Create For The Fans, Not For The Mainstream

In many walks of life, for those engaged in traditionally ‘creative’ pursuits or more formulaic fare that continues to be served up during the course of a ‘standard’ working day (whatever ‘standard’ might mean), there’s usually a choice that has to be made. It’s one of focus. Should you aim to produce something that the masses will flock to? Or focus on pursuing the niche, a much smaller group yet one for whom your work has the potential to be viewed as truly significant?

Counterintuitively, there’s a strong argument that the greatest potential lies with the latter group if you’re looking to scale. Of course, no-one is saying you should be designing bespoke products that can only ever be used by ten men in, say, the Outer Hebrides alone. But in modern digital business, it’s almost impossible to somehow produce mainstream success unless you first build a small group of passionate and engaged customers, users or fans who like what you’ve done so  much that they’re desperate to go out and tell others on your behalf.

I’ve always been a fan of Kevin Kelly’s classic ‘1,000 True Fans’ which remains, for me, one of the most important articles for anyone looking to build success across a digital platform. And Seth Godin has today written something with very similar sentiments which is well worth a read.

Godin points out that mainstream success only occurs when those people who are infrequent purchasers of your type of product – the majority – finally pluck up the courage to buy what you’re selling. For such people, making this type of purchase is rare and they therefore have far fewer spaces to buy what you’re offering. So they rely (consciously or not) on the noise of the informed super-fans to guide their decisions. And this is precisely why mainstream success is so difficult. If you usually only buy one book a year, which one will you choose – do you opt for an unknown niche literary work or simply plump for the next Harry Potter?

Critical mass and the concept of a tipping point remain the source of plenty of debate. But Godin warns us away from blindly trusting those any business that is focused on seeking out mainstream, blockbuster hits alone. Look closely and you can see examples from across all forms of culture – just think about the glut of movie reboots, formulaic music productions and even suspiciously similar novel artwork that floods the market following the success of an outlier.

As an artist – and Godin has long argued that anyone who does their best work is an artist, no matter the field – your goal must be to delight those who you can inspire to spread your work. Because you can’t do it alone. And in today’s world,  it’s even more clear that copying a blockbuster success rarely leads to something as valuable.

Look for the niche and own it.