Monthly Archives: September 2010

10 Tips for Funding a Successful Kickstarter Project

UPDATE: Due to the high volume of traffic that this post always receives, I’ve launched a new blog called CrowdFunding Help, which provides tips, news, interviews and how-tos for Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and more. Check it out!

Last month, I created a Kickstarter project to help raise the initial funding for my new creative project, The Baristas, a web sitcom that’s a spin-off from my previous show, Something to Be Desired.  On Saturday, Sept 18, I was happy, proud, humbled and relieved to announce that we’d reached our funding goal of $3000 with four days to go before our project ended.

In fact, we wound up receiving $3660 in total donations, or 122% of our goal.

Here’s how we did it.

First, Some General Observations

These tips are based on my own experience and are specific to my project.  Feel free to adapt them to the parameters of your own vision.

My project was web video based.  If you’d like to use Kickstarter to crowdfund a book, album, stage play or other creative endeavor, not all of the following tips may apply.  (But, actually, they probably will.)

And, obviously, this is my first Kickstarter experience.  Others have used the service repeatedly and may have a better understanding of which tactics are more broadly useful.

That said, here are…

10 Tips for Successfully Funding a Kickstarter Project

1. Give your core audience something to get excited about.

In our case, we had the built-in advantage of a pre-established audience.  Something to Be Desired has been online since 2003, and while not everyone knows about it, two very important groups of people do: the show’s longtime fans, and the social media community in Pittsburgh (where the show was filmed).

Thus, we knew the fans of STBD would be excited that the show was being spun off, and we counted on that initial attention to boost our project out the door in its first days.  (More on that later.)

However, if your project is a brand new concept with no pre-existing audience or demand, ask yourself: Who is the core audience for this project?  If you’re making a zombie movie, find a way to appeal to horror enthusiasts.  If you’re writing a bilingual children’s book, what aspects of your project would get parents and educators from both cultures talking?

Find a way to excite the people who should care about your project, and you’ll have to rely a lot less on the kindness of complete strangers.

2. Give complete strangers a reason to care, too.

STBD’s core audience isn’t large (or lucrative) enough to fund a new show completely out of its own collective pocket.  Therefore, we knew we’d need to find a way to give people who’d never heard of STBD, and who couldn’t care less about an arbitrary web comedy, a reason to still want the project to succeed.

So we made them producers.

Anyone who backed The Baristas on Kickstarter for $25 would receive a single vote in casting for one role on the show — that of “the newest barista,” whose first day on the job will be the crux of the show’s first episode.  For $50, backers received two votes, and so on, up to 20 votes for $500 (which was the highest single amount any one person pledged to the show).

Pretty cool, right?

Admittedly, we might have received even more interest (and funding) if we’d set the cost of a casting vote at $5 instead of $25.  But I didn’t want people who’d never watch the show otherwise to pay $5 simply for the privilege of voting, which might result in a bizarre or problematic casting result.  So I settled on $25, which seemed like just enough of a financial commitment that a donor would be likely to take the voting experience — and, thus, the eventual quality of the show — seriously.

3. Offer an amazing perk at $5 or $10.

I did not do this and, in hindsight, I believe it was my biggest mistake.

Sure, at $25 a backer had a vote in the eventual look and feel of the show through casting.  That made sense.  But what about the people with only a passing interest in the show, or for whom $25 seems like a steep investment?  We offered obligatory promotional swag (postcards, buttons, pens), but nothing that a casual supporter could really sink her teeth into.

In retrospect, if I’d offered something more substantial at $5 or $10 — like access to filming outtakes, or a “making-of” e-book — I believe we’d have met our goal earlier and potentially exceeded our (still very gracious) final sum.

4.  Strategically stagger your swag levels.

Yes, for $25, backers earned a casting vote.  But for $35 — a mere $10 bump — they also got a t-shirt.  So why not upgrade?

That was a conscious choice on my part, because I (correctly) suspected t-shirts would be one of our most desirable tangible perks.  And judging by the number of backers who initially pledged $25 but later changed it to $35 — or $50, which got them a t-shirt and a DVD of the show’s first 13 episodes — it was the right approach for our project.  (In fact, the $35 pledge level was our most-often selected.)

