Scott Kirsner spent the last year interviewing musicians, filmmakers, comedians, novelists, and artists about how they cultivate a following online‚ and develop business models that can support their creative work. The result was the new book, Fans, Friends & Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age.
While you may be pitching a product that's a bit more down-to-earth than a new indie film or a great jazz album, many of their marketing insights are universal. Here's an excerpt from the book.
You could organically build your audience one by one, as people discover you and tell their friends. But why?
Many of the artists who've built truly large audiences have relied on lots of online and offline help.
It begins by giving thought to the types of people who seem to like your stuff. You might ask people at performances, gallery openings, or speaking gigs how they first found out about your work, or how they heard about this specific event. You might survey some of your fans to learn where else they hang out online, what their favorite blogs are for discovering new music, where they read reviews of new movies, etc. It could be that there's an especially well-read alternative weekly paper in your city that informs readers about shows and new releases, or that postings on the site let people know what's happening on any given Saturday night.
Start building a list of these sites and information sources, and open a channel of communication with them. Let them know about what you're up to, give their readers special discounts, or offer them exclusive content or "sneak peeks" of forthcoming work.
Documentarian Robert Greenwald began assembling his digital fan base through a partnership with the Democratic activist group MoveOn.org. Beginning with his 2004 release Uncovered: The Truth About the Iraq War, MoveOn let its membership list know about the film, offered DVDs for sale, and encouraged its members to organize their own house party screenings. Greenwald expected he might sell 2,000 copies of the DVD, but 120,000 copies were eventually sold. Other sites, like AlterNet and BuzzFlash, have also helped introduce people to Greenwald's documentaries, using them as premiums for fund-raising initiatives (for instance, a $30 donation to the site gets you a DVD.)
For musicians like Richard Cheese and Chance, exposure on popular podcasts like "Coverville" has helped beef up their fan bases. Writers like Sarah Mlynowksi report that one of the most effective things that brings her new readers is when another writer who shares a similar audience blogs about one of her novels.
You may discover through your own research that there are a cluster of blogs on the topic of your latest film. Or you may learn by talking to their fans that many of them belong to a Facebook group for bluegrass music, or a mailing list for readers who are fond of historical fiction.
Be on the lookout for these places where your tribe-members spend time. Collect them in a Word document or a special bookmarks folder. Get to know the people who run them. And don't just view them as outlets for promotion, think about what you can give them and their audiences in return, and how you can let your fans know that their blog or e-mail list exists.