Let’s talk about fans. Followers. Subscribers. Readers, in my case. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years, I was chatting about it with a friend recently and I figured, let’s chat with the internet. In 10+ years of blogging and posting stories on the internet, and five working in marketing, I’ve noticed an interesting disconnect between subscriber count/newsletter signups/social media follows/Patreon members, and engagement. As in, they look like this:
It makes sense, right? In marketing, they say that if you convert 1% of your ‘leads’ into buyers, you’re doing well. There’s a whole funnel thing people go through between learning about you and making a purchase or, in this case, defining themselves as a fan, and you lose people at each stage of the funnel. So it follows that if you have 10,000 YouTube subscribers you probably don’t have 10,000 patrons. You don’t get 10,000 comments on each video. You can’t say you have 10,000 dedicated viewers. You might only have 10 patrons or sell 10 t-shirts and if that’s the case, you’re statistically doing quite well.
This disparity not a big deal in the grand scheme of, you know, real life. Anyone can click ‘follow’ or ‘subscribe’ to a webpage, then never look at that page again. People can buy followers, too, and then there are multiple accounts run by the same person, bot accounts, etc. It’s just one of those things. So how do you differentiate between someone who’s clicked the follow button and someone who’s an engaged reader or viewer? When do you know that that person has become, for want of a better word, a fan? I have no idea how other creators decide, but I’ve figured out how I do it and since there’s a pandemic on
and I don’t have a life anyway I’ve written it up. Before we start: I do sort of feel that a person has to identify as a fan or member of a fandom. It’s like gender. If someone says they’re a fan, they’re a fan. If they don’t, they aren’t. So when I’m saying ‘fan,’ I really mean ‘engaged human.’ ‘A person with ongoing interest in a creator.’ You can be engaged with a creator and not really consider yourself a fan of theirs. It’s up to you to wave your fan flag from the rooftops! Your choice to become an active member of a fandom and wear little pin badges proclaiming your fan-ness! I can’t believe I’ve drawn a link between fandom and gender identity. Let’s get on with this thing before I unwittingly insult a lot of people.
How I Figure Out How Many Readers and/or ‘Fans’ I Have
Let’s start with a story time and wind it back to 2012. My friends and I were in school. We were busy (12 classes on a timetable. How was that legal?!) but also not that busy. So if I