word of mouth than spending a month repeatedly having to remind your friends that you need their support.

As a thought process and gut check for knowing where you line up on the A:A Ratio scale, try to make a list or map of 100 people that know what you’re doing and have expressed enthusiastic support (again, the right number may be 100 or 25, depends on the project).

For our OpenROV project, the Kickstarter campaign was a long time coming. Eric and I started the project over a year and a half before our campaign. We invited anyone and everyone to join our community of DIY underwater explorers and enthusiastically shared our plans and designs. By the time we launched our Kickstarter campaign, we had collected a list of over 1,200 people who had signed up on our site and expressed interest in building their own OpenROV. For us, Kickstarter was about getting to the next level by catalyzing our 100 True Believers.

By taking the time to build support and involvement before the Kickstarter project, we were able to reach our funding goal within a few hours, which came almost entirely from the first email we sent to the OpenROV community.

Seth Godin, who also recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, came to a similar conclusion:

Kickstarter appears to be a great way to find fans for your work. You put up a great video clip and a story and wait for people who will love it to find you.

But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people who ALREADY have a tribe, like say the “punk cabaret” musician Amanda Palmer, use Kickstarter to organize and activate that tribe. Kickstarter is the last step, not the first one.

He’s almost right. Done correctly, Kickstarter isn’t the first step, but it’s also certainly not the last. It’s in the middle – the start of something new. It’s the beginning of having 1,000 True Fans, which comes with an immense responsibility to serve and deliver. It’s a lot of work. The best imaginable type of work: co-creating with a group of people who share a common vision.

For us, the best part of the process has been exactly that. We’re working exclusively with them to manufacture and distribute kits to anyone interested in contributing. We’re finding our 1,000 True Fans only because of the amazing support from our 100 True Believers.

Regardless of whether you’re trying to develop your True Believers or catalyze them into finding your 1,000 True Fans, the first step of a successful crowdfunding campaign is honestly assessing your A:A Ratio.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please let me know in the comments below.

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Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!

View more articles by David Lang


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