5. Promote your backers on Twitter (and anywhere else that’s appropriate).

I knew the majority of our backers personally, which means I also know their Twitter handles.  (And if I didn’t, I was usually able to divine them by Googling.)

For me, thanking our backers publicly served two purposes: it conveyed an immediate appreciation of their faith in my project, and it was a public signal to others on Twitter that my project was being considered worthy of investment.  Those thank-you tweets always included a link back to the project itself, so anyone who was curious (or who retweeted me) could drive more attention to the project.

This is important because…

6. The middle of your project’s timeline is a promotional dead zone.

When your project is new, it has the benefit of being new, and people like talking about new ideas.

When your project is ending, it has the benefit of good faith and momentum.  People want you to succeed, and if you’re within striking distance of your goal, they will find creative ways to spread the word (or dredge up some loose change) on your behalf.  Everybody wants to be part of a project that succeeds.

But between kickoff and wrap-up, your project has no inherent hook.  It’s a lonely ship, bobbing in the ocean between reasons to care.  Finding any reason to get a new audience interested in your project during this stretch is critical to its success, because the people who already know about it are already tired of hearing you endlessly self-promote it.

7. Stagger your outreach & promotions.

Fortunately, your idea is always new to someone.  The trick is to continually find new excuses to bring it to people’s attention.

In our case, I circulated the idea among its core audience (STBD fans and Pittsburgh social media creators) first.  Then, I directly brought the project to the attention of various individuals who might be interested, like my Facebook and LinkedIn colleagues, fellow web video pros, Pittsburgh-based journalists, etc.  I staggered this outreach over the course of the project’s 33 day timeframe, so as to not light all my fires at the beginning of the project and then run out of fuel after the first few days.

8. Offer regular meaty updates, especially near the project’s end.

Kickstarter allows project organizers to post updates that can be seen by anyone, or just by a project’s backers.  I chose to use the updates as a way of pointing out cool or intriguing aspects of the show’s creative genesis while also reminding readers that funding was still ongoing.  That way, if an update seemed interesting to a backer or a casual visitor, it could be shared with others, and the suggestion to support the show would automatically be included.

Our updates included a post-audition preview of three actors who’ll be joining the cast, a public debate over our possible logos, and a chance to immerse yourself in the show’s story by following the characters on Twitter.  In addition to reminding our backers that the project was moving forward, it also provided a glimpse of our creative process and detailed the choices we were making in bringing our ideas to fruition.

9. In the end, plan as much promotion across as many channels as possible.

Our project ran 33 days, and ended on a Wednesday.  The weekend before the end date was the weekend of PodCamp Pittsburgh 5, an annual social media “un-conference” which I co-founded in 2006 and where I expected to have several opportunities to discuss the project (if appropriate and / or necessary).

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had also planned a story on The Baristas, and they printed it the Sunday during PodCamp, just three days before the project’s deadline.  I had initially believed that article would give us the necessary promotional push to achieve our $3000 goal, but I’ll never know if that would have been the case or not.

That’s because my friends, supporters and attendees at PodCamp had pushed us past $3000 by 4 PM the day before.  However, our largest individual donor did see the Sunday article and was inspired to pledge an additional (and greatly appreciated) $500, even though we’d already made our goal.

Which brings me to my final point:

10. Give people a reason to back your project even after you reach your goal.

My biggest concern about the project, other than the possibility that we might not reach our $3000 goal, was that we’d somehow reach our $3000 goal so early in the project’s timeline that no one else would feel compelled to donate.  In that case, we would have had an embarrassment of riches, but we also would have had days or weeks in which the project sat idly and failed to generate additional momentum.

Thus, my idea to reward backers with casting votes at the $25 level.  That way, even if we raised our $3000 goal by day two of the project, there would still have been a meaningful, one-of-a-kind opportunity to support the series and have a say in its final chemistry.

