What does the Theory of 1,000 True Fans means for public relations, public affairs, and non-profits?

If you were paying any attention to the the musicRadiohead wallpaper
industry last year, you may have noticed that Radiohead ran an
experiment where they basically gave away their latest album online a
"pay what you want" model.

Two amazing things happened: 

  1. over the course of a few months 1.2 million people downloaded it; and
  2. on average they paid either nothing or a lot of something for it, the average of which was $5.

observers expect they grossed at least $5 million.
  Then in the last
two weeks, Nine Inch Nails did something similar when they released an
album with the first nine tracks for free, the full album for $5, and
then subsequent packages with additional material for increasingly
higher prices.  The highest package was a limited edition ultra deluxe
CD package, signed and numbered, for $300.  All 2,500 of these sold out
in 24 hours, grossing the band $750,000 alone

These bands are
putting into practice the Theory of 1,000 True Fans, an old concept
only lately well-labeled by digital thinker Kevin Kelly. The theory
says that for the creative class, all you need to make a decent living
is 1,000 true fans who will buy pretty much anything that you produce.

When you have 1,000 true fans and the Internet, your
distribution costs are near zero, and you don’t need companies like
Tower Records to distribute your music anymore, which is why we don’t
have Tower Records around any longer.

What does this mean for public relations, public affairs and non-profits?  The expectations of the public are changing.  To
develop an audience, you are expected to publish and talk about your
work constantly.  The very fact that you’re reading this analysis for
free, despite the fact that ten years ago it would be called "research"
and carry a hefty price, is an ode to the veracity of this theory.

that don’t publish are finding it very difficult to engage their
audiences when their opponents and competitors talk to them all the

"Does this mean I need a blog?" a nonprofit executive
recently asked me.   No, it means you, or someone in your organization
needs to write something almost every day about the work you do to
further your mission.  The "blog" is just the vehicle you use to post
it.  Perhaps tomorrow it’s an e-mail list, and the day after it’s a
posted URL on Facebook.   The day after it may be a postcard.

changed is the expectation.  Today’s public expects more out of the
organizations they give their attention, loyalty, and money to
nowadays, or they withhold it.

Shabbir’s latest digital public relations case study, co-authored with Jason Alcorn, can be downloaded in PDF format at TruthyPR.com.


  1. ldfarah on March 12, 2008 at 12:52 am

    Thanks so much for drawing such a clear connection between PR, non-profits and the Long Tail Theory.

    Since non-profits are generally selling ideas rather than products, it’s not an obvious fit. But on closer review, it makes a great deal of sense.

    Leyla Farah
    Cause+Effect – Public Relations with a Purpose