Don’t Build an Empire, Find a Few Friends Who Care

The best marketing you can do for your work is not to build an empire, but to find a few friends who care.

We all want to reach the masses and see our work get into the mainstream. We want to have an “impact.” But the only way to reach the many is to first reach the few.

Listen to the podcast version of this essay here:

This is all marketing is:

Finding a handful of misfits who appreciate your work before anyone else does, then giving those people the tools to help spread the message.

The way we get a Harry Potter, Apple Computer, or Amanda Palmer is not by trying to reach everyone all at once. Quite the opposite in fact.

The true artist does her work well and often in isolation, but then she does the hard labor of finding fan or two who “gets” it. She seeks out those handfuls of aficionados who are obsessed with the kind of work she does. Whether it’s reading mystery novels, antiquing, collecting vintage cameras or whatever, she diligently seeks out her few and goes deep with them.

If you cannot do this, you have no hope of reaching the many, and your only choice is to get better.

The job of an artist is not to make something for everyone, but to create the right thing for someone. Marketing, then, is not pushing something onto people who don’t want it and certainly not creating something for everyone. It’s making something and searching for those who resonate with it. It’s faithfully serving the few until they see how serious you are.

And if you make it about them, they will always make it about you.

When you go out of your way to wow a handful of people, they become your ambassadors. Maybe you’ll end up reaching the masses doing this, but at that point it won’t matter, because you will have found your people. Here are three examples with three different strategies that I think work quite well.

The Gatsby Method: Hob Nob with Big Wigs

When F. Scott Fitzgerald released The Great Gatsby, he was disappointed with the book. Although the book sold over 20,000 copies in the first year, the critics lamented that neither the book nor the author lived up to readers’ expectations. Frustrated and somewhat disillusioned with his attempts to live up to his potential, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood, took up screenwriting, and faded into near obscurity.

Forty years later, long after the death of its author, Gatsby landed at the top of the bestsellers list. How? Fitzgerald had somewhat unwittingly built a small but powerful network of people who admired his work. By the time of his death, he was practically penniless and considered himself a failure. His handful of friends who cared about seeing his work endured worked hard to ensure his writing was remembered. They did this by writing about him in books and articles, trying valiantly to keep his memory alive long after his death.

This culminated in a fan mentioning his book to the Wartime Council for Books, suggesting it be added to the list of titles the United States Government was shipping overseas to soldiers during World War II. They ended up shipping 155,000 copies of Gatsby overseas, each copy being read by six or seven soldiers before the paperback copy literally fell apart. Over a decade later, the book was back in mainstream circulation and eventually read in almost every single high school in America.

The fact that Fitzgerald had a few friends who cared was the only thing keeping his work in circulation until Gatsby eventually caught up with the times and became a bestseller.

This is, essentially, what I did when I launched this blog. I understood that in any industry there are a handful of voices most people listen to, no matter what. In my world of online marketing, blogging, and writing, that included people like Michael Hyatt, Steven Pressfield, and Seth Godin. Intuitively, I understood that if I could get them to vouch for me that I would automatically have an audience. But how?

I implemented what I now call The Case Study Strategy (which I talk more about in my book Real Artists Don’t Starve). Essentially, I:

  • Sought out influencers I wanted to vouch for me and my work.
  • Did not ask them to vouch for me, but simply let them know how their work had impacted me.
  • Continued doing this for months, and in some cases, years before ever asking for anything.

The Case Study Strategy is still, in my mind, the best way to build influence quickly. You can spend a lot of time trying to build an audience one by one. Or you can go to the “tastemakers” of your industry whose opinions are respected by the masses and spend significant time winning them over to your side.

Of course, this requires that you actually put their advice to use and aren’t simply blowing hot air. Over and over again, you have to demonstrate their stuff works. This goes beyond sending a nice email or leaving a review on Amazon (although, those aren’t bad places to start). You have to become a student and ambassador of their work. You have to become a case study. You don’t need to do it perfectly, but you ought to do humbly.

Remember that influencers don’t want someone who knows everything already. They want someone who is humble.

As a burgeoning literary voice in America during the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald made friends with many of the literary elite of his day, which allowed his work to endure when it otherwise would have likely disappeared. So, no. It’s not just luck that helps your art endures. Many artists become famous because they know how to make a friend.

The Secret Behind The Shack: Get a Street Team

One of the bestselling books not only of the last century but of all time is The Shack by William Paul Young. However, many don’t know this short novel was initially self-published and did not rise to instant success. In fact, the author was not a well-known super influencer with an email list of half a million people. He did, however, have a powerful story.

It was originally intended to be a Christmas gift to his children. As his family resonated with it and recommended it to friends, he realized there might be a greater potential for this book to reach more than just a handful of people. Young ended up partnering with a couple of other friends who liked the story and started an independent publishing company.