And, for only $10 more, there’s this t-shirt…

After the Rain: Bonus Advice on What to Do Immediately After You’re Funded

Once you’ve safely met your Kickstarter goal, you might start celebrating, rejoicing or simply pass out from emotional exhaustion.  But when you come to, be sure to:

  • Announce your success
  • Thank your backers
  • Mail out any swag-related perks you have on-hand
  • Inform backers when they can expect to receive your other, not-yet-created swag (DVDs, etc.)
  • Update your project website (like we did)
  • Update your Kickstarter project description with off-site URLs, because your project will still be discovered by web surfers long after funding has ended, and they should be able to find the project’s current home

If you’ve successfully shepherded a Kickstarter project to fruition and you have tips that I haven’t listed above, feel free to add them to the comments below.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a web sitcom to launch… in 2011.

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The Story of the Very First PodCamp (or, See How Far Social Media Has Come?)

As PodCamp Boston 5 gears up this weekend, I thought I’d look back in time a few years — specifically, back to September of 2006, when a few geeks from Boston changed the way we use computers.

That summer, a no-name blogger named Chris Brogan had become friends with some of Boston’s social media crowd.  At the time, the group consisted mostly of pioneering podcasters like Steve Garfield, Christopher Penn and C. C. Chapman. As nerds of various stripes, they were familiar with BarCamp, an informal “un-conference” for developers in which the schedule was created by the participants in an effort to foster an atmosphere of communal learning.

It occurred to them that it might be fun to organize a similar event for podcasters. After all, a lot of people were starting to create audio and video shows for the web, but there wasn’t yet any significant grassroots meetup where they could all congregate and learn from one another.

Hence, PodCamp was born.

What they originally expected was that a few dozen locals would show up and teach each other some cool audio and video tricks.

Instead, over 300 people descended on Boston from points as far afield as California and London, all desperate to spend a weekend speaking the same language and not having to explain why they bothered making media for the web because everybody there would already “get it.”

And here’s where I come in — and where the story takes a somewhat unusual turn.

It Wasn’t Supposed to Be Like This

See, I’m not from Boston. At the time, I was from Pittsburgh. But I knew Chris Brogan because he’d written about a web sitcom I produced called Something to Be Desired.

Earlier that April, Chris had blogged about stumbling across some web video, and how he thought that might be a cool thing for his local community theatre to experiment with. I found that blog post (because I was searching “web video” on Technorati) and I sent Chris the same note I’d sent to several other bloggers, which basically said, “Hey, if you like web video, you might like this web sitcom we’ve been making here in Pittsburgh since 2003.”

Chris watched an episode. He liked it. And so we emailed back and forth a few times, and then Chris blogged an interview with me and some of the STBD cast, and that was that. Chris and I were now Internet friends.

Except Chris was also making actual friends in Boston, and helping foster this idea called “PodCamp.” And he kept telling me I should come to it. And I knew he was right, but I wasn’t sure I had the money to go to Boston for a weekend (even if the event was free). In fact, I was pretty sure I couldn’t.

And then, thanks to one entirely arbitrary email, I had to go to Boston.

That September, STBD was launching its 4th season. One of our new cast members, Erik Schark (Rich on STBD), had volunteered to assemble a media list and send out notes like the one I’d previously sent to Chris. Our goal was to bring STBD to the attention of people who were already writing about web media, video or podcasting in general. And one of the people Erik sent an email to was Jeff Pulver.

At the time, Erik only knew that Jeff had a blog, in which he wrote about technology. Jeff wrote back to introduce himself to Erik, say that he’d watched STBD and liked it, and then he invited Erik to come meet him at an event Jeff was organizing called VON, a telecommunications trade show.

Erik thanked Jeff for the invitation but explained that I was the creator of STBD, so I might be the one he should talk to. When Erik looped me into their email discussion, I noticed that VON was happening in Boston the week after PodCamp. I told Jeff that I wouldn’t be able to afford to attend VON, but that I would be in Boston for this grassroots event called PodCamp the weekend before, and that if he had time, he should stop in and say hello, and meet the event’s organizers, like Chris Brogan and Chris Penn. Maybe they could learn from each other.

Meanwhile, I loop Brogan in on this email chain. He replies to me privately.

“You mean Jeff Pulver, the founder of Vonage? The guy’s a millionaire.”

Jeff says he’ll try to stop by.

Welcome to Boston’s Logan Airport. Please Enjoy Your Stay.

