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Building community: Finding the first 10,000 fans

Tuesday, 16 July 2013 | By Rebekah Campbell

When launching a band, web platform or any kind of product, there’s one challenge we all: How to find the first 10,000 fans?

 

There are many different approaches – some smart but difficult, others easy but expensive. The first 10,000 fans create momentum for your product. No one likes to hang out in an empty bar no matter how great the music is. The best way to experience a new band is in a small venue crammed with screaming fans – a small group of trendy tastemakers who will be the first in the world to discover this great talent.

 

Then one day they can say, "I saw them at venue X with 200 other people and now they're playing stadiums”. But, how do you find this first group of fans? How can you ensure they're the 'right' people: The people that others will follow? How do you make them love you?

 

I'll look at three ways of reaching your first 10,000 fans, as well as how I used each in music and at Posse, to varying levels of success.

 

1. Paid marketing, PR and hype

 

All these methods aim to put your brand in front of as many people as possible in a way that says, "Try me. I'm cool and I'll make your life better." They all work, otherwise no one would use them.

 

PR may create more exposure per unit cost than paid advertising, although some new marketing tools like paid Facebook ads can be effective at reaching targeted audiences for a lower cost. Hype certainly helped sites like Pinterest and Wanelo grow from hundreds of thousands of users to many millions.

 

But what about the first 10,000 fans? A new start-up with a good story can score both PR and hype. That's easy. It's also easy for a new band to set the whole music industry talking through rumours that a major record deal is imminent.

 

But hype, PR and paid marketing are like cotton candy: It tastes sweet; you get an instant sugar high, but then crashes when everyone goes away.

 

Big record labels used to burn through artist's careers by launching them like this. They had pots of money, were impatient – and a bit lazy.

 

Does anyone remember the girl group 'Cherry' or 'Jackson Mendoza'? One big label launched both in the late 1990s and early 2000s, coupled with massive marketing budgets. Both failed to connect. They never found the first 10,000 fans, so they never got the momentum they needed to build a community.

 

It's the same in tech. At Posse, we've had a lot of great PR. Every time a headline story breaks, our user numbers jump – but often we don't gain quality users. They join the site, add a couple of places and don't come back. If we depended on PR, marketing and hype to build our user base, we'd be dead.

 

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2. One-by-one engagement and community building

 

One-by-one engagement and community building is a long, slow, painful, yet effective way to build an engaged audience.

 

In a previous blog, I wrote about our early experiences launching the band Evermore. We spent two years with no money driving all over the country playing in high schools by day and small pubs by night. After they played, the band would hang around and meet fans, personally selling CD singles and signing them. They met a lot of people in two years and these fans felt special. They'd seen a show, had met the band personally and became evangelists, calling their local radio stations requesting the songs. Momentum started building.

 

The bad news? It's a process that takes time, hard work and can't be accelerated. In 2008, my music company, Scorpio, signed the musician Matt Corby. In 2009, we released his first EP and his manager, Matt Emsell, arranged for Matt to play “secret shows” at fans' houses, or in their back gardens, so long as they could organise enough people.

 

Over four years of constant touring and many EP releases, he built up a passionate army of fans. So, when his new record was released in 2012, they rushed to buy it and share it with their friends. The fans felt that they were responsible for Matt's success – and they were. This real momentum created hype which led to his 2012 EP reaching five-time platinum sales and winning the ARIA Award for Song of the Year.

 

The communities in tech that have stood the test of time often also took years to develop. Twitter launched in 2006 and developed a passionate but small user base before taking off more than two years later in January 2009.

 

Pinterest launched in 2009 by issuing a handful of invitations to designers to use the platform, and they each received invitations to give to friends. By October 2010, they had 40,000 users and started organising user meet-ups to help fans build real-world relationships. Founder Ben Silbermann often tells the story about how he had trouble raising money from VCs because his initial growth curve wasn't steep enough.

 

It wasn't until January 2012, more than two years after they launched, that Pinterest became airborne, and in August 2012 they lifted the need to have an invitation to join.

 

We're still in the early stages of building our fan community at Posse. Of the strategies we've tried, two have been powerful:

 

Advisor program:

 

We advertise on free student job boards all over the world for “advisors” to intern from home for our start-up. These advisors commit to completing two activities a week for a four-week program and at the end we provide them with a letter for their résumé.

 

The activities include running user experience tests, writing up product feedback, recruiting friends to join Posse, promoting Posse to retailers in their area, distributing stickers for store windows and creating a blog about the best places in their town.

 

We run the program every four weeks and aim to have 120 advisors participate. We've now run it six times and improve it each time. This has been an incredibly effective, low cost way for us to build communities of engaged evangelists and seed new geographies for Posse.

 

The advisors themselves love the program, they report that they learn a lot, use the reference letter to gain entry to places in university courses, and many ask to stay involved with Posse as brand ambassadors.

 

Our blog:

 

We post two to three blogs every day featuring the favourite places of well-known people or lists of the best places to do X in a town.

 

For example, check out this blog post featuring Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore's favourite places to eat and drink. It's very easy to ask a chef, fashion designer, musician, actor or politician for a list of their favourite places to visit in their hometown; people love to share their recommendations.

 

Our community manager, Justine, writes up the blogs and encourages the person who's being featured to share it on Facebook and Twitter (which they usually do, often to hundreds of thousands of followers). She also reaches out to each of the featured stores and they all post and tweet the link. Everyone is looking for content to post to social media, and the blog generates a huge amount of traffic for Posse.

 

3. Aligning yourself with another brand

 

I've found this to be the most effective way to accelerate desirable growth. In 2004, we had spent two years building Evermore's community, one by one.

 

There was good momentum, but they were not a national name. However, everyone was aware of a new show on Channel Ten called The OC. It was edgy, young, cool and loved by the right crowd of teenage girls and sophisticated young women.

 

I also noticed that Channel Ten hammered the promos in every ad break. I called their switchboard and asked reception: “Who makes the promos for The OC?”

 

Eventually, I reached their producer, introduced myself, described Evermore, and said I'd courier a CD of the song straight away (no emailing MP3s then!). Later that same afternoon, he called me back, said he loved the track and would use it as the theme to the promo that would start playing during the final of Big Brother that Sunday.

 

evermore-2

 

Channel Ten continued to play Evermore's song It's too late as the theme for The OC trailers for another month. Thousands of new people signed up to our website every day. The OC had captured the imagination of a huge audience.

 

They emotionally connected with the characters and the sentiment of the show. The brand alignment worked for us because of that emotional connection. The audience transferred their feelings for the show to Evermore, so by association we were a hit too. No one remembers which song was the theme of Dancing with the Stars or The Rugby World Cup, even though they received the same level of exposure.

 

I haven't seen start-ups use brand partnerships in the same way, but it must be possible. I'm working on a couple of opportunities for Posse right now; I'll tell you if one of them comes off!

 

Finding the right first 10,000 fans takes careful thought, hard work and patience. There are few examples of bands or companies with longevity that took off overnight without some kind of granular community strategy. We're always looking for new ways to engage our users and turn them into evangelists.

 

If anyone else knows stories of how others have succeeded in music or in tech, or if you'd like to share your own ideas please add them as comments below. I'd love to hear them!

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