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If products are people too, let them have a thousand true fans…

My first post on the Pulse Laser, in my newish role as an advisor to S&W, brings me to consider one of Jack and Matt’s mantras: that products are people too.

As Matt said in his talk at Reboot in 2007, it’s a extremely useful heuristic.

It’s useful in it’s apparent common-sense basis — after all, we personify at the drop of a hat, as Byron, Nass and others have pointed out for many years; but also in the almost absurd directions one can stretch the metaphor in order to see what drops out.

From the anthropomorphic surface-aesthetic of Alessi, to the 1st-person-puppetry of a NASA probe’s twittered stream of reports from another world – it would seem we welcome the products that, at least superficially, perform as people do.

But what other directions can we find then we squeeze the soapbar of this slippery saying a little harder?

One that’s been preoccupying me, and finding it’s way into my discussion with Jack and Matt are the ways that the economics of producing a product and producing media might start mirroring each other. Kevin Kelly posted a fascinating essay on the new economics of scale for artists and craftsmen, called “1000 true fans“.

I find myself asking:  if products are people too, then could they exist with a thousand true fans?

I hope you’ll excuse rather a long quote from Kevin Kelly’s piece as a scene-setter:

“the long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators. Individual artists, producers, inventors and makers are overlooked in the equation. The long tail does not raise the sales of creators much, but it does add massive competition and endless downward pressure on prices. Unless artists become a large aggregator of other artist’s works, the long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales.

Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artist do to escape the long tail?

One solution is to find 1,000 True Fans. While some artists have discovered this path without calling it that, I think it is worth trying to formalize. The gist of 1,000 True Fans can be stated simply:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”

Could Kelly’s solution extend to the design, manufacture, marketing and distribution of products?

Cross-reference Kelly with Sterling’s notion of the Spime: something that is information first and last, and a physical thing merely sometimes. Cross-reference Kelly with Gershenfeld’s sub-$20k rapid fab-labs. Design, maufacturing, marketing is becoming contingent, personalised. Distribution is dematerialising, and if one were being optimistic about Sterling’s vision  – so is waste.

On demand, on-desire products.

S&W recently produced an advanced prototype piece of social hardware for the BBC Audio and Music R&D team: a radio called Olinda. When they put the pictures live, there was quite a bit of desire to own an Olinda expressed by those commenting.

I joked with Matt and Jack that they should put the price tag of producing a prototype out there, and see who wanted one – or perhaps the price of a short-run of limited edition Olinda, which would reduce it perhaps from four figures a piece to three… Or perhaps the next generation of Olinda, with their input?

Would people buy something like that?

Perhaps a true fan of an established product designer or brand. After all, in tradtional design the likes of Ross Lovegrove or Marc Newson can command premium prices for their limited edition, but still ultimately mass-produced works.

This would be something different though potentially – not buying into a product design as a brand, but more like micro-investing in a product at it’s conception. Almost like a distributed commission of something that you’ve followed the progress of like a work of art.

Perhaps you’ve been part of the debate, shaping the potentialities – suggesting scenarios or sources of inspiration – or even componentry. Just like the small, passionate fanbase of a much-loved but non-mainstream performing artist there’s a relationship between you and the product, and crucially all the other fans of the product, perhaps mediated by services like GetSatisfaction. Certainly, already, some products on GetSatisfaction already have a fanbase talking to each other. Essential reading for product marketers…

It puts me to mind a little of what Matt Hanson is trying to do in film with A Swarm of Angels. Not only recruiting investment, but particpation in a cultural product they want to bring into the world.

This model would be a potential new spin on both human-centered design and product marketing. Collect the desires and needs of your customer base, but they’ve bought into the design process revealing something new about that. They are true fans of the designers, and the design process – invested in it both financially and aspirationally.

You can see some of this in communities such as Etsy, where crafters and product families definately have fanbases that are loyal to them; and they are rewarded by requests and delightful suprises both in the new products created in the dialogue and the level of attention they receive.

Is this possible in the arena of more complex products with behaviour, connectivity, and services woven into them? Is it possible where there’s not a direct relationship to the artisan or designer – that is, could it scale to work for larger companies and brands? After all, as Kelly says, this isn’t the path to megahits – it’s more about catering to many niches with equal attention, rigor and passion.

I think we’d argue that products and services for ‘generation-c’ can’t afford not to generate, nurture and learn from their ‘fanbase’, as soon the means of creating such products will lie with the fanbase themselves. It’s rich territory for designers and makers working today for sure: creating products and potentialities for products that will garner a fanbase through their lifetime has always been their goal.

In the recent past of industrial design and manufacture this was the mass-produced ‘megahit’ of the ‘design classic': the Aalto stool, the Eames chair, the Ive pods – but the breadth and depth of niches that this post-industrial scenario offers for viable, sustainable, economic exploration is something new I think, and one that post-industrial design firms such as S&W are itching to explore.