I land in Boston on a Friday morning and take the train into the city. Chris Brogan is working his day job, but he’s leaving a little early to run some last minute errands before the PodCamp icebreaker (at Harvard, if I recall correctly). Because we’re both broke, we agree to split a hotel room near the train line that runs straight to the community college where PodCamp is happening.

Brogan picks me up near Faneuil Hall and we zip out to his home first because the free iPods they were supposed to be giving away tomorrow have just arrived today. I briefly meet his wife, Kat, and his kids, Harold and Violette, and then we’re off to Quincy, Mass., where Chris Penn has been storing more PodCamp paraphernalia at his office and he needs Brogan to transport them to the icebreaker. My afternoon is spent mostly asleep in the passenger’s seat.

The icebreaker itself is a whirlwind. From dozens of people, talking in small clumps, an energy starts to build. Despite our age, gender and financial differences, we’re all a lot more alike than we thought.

We’re all excited about the future.

Someone plays the very first piece of audio ever transmitted between two parties, AKA the first podcast. (I think Dave Winer was involved, although I may be wrong because I was drinking.) We laugh. We applaud. We belong.

When the event’s scheduled time is up, we move to a nearby pub and keep chatting. When that’s done, we move again. The conversations won’t end because none of us have had them before. Brogan, who’s just started experiment with podcasting, jokingly interrogates Eric Olson during our walk back to our cars. Olsen was there representing Feedburner, which (in 2006) podcasters were starting to realize might be a good idea.

Brogan and I stay out too late, talking and drinking. We realize he hasn’t eaten all night, so he tracks down a hamburger at the last place still serving. He’s not sure what to expect tomorrow, but whatever it is, it should be interesting. And, quite possibly, bigger than what they were anticipating.

PodCamp, Day One

Brogan is awake at the crack of dawn, running mostly on adrenaline. He needs to be there at kickoff. He leaves. I oversleep.

When I finally drag myself out of bed and orient myself to the city, I discover that the train line we’d purposely stayed beside was inoperative due to construction. Fortunately, Chris had pointed out the general whereabouts of the community college during our highway drive yesterday. All I had to do was cross a few bridges and I’d be there-ish. Having no money for a cab, I walk it.

I arrive nearly an hour later, just as the kickoff is wrapping up. The auditorium is packed. There are rockstars in attendance, most notably Andrew Baron and Amanda Congdon, who had been partners on Rocketboom until their very public breakup several weeks earlier. None of us even know each other yet, so we’re all as diplomatic as possible. It’s too early to take sides in a social media divorce.

I meet other people in various stages of web fame, like Casey McKinnon and Rudy Jahchan of Galacticast, and Blip TV co-founder Dina Kaplan, who grew up in Pittsburgh a few blocks away from where my girlfriend and I just moved. Dina says she loves STBD and wants us to host it on Blip. (Until now, we’ve been posting WMVs to our site directly.) I’m flattered and say I’ll consider it.

Inspired, I post my own impromptu session to the PodCamp event wiki, about How to Create a Web Video Series from scratch. It starts in an hour. I rush to find the room. No one shows up.

The Bar

During the event, I fall in with a fairly random group of attendees: Erik Olsen, Adam Broitman (who’s had to convince his NYC day job that it’s worth it for him to be here) and Jason and Melanie van Orden, whose podcasting book is one of the first “how-to” bibles the field has yet produced.

We make our way from the event to the dinner, which is held in a pub a few blocks down from the Boston Garden. We hatch a scheme: something called 5cast, in which one person would use web video to start an argument on a Monday, and then the next person in the chain would add their own video response, and so on, until that initial “hub” question had created an official train of thought among 5 people, but also allowing anyone on YouTube to add their own response, turning the whole venture into a weekly conversation web.

We love the idea. Broitman registers the URL. We never do it.

Then Pulver shows up.

If you’ve ever been near Jeff Pulver, you know life moves at a blur when you’re around him because everybody wants a piece of him — even the people who vehemently disagree with him. No one’s ever 100% sure what to make of Jeff, but given his track record, his exuberance and his digital philanthropy, no one wants to risk not being noticed.