In the first year, he shipped over one million copies directly out of his garage. He and his partners employed a number of local street teams who employed a number of grassroots marketing campaigns, including placing copies of the book in windows of local coffee shops all over the U.S. A handful of friends helped the book reach their friends and those people’s friends and so on until it eventually the book sold over twenty-five million copies in the past ten years.

Paul Young did not write a book for everyone; instead, he wrote a book for a few people—his children—even printing it on his home printer and distributing it to family members. They kept sharing it and, it ended up becoming a book for a few friends, and a few more, and soon some of these friends started sharing it with their friends until the book became national and eventually worldwide phenomenon.

This is how you go viral. This is how you hit it big. You start small. You reach the few and empower them to reach the many. Of course, none of this would have worked if the work itself wasn’t compelling. It was not only good but interesting.

So we must begin with this important principle: Marketing is not creating anything and sharing it with others in hopes of it spreading. In fact, that works very rarely.

When all of us have a friend who is an author or a multilevel marketer or some other aspiring vocation that requires them to tap their network. What it takes for work to spread is to create something so compelling that once people hear about it, they can’t help but share it.

This is why I tell authors that it is not enough to write a book that is good; you have to write one that is interesting. Which is to say that you must write something that is counterintuitive, something that is surprising, something that attacks the status quo. This is how you get people’s attention in an over-marketed world filled with hype and broken promises. You say the very opposite of what they are hearing. You do the unexpected.

Granted, The Shack was a well-written book, but what helped the book spread was the idea behind the book, the visual imagery of God being represented as two women and a Middle Eastern Carpenter. But it took time for such a challenging and counterintuitive message to catch on, which is why we must be patient, and finding a few people who care is always a smart first strategy.

Sometimes, our work is so far ahead of its time that we need to wait for the world to catch up. And a great way to do this is to build a network, have a street team, and focus on the few who get it. If they do, maybe other people will, eventually.

The Love Language Strategy: Keep Going

When Dr. Gary Chapman, a pastor in South Carolina, wrote The 5 Love Languages, the first year the book sold only a few thousand copies. The next year, it was double that. A few years after publication, it sold over 150,000 copies and kept going, eventually selling over twelve million copies. Today, the book is consistently on the New York Times list, week after week, and has been that way for years now.

It was not an instant success, as is the case for many enduring works in the creative industry. It took some time. So, what happened? Was it luck? Sheer hard work? Or some other combination of factors? What did Chapman do?

First, he identified a powerful idea—and according to him, it wasn’t even his idea but a term he heard a friend use. Big books always start with big ideas, and often our job as creatives is not to come up with the idea, but to give a name to something that is already happening in the world.

As Victor Hugo once said,

There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

So as you consider your big idea, the project that you want to launch, learn how to pay attention to trends; see if you can spot something that people are starting to talk about, and try giving it a name. If you do this, it will make marketing much easier. After all, the best marketing in the world can’t make turn a bad book idea into a bestseller.

Then, Chapman began testing the idea. As a pastor and marriage counselor, he started bringing up the concept of “love languages” into his counseling sessions and seeing how it resonated with couples. To his amazement, it caught on quickly.

After that, he codified the process and framework into a book and kept testing it on a local radio station. People continued to resonate with the hit, so he wrote the book and began to promote it. Again, it didn’t immediately take off, but at this point, he believed this was a message that deserved to be heard.

Then, most importantly, when the book didn’t become an instant bestseller, he kept going, kept talking about it, kept promoting it, kept speaking on it, and kept spreading the word.

Why did it work? As a practicing evangelical Christian, Gary Chapman credits God for the success of his book, which I’ve found to be quite common.

At some point, most authors admit that God or luck or magic takes over and turns this idea into a phenomenon. This, I think, is a bit of a mystery but also just what happens when you have a good idea. At this point, the author is not selling the book. The artist is not pushing the project. The work is now selling itself. So how do we do that for ourselves?

In the case of Gary Chapman, he did his part by not giving up on the book, which is an act of faith itself. You have to believe so strongly in the idea that if you don’t immediately see it take off, you can keep going. More often than not, perseverance is what takes something from struggling to massively successful. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How did the 5 Love Languages catch on? The author intentionally introduced it to small audiences over and over until it grew to astronomical levels.

Your job, if you want your work to succeed, is to not optimize for the masses, but focus on a few. Make friends who will believe in your work and will fight for others to recognize your genius. Bring fans together in loosely organized teams to get your next project out into the world. And when in doubt, keep going.

If you’re lucky, those few just might be enough to carry you to more. But whether they are or they’re not, this is the only way I know to do this kind of work. It just might be the only way there is. You always have to find a few and trust that they will carry that work to the many.

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