Do Not Charge Fans You Haven’t Earned Yet

I will not pay for your album without hearing it first. I will not buy your book without reading a good chunk of it. I will not spend a dime until I know that it will be a good use of my time. And I’m not alone in this anymore. There’s far too much noise fighting for audience money these days. To stand out, you need to be really talented and really clever. Reviews and popular consensus can help you reach the top. But you have to catch the attention of the people first.

The loyalty of fans goes a long way. I will, however, support artists and brands that have earned my trust over time. I do not think twice before paying for a Sam Mendes film, a Black Keys album, or a Legend of Zelda video game. Over the years, these names have consistently won my affection. But I didn’t pay for them at first. I saw my first Sam Mendes film in a class, heard my first Black Keys song in my brother’s car, and played my first Zelda game in a friend’s basement. Their talent and quality converted me alone. I became a loyal fan for life. The idea of curating loyal fans is not new or revolutionary. Brands as strong as Apple, In-N-Out Burger, and Pixar learned this very early on.

Creating brilliant products is not enough. The challenge is to convert freeloading bystanders into fans willing to pay. The trick is to acknowledge that fans won’t pay for you until you earn their trust. Therefore, the most effective way to develop a following early on is to share your work far and wide for free. Give great content away and audiences will thank you for it. When you have enough fans to scale your brand, start monetizing. Watch the loyalty role in.

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The Age of Calling Bluffs

With access to the entire information landscape through the Internet, access to public opinion has accelerated tenfold. While this accessibility may constitute a deep saturation of noise, one very exciting trend is evolving out of it: audiences are far less susceptible to clever marketing tricks and far more in tune with quality content. Audiences can smell turds. No longer can clever movie trailers, print agendas, or viral campaigns smooth out rough edges and scale a property. Produce bad content with good marketing, and audiences will call your bluff. You will lose.

The key to success on the horizon rests firmly in quality content. No shortcuts anymore, only good ideas. Your work can pierce the noise with a strong and honest idea at its heart. If you are good enough, people will love and promote you for it. Focus all your money and attention on producing quality work.

As for marketing your content? Inspire true fans to do that for you. Be wary of spending a lot of money on marketing in this climate – the people may assume you are polishing a turd.

Why Do Choices Scare People?

Most people hate too many choices, in part because they are afraid to make the wrong one. I enjoy choices and the analytical process of breaking them down (anyone who shares a fine meal with me will understand this). Sometimes, however, too many choices get out of hand – you end up narrowing them down to a select few personal choices of your own (when overwhelmed, my defaults for Thai food are Panang Curry, Pad Thai, Pineapple Fried Rice, and Tom Yum Soup). From a consumer-facing position, assume your customers are terrified by choices and help them make the appropriate one. A series of options, binary logic, or a game of twenty questions can go a long way for narrowing things down. If gamified, the decision-making process can even be fun. As a consumer, know what you like, why you like it, and be flexible enough to discover new choices based on the key components of things you enjoy. Either way, choices do not have to be scary. Be prepared to help people get through them or be prepared to get through them yourself.

Steering a Large Ship

When you are in a small raft, you have enough influence and power to pilot the entire thing in a completely different direction. When you are on a massive cruise ship, you have no power at all and must go with the flow. Nothing you can do as a cruise ship passenger will change the direction the boat is sailing (unless you can convince everyone otherwise, mutiny the bridge to navigate, or sink the ship).

The analogy applies to companies and brands. It is much easier to have stake in and pilot the direction of a small company than a large one. Big companies are much more difficult to steer and big brands much more difficult to reposition. One man or woman will fight an uphill battle if he or she wants to inspire change from within an established, large organization or industry. One man or woman can sink an organization or brand alone, but I doubt the resulting consequences and reputation will be worth it.

Cruise ships have many amenities and benefits worth the ride. You can really travel through life in style in a reputable large organization. If the company treats you well enough, it may be worth the complacency of a vacationing passenger. But do not expect to change anything you do not favor from within the bureaucracy.

If you truly want to make a difference on your own in your field, consider building a faster raft and inspiring the cruise ship to keep up. Competition may be the only key to making a difference and steering a large ship.

Live Performance

If you want to connect with your audience, you must share a room with your audience. You must get up on stage and entertain. Campaigning politicians and rock stars learned this a long time ago. Beyond entertainment alone, a successful live performance can communitize the audience around your personal brand. Everyone sharing a room together will feel apart of a big family, a family with your surname. Audience applause and energy are contagious; spread adoration for you and your product by collecting or streaming as many fans as possible into one room.

Unlike Netflix’s Reed Hastings, Steve Jobs never hid behind the veil of a press release or blog post. He stood on stage, fielded questions without fear, and put on a live show. I am convinced Apple succeeded on the foundations of its audience’s oohs and aahs at these keynote events. I am convinced Apple advanced forward because Steve Jobs knew how to put on a show. The collective power of audience intrigue spreads like a virus, and that intrigue can only be fostered in person and en masse.

If you want to build a brand, learn to overcome stage fright and put on a great show. This goes for anyone trying to make an impression on the market or on the world. You must show your face to the crowd.

Side note: one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen in person happens every Sunday night in Santa Monica. If you haven’t already, all Angelinos you must check out The Toledo Show – a “Cabaret Funk” band that performs every Sunday night 9pm at the classic Harvelle’s. $10 cover, two-part set until around 1am, totally worth every minute. The new definition of “cool.” Thank you, Adam Speas, for introducing it to me.

The Controversy of Change: Netflix, Facebook, and Chameleons

Many people freaked over Facebook’s face lift and Netflix’s reorganization. Yes, these changes are inconvenient. Some may break your routine or even damage your business. But what would you prefer instead? For the company or service to stay exactly the same?

Companies that fail to change fall prey to the market evolving around them. Inevitably, they are slain by the next best thing. By asking them to stay the same, you are asking them to fail. You are condemning the brand you embraced for so long to a slow death.

No, change may not always be good or necessary. But you cannot know until after you try. And neither can brands. No one has a crystal ball. Not even Steve Jobs. Smart leaders fail more often than lesser leaders and learn from their mistakes. They know that the biggest risk is avoiding risk altogether. You deserve to be eaten if you sit still in the savanna.

Like puberty, change may always be an ugly process. Some coast through it smoother than others. Those who make it out clean never forget who they are or what they believe in. A strong brand transforms with the market, but keeps its core mission at heart.

Embrace the chameleon business. Invest in progressive brands with solid foundation, not products destined for revision or absolution. If you truly believe in a brand, you should trust in change. Forgive the minor transgressions and take pleasure in discovering the next step along the way.

Regular Programming [Film Friday]

I’ve learned from blogging and observed the same results from others: releasing content daily dramatically increases your chances of attracting new and returning audience members. How do you think television and radio built so much traction in the first place? When audiences can expect to find you at a certain time or place, it lubricates the exhibition of your content and dramatically reduces marketing costs. You build a relationship with your audience over time, and keep them coming back for more.

By committing to releasing content regularly, you also dramatically increase your chances of producing a hit. 5 Second Films have produced so many short films and told so many jokes that the handful of hits they’ve had propelled the group into web virility.

If you cannot produce enough content to release daily, then commit to releasing content “regularly” – and publicly define the recurring time frame through which they should expect new content (weekly, monthly, every third Tuesday, etc.). At least some level of audience expectation makes a huge difference for audience retention.

Random splashes are risky and expensive to promote. Arbitrary releases rarely build traction. Do not bet on it. Consider curating an audience and regular programming instead.