It is somehow announced that the bar tab will be on Jeff. Thus, the legacy of PodCamp being as much about drinking as it is about learning was born a few blocks from the Boston Garden, surrounded by a wall of television sets playing the Pussycat Dolls.

Our little group breaks up. Olsen heads back to where he’s staying, and the van Ordens do the same. A car shows up and Broitman heads out. (He “knows a girl,” apparently.) I get back to the hotel and find Brogan is hanging out with the crew from The Best Damn Tech Show, who are also sharing a room in the building. Among them is their ringleader, Drew Olanoff. Years later, Drew will become famous for very publicly beating cancer with the help of Drew Carey and all of Twitter. Tonight, he’s in charge of a group of black-clad hacker geeks who can’t figure out why the liquor stores in Boston are closed so early.

PodCamp, Day Two

Hangovers are the touchstone of any PodCamp’s second day. Thus begins the reverse deathwatch habit of tracking who shows up when, based on how much they had to drink the night before.

In 2008, I will be so hung over at PodCamp Pittsburgh that I will be physically unable to get to the building until, literally, minutes before my noontime session, which will play to a standing-only room. But, today, I bum a cab ride with Drew Olanoff and his then-girlfriend, and I get there in time for kickoff.

Several hours later, Jeff Pulver is there.

Now that people are sobering up (and Googling), they’re trying to figure out why a millionaire is hanging out with a bunch of unwashed geeks with portable microphones. As this is happening, I’m bouncing from session to session. I’m there when Mike Hudack and Dina Kaplan explain what Blip TV is, and a roomful of podcasters’ eyes light up. And I’m there when Brian Conley stands up to ask Mike a tech question, and Mike prefaces his answer by explaining who Brian Conley actually is.

“At this point,” says Mike, “we’re manually checking everything that’s uploaded to Blip to make sure that it’s not copyrighted, and I see this video come in, and it’s obviously news footage from CBS or CNN, some kind of roadside explosion aftermath in Baghdad. And so I contact the person who uploaded it to tell them we can’t host that because we don’t do pirated content, and he says, ‘That’s not pirated, that’s me. I’m in Baghdad, and I just shot this with my camera and I need a place to upload it.’

“And then I paused for a second, and then I said, ‘Hi, my name is Mike. Welcome to Blip.’”

Brian Conley would go on to power Alive in Baghdad for almost 4 years, as well as recording corruption, injustice and citizen rebellions in Mexico, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. In 2008, he’d be arrested in China for protesting Tibet during the Olympics, and his arrest would cause an international uprising among supporters of citizen journalism. But that day, Brian was just a guy who, like the rest of us, wanted to meet the people who were making his videos possible.

The day winds down. Word gets out that Pulver is incredibly impressed with what the PodCamp community was able to pull together with minimal time and budget. In fact, he’s so impressed, he’s invited anyone from PodCamp to attend VON the following week, for free.

I call my girlfriend and ask if we can swing it if I stay in Boston for a few more days. Jeff Persch, an aspiring podcaster whose wife was the first person I talked to at the icebreaker, has offered to put me up with his family down in New Hampshire for the week. My girlfriend says yes.

At VON, I will meet more amazing people and learn more amazing things. I will be there when Jeff Jarvis from Buzzmachine tells Babs Rangaiah from Unilever that the world is changing, and the Internet will put marketers out of a job. And I will be among the obvious outcasts who look completely out of place and uninvited in the VON convention hall, as we wander in our jeans and cargo pants among the executives in suits at their trade show booths.

“Who are these kids?” people will mutter.

But we already know. We’re the future.

The Aftermath

I see Brogan, thank him for the event. His eyes are large. I ask him what’s up.

“Big things,” he says.

Within weeks, Brogan will quit his day job to work full-time for Jeff Pulver. Part of Brogan’s job will be to act as the public face of Pulver’s various digital initiatives, which means Chris will have to travel a lot, schmooze a lot of people, and be interesting. In essence, it’s an opportunity for Chris Brogan to become a brand ambassador. And, inevitably, the brand he’s the best ambassador for is himself, the community organizer, the uniter of all islands under a common flag called “us.”