As a true fan, as well as advisor, I can’t wait to see what they make of it.

5 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Andrew said on 30 September 2008...

    Designing for the “long retail”, maybe?

  • 2. charlie said on 1 October 2008...

    But that’s it, innit? No longer do product creators have to wait for a mass-production deal. Direct connection with the 1000 true fans (who might have even contributed to the development) could prime the pump of early production by paying fan-price-premiums for small-scale production (ooh, sorry for the alliteration).

    But, a catch: the efficiency of creating at small numbers of units is poor, so the time cost on the producer needs to be taken into account. The manual labour to produce a bunch of Olinda’s might have a greater cost to S&W’s time for other stuff.

    A thought: why not make an electronics section in Etsy? Folks who want to sell hand-made electronics, like an Olinda, would be able to have a place to connect to their 1000 True Fans. I’m sure there are a brazillion Maker Faire types itching for a soapbox. (or is there a place already?)

  • 3. Peter Ferne said on 2 October 2008...

    I joked with Matt and Jack that they should put the price tag of producing a prototype out there, and see who wanted one – or perhaps the price of a short-run of limited edition Olinda, which would reduce it perhaps from four figures a piece to three… Or perhaps the next generation of Olinda, with their input?

    That’s no joke. Those are serious propositions. I for one would definitely be very interested in an opportunity to ‘micro-invest’ in Olinda, or to purchase a short run prototype. Please guys, put the options out and see who bites…

  • 4. Chris Hand said on 6 October 2008...

    @charlie — not sure about the Etsy comparison… any ‘fans’ I might garner would have to be forking out serious dosh to get me to hand-solder 1000 PCBs :-/ (Then again, I love the hand-built retro look of Peter Vogel’s interactive audio sculptures, but that’s partly cos I’m nerding out on how old the components are.) *deliberately avoids wandering into Design-Art debate*

    I’ve had a few discussions with designers this year about the feasibility of doing limited runs, and it’s the soldering and assembly that’s the stumbling block for most who want to go down this direction I think, unless you want to do a really small run and have a team of willing student slaves who want to hang out in your studio, soldering till they go blind. (I’ve got a couple of leads to UK firms doing small runs of PCBs + soldering/assembly but wouldn’t mind a few more….)

    But one way around this is to sell solder-it-yourself kits, and there are more of these around than ever before. (And some-assembly-required is the classic way of avoiding labour costs, and certainly made IKEA.) Electronics kits used to be the domain of the hobby-mag-reading hardcore, but are now looking like a burgeoning cottage (almost) industry. It’s interesting to see what’s sprung up in the Arduino world around making clones, improved designs – some incremental, some more radical, and expansion “shields”.

    PCB production is already pretty cheap, albeit for most people a matter of outsourcing… once pick-and-place machines and reflow ovens are within easy reach and can sit in our cottage workshops alongside the desktop rapid prototyper and $500 laser cutter then things will get really interesting.

    In a way, the Arduino already has way more than 1000 fans, but the model isn’t a 1-to-many, artist-to-audience one, it’s many-to-many and it’s already happening, just a bit further upstream than what Matt was talking about above.

  • 5. jamesb said on 9 October 2008...

    In terms of craftspeople and makers I’ve got a couple of points:
    1. from what i’ve seen the long tail does not push down the price of goods for makers *if* their work is non-generic. If the product is unique or the story behind the ‘thing’ creates a sense of “true provenance” then people can charge more for their work. We’ve had makers on folksy who have been commissioned by Habitat who pay them peanuts (because the perceived value of having been commissioned by Habitat fuels your ability to add value to future work) and who actually make more through sales on sites like etsy and folksy.
    2. that said, one of the hardest things for makers to understand is how to price their work. if you look on folksy we’ve got a nascent graduate seller base and some of them have got it *so* wrong. In short, the market doesn’t function as quickly or intellingently at the long tail – you can get it very wrong. If you’re selling generic items you know the price elastictity of that product, you know what the market will ‘take’.
    3. etsy and folksy buyers and largely drawn from the seller base. this makes sense – sellers value the craft and inherent value of hand made things – whereas creating a new market for craft requires educating a wider mainstream audience in that value (unless they can see it and images are *so* important in ecomm). that means that your peers may be your market and that’s again something that you see on Etsy – they make friends, they do swaps, they leverage the kind of emotional value that big luxury brands do well and invest a lot of time building up an authentic ‘me’ brand.
    4. search for handmade items works in a different way to mass produced items. They lack the URIs (model no.s; product names etc) that make them easily searchable. The makers ‘moniker’ or ‘name’ then becomes key. Personal branding of the kind that English Cut does well. So, if search is weak (and on Folksy we try and do it better than most) then gaining traction with new audiences means you have to start to lay down other pheromone trails (links!) and the ghost trails you’ve spoken about so well before.

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