I first “met” Amanda Palmer in 1997 – though I didn’t know her name – when I was a graduate student walking past her as an “8 Foot Bride” living statue in Harvard Square. She earned up to $20 per show – not bad for a performance artist, but a total she bested quite handily 15 years later, when she raised $1.2 million for her new music album from nearly 25,000 fans with her now-famous Kickstarter campaign. What’s her secret? “The 10 years leading up to the Kickstarter campaign,” she told me. That was the period during which she leveraged social media to build “an intense connection with fans, and trust between me and those who pledged.”
Make it Fun. Yes, consistency matters in social media, and Palmer spends a lot of time on Twitter, Instagram, blogging, and using other channels. But, she says, “I don’t plan it, ever…If I ever felt obligated, I’d probably never do it.” Her love of the medium enables her message to stay fresh.
Humanize Yourself. “I had a hilarious exchange with my uncle [a California businessman],” Palmer told me. “We were on a walk on Thanksgiving and he said to me, ‘Amanda, should I tweet?’ My only answer is, do you have something to communicate? If you do, the answer is probably yes. Anything that can humanize your company is helpful.” She cites her experience losing her wallet in Europe and tweeting about her plight – only to receive a rapid response from American Express offering to help. “In this moment of panic, lost in France with no wallet, a human from AmEx reached out – it blew my mind. That’s a moment any company can learn from.”
Transparency is the Future. The core of Palmer’s connection with fans is their sense that they’re getting an unvarnished sense of who she is – and she considers that an opportunity to push her own boundaries. “When I see people [like Margaret Cho] communicate things I wouldn’t dare to communicate because it’s so personal, that pushes me to new levels. They show things that are so brave, it’ll kick my *#) to censor just a little bit less.”
Fight the Scarcity Mentality. After her Kickstarter triumph, Palmer soon faced a hailstorm of online criticism when she put out a call for horn and string players to join her onstage for a few songs during her tour – pro bono. At least one musicians union was outraged, telling the New York Times, “If there’s a need for the musician to be on the stage, then there ought to be compensation for it.” Palmer sees similarities between those complaints and ones faced by well-known filmmaker Zach Braff, who raised $2 million in a recent Kickstarter campaign for his new movie. “It pains me to see him getting criticized,” Palmer told me. “It’s a scarcity mentality that there’s not enough [money] for people to make art, and I think that’s backwards. If Zach Braff has a successful Kickstarter campaign, it may be that it opens up the mentality of people who wouldn’t have otherwise crowdfunded. Maybe it’s a catalyst for them and they’ll give 10 bucks to the kid down the street. The idea that there isn’t enough to go around – that artists who are successful shouldn’t be finding their communities – is bonkers.”
“There are very blurry lines between what’s good for marketing and what’s a wonderful, fulfilling connection with fans,” Palmer told me. “One often is the other. If you don’t go into it connecting with people authentically, you’re probably not going to be successful at it. I look at it as a way of finding friends…[and also] the more I connect, the larger the fan base, the more tickets I sell.”
Ultimately, she says, social media – and its ability to mobilize the “1000 true fans” described by Internet sage Kevin Kelly – has enabled the rise of “an emerging middle class of artists who don’t have to be superstars.” For Palmer, it’s a liberating trend. “We’re starting to see through the old model of how to measure success,” she says. “Success is no longer getting on MTV or being Madonna or Prince. We’re now finding you can have a sustainable life in which you get to make art for people – which actually sounds much better.”
How are you mobilizing your 1000 true fans?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on May 9, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.