Chris won’t be the only one whose life changes drastically as a result of PodCamp. Dozens of career trajectories were impacted that weekend, from the organizers to the attendees. For example, Penn and Chapman have each transitioned to the corporate end of social media. And Adam Broitman, whose day job saw no reason to let him attend VON, would eventually quit and (two jobs later) form an augmented reality company that would win awards for the way it bends our expectations of digital advertising.

PodCamp will also affect people who don’t even know it exists. (Yet.)

At the end of PodCamp, Chris and Chris will make announcement. They realize that what happened in Boston that weekend was special, and they wonder if it might work in our neck of the woods, too. So they draw up a PodCamp charter, and they encourage anyone who thinks that their own community might benefit from a PodCamp-style event to host one in their town.

Six weeks later, I’d be hosting the first PodCamp Pittsburgh — the first in a long line of little lights coming on all over the world.

Now, four years later, there have been PodCamps all around the globe, from San Antonio to Stockholm. The meaning of the event has largely shifted away from podcasting (and media creation in general) to marketing and monetization. And most of the original podcasters who comprised that initial group of attendees have moved on to bigger, better or simply entirely different things, while others are still tinkering and trying to make things work.

But some of us still have one foot firmly planted in the creative desire that made PodCamp necessary in the first place, and — just like in 2006, wandering around the trade show floor at VON, surrounded by skeptics in suits — we wonder when the rest of the world will catch up.

An Epilogue of Sorts

When I moved from Pittsburgh to Baltimore in 2009, Something to Be Desired had stopped production, and the cast was left without an online creative outlet. Every so often, I’d stoke the flames of creativity and ask if any of them would be interested in trying something else, if we could find a way to keep the old show going. Invariably, they all said yes.

This past month, I used Kickstarter to raise initial funding for a new web sitcom called The Baristas, which will be a spin-off from Something to Be Desired. That funding was secured at PodCamp Pittsburgh 5, shortly after I mentioned it in my presentation called 10 Ways to Create Media That Matters — a presentation that played to three packed rooms and a secondary audience via live webcast.

That Sunday — aka Day Two of PodCamp — we filmed some screen tests for actors who hope to be on the show. It was the first time I’d filmed anything of creative significance since June of 2009. Afterward, Erik Schark — who, like many of the STBD cast, is reprising his role of Rich on The Baristas — emailed me with his thoughts on how the shoot went. His email ended with, “Great seeing you again, by the way. I’ve missed the fun we had.”

Oh, yeah… Fun. Once upon a time, before all the white papers, the books and the business deals, that’s what got us all interested in this crazy idea called social media.

Podcasting.

Geeks in a room.

The future.

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10 Ways to Create Media That Matters

This past weekend, I attended PodCamp Pittsburgh 5, which is always a blast.  It’s also slightly surreal for me, because I co-founded the event back in 2006 and then I moved to Baltimore in 2009, so PodCamp Pittsburgh becomes my annual homecoming of sorts.  I’m ecstatic to see the event is still alive and well under the stewardship of a new generation of organizers.  In fact, this year was our largest yet (350+ attendees), which means I should probably hand over the reins on my next projects even faster…

I presented one session this year, called 10 Ways to Create Social Media That Matters.  This must be a hot topic, because my session was filled to standing room only and we had two spillover rooms watching via webcast.  (I’ll update this post with a link to the session’s video once it’s been archived online.)

I’m no Power Point wiz, so my slides may straddle the line between charmingly crude and questionably competent.  But the gist of the presentation is this: why do we create?

We create because we need to.

We create because we care about something worth sharing.

We create because we can make a difference, and making a difference feels good.

And the ways in which we can use shared media to break down barriers, explain ourselves and find common ground with everyone around us is forever growing.

Or, as I said when referencing Penelope Trunk‘s journey from pariah to Asperger’s poster child: once you stop behaving like everybody else, you can have the conversations that no one else is having.

So be yourself.  Get personal.  And don’t be afraid to matter.

Because if you don’t, we all miss out on the opportunity to know you — and, by doing so, to know ourselves.

Thanks to Jen, Rob, Missy, Mike, Kelly and everyone else who made PodCamp Pittsburgh 5 such a smashing success, from the volunteers to the VIPs to the attendees who overcame their shyness and leapt headfirst into our little community that keeps getting bigger and better every year.  I’ll see all 350+ of you again at PCPGH6!

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I Love You, But I Love Me More

Why do you blog?

Do you blog for your boss?  Your business?  Your brand?

Do you blog to generate leads?  To boost ad revenues?  To improve SEO?

Do you blog because you “have” to, or because you “need” to?

If so, then stop reading this post, because you’re blogging for your audience.  You’re blogging because someone else is telling you to, or because you’ve convinced yourself that someone else will make the act of blogging worth it.

Still here?  Good, because it means you’re blogging because you want to.

It means you’re blogging for you.

Your Audience Is a Product, Not a Reason

Audiences happen.

No matter what you say or believe, the Internet is full of people who will:

  • Identify with you
  • Agree with you
  • Ignore you
  • Disagree with you
  • Dislike you

… and they will all find you, on their own, regardless of what you do.

Whether or not you attract the audience you wish you had is irrelevant.  An audience is showing up for what you write (or say, or make, or do), and it’s up to you to decide what to do with them.

You do not have to please them.

You do not have to listen to them.

You do not have to convert them into a revenue stream.

There may be a lot of them, or barely any at all, but they will be there.  Reading and watching, sharing and commenting.  They’ll discover you, and they may learn to love you.

But they are not why you do what you do.

You are why you do what you do.

Giving Is Just a Classier Way of Being Selfish

You see a homeless guy on the street.  You give him a dollar.  Not because he needs it, but because you need to feel better about yourself (or at least less guilty about your relative comfort compared to his).

You write a blog post.  People love it.  They share it, comment on it, subscribe to your feed and book you as a speaker.  They do so not because you need them to, but because they want to.  Because you fill a need for them, or because you solve their problem.  Or because making you feel good makes them feel good.  And when you make each other feel good, everybody wins.

So enjoy your audience while it’s here, but don’t base your choices on them.  Because, someday, they may stop caring.

History is thick with formerly famous people who are now unknown.  Money, awards, notoriety and impact are never a guarantee of sustained renown.  The only safe bet you can make today is that everyone who’s famous now will someday be anonymous.

But, despite what every E! True Hollywood Story and VH1 Behind the Music would have you believe, everyone’s eventual anonymity is totally irrelevant.

Whether or not your audience appreciates what you do shouldn’t affect what you want to do.

Above All Else, Create for Yourself

If you entire audience stopped paying attention to you tomorrow, would you still love blogging (or whatever you do) enough to continue it alone?

Is the act of creating rewarding to you?

Do you learn from it?

Do you enjoy it?

If so, do yourself a favor:

Stop worrying about ways to increase your traffic, or maximize your click-throughs, or optimize your SEO.

Promoting what you do is great for business, but getting better at what you do is great for humanity.

So blog (or paint or sing or dance or weld or legislate) with as much passion and energy as you can muster.  Because when you’re producing work that’s singular to you, your voice will find its audience.  Your ego will be fueled and your talents will be appreciated.

When you create work that matters to you, you’ll attract an audience that thinks you matter, too.

But they won’t last forever, and neither will you.

So enjoy what you do.  Because, someday, all of us will be anonymous (again).

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Remember Where You Come From

Last weekend, I drove home to Erie, PA, where I was born and raised for most of my first 20 years.  And what began as my annual pilgrimage to eat The Best Pierogi in the World turned into a reconsideration of why these moments matter.

Every August, Erie’s Holy Trinity parish hosts a citywide Polish festival called Zabawa, a celebration of Polish food, heritage and culture.  Zabawa also doubles as a family reunion for the city’s extensive Polish-American population, including my father’s family, which grew up next door to Holy Trinity.  And while the collective spirit of the event is charming — and, according to this year’s traffic and revenue, growing — it sometimes strikes me as a bit confusing.

My uncle noticed this too.  During one of the traditional Polish folk dances, he said,”These people are still thinking with a 100 year-old mentality.”  In other words, while it may be important to see and hear the vestiges of who we once were, there’s no real effort being made to show who we are now.

Where are the examples of modern Polish art, music or film?  It would be wonderful if an event like Zabawa could bridge that gap between past and present.  Otherwise, it risks becoming a folk pageant that carries the torch of a disappearing era while ignoring the opportunity to carry the community forward.

And that’s when I remembered that living in the present isn’t always something American communities have advocated.

Oxtail Soup for the Soul

When I was 18, I moved in with my grandfather.  He was in his early ’80s, he still golfed 4 days a week, and he was always right (even when he was entirely wrong).  Needless to say, we had some differing opinions, but we generally got along well.

As the neighborhood’s unofficial historian — mostly by virtue of being one of the few octogenarians with his wits about him — my grandfather took great pride in educating people about where things used to be, who used to live there and what life used to be like.  At the time, I was partially fascinated (because no one else had that much information about our history) and partially frustrated (because any mention of the present day would invariably prompt an explanation about how some long-dead person, place or technology was better than whatever I’d just brought up).

Above all, my grandfather perpetually reminded me: “Never forget where you come from.”

I think what he meant was, “never forget that you’re from Poland.”  But I’d already forgotten that, because I was born in America — and so was he.  My grandfather was the youngest of eleven (if I’m remembering correctly), and his father had traveled to America from Poland, but the children were all born here.

When I think of “where I come from,” I think of Erie.  I think of my family.  I think of America.  Rarely do I think of Poland.  In fact, I’ve never been there.  But I’m also part of a generation that isn’t afraid to not be there, and that wasn’t always the case.

The Melting Pot Isn’t Always Cozy

Before he died, my grandfather wrote a short personal memoir of his life, so his kids and grandkids could remember all the stories he wouldn’t be around to tell.  His book is filled with Erie’s history, and the clear ethnic lines that divided it.

For example, in one story, a Slavic boy had the nerve to walk one of my grandfather’s sisters home.  Every Polish boy on the block came running out of his house and chased the Slavic boy back to his neighborhood, and man was my grandfather proud.  There’d be no intermixing of Poles and Slavs in Erie if their families had anything to say about it.  To them, remembering where they came from meant defending themselves against assimilation.  And while this is a Polish-American story, it probably sounds a lot like your own grandfather’s Irish-American, Italian-American or French-Canadian past.

As an adult, my grandfather would see one of his sons marry a German-American and another son marry an Italian-American.  His oldest granddaughter would marry a Swiss man and move a continent away to raise his great-grandchildren.  Thus, the great fight to preserve my grandfather’s Polish heritage had lasted a single generation.

This is also partly due to a lack of insistence even on my grandfather’s part.  For example, despite both halves of my family being Polish-American, both of my sets of grandparents stopped teaching their children Polish during my parents’ childhoods.  My parents and their siblings can understand certain Polish words and phrases, but I only know one or two.

When we think of where we come from, we think in English.

What Does This Mean for Our Future?

I think we live in unusual times.  Modern media has made it easier than ever to communicate, innovate and find common ground with our global peers.  As a result, the sheer volume of information being generated about “the present” is ever-growing, and it does threaten to dwarf and eradicate any active memory of “the past.”

Part of me thinks it’s incredibly important to remember the stories of who we were and where we — and our families, and their families — came from, because where we’ve been helps to determine who we are now.  If we forget that, we lose part of our own narrative.

But part of me also thinks we need to do more to involve our past in our present.

Modernity and evolution don’t need to be perceived as threats to an imagined grand old way of life, but that’s how most of our seniors seem to regard technology.  And when we refuse to teach our parents and grandparents how it all works, we deepen that divide — and, ultimately, we do ourselves a disservice.

Your grandfather doesn’t need to understand Facebook in order to teach his grandchildren about a time before computers.  But if we don’t help our past and our present connect in both directions, all we’ll have left is the future — and we’ll be the ones no one remembers.

I can only imagine what my grandfather would have said about the audience at this year’s Zabawa, in which new arrivals to Erie — an Iraqi family, a Burmese family — were among the spectators, taking in a glimpse of an old world culture in their new world home.

And I wonder what stories they’ll tell their grandchildren someday.

SIDE NOTE: For a more humorous (yet equally relatable) story about generation gaps, I highly recommend Kate Beaton’s cartoon journal from her last Canadian family vacation before moving to New York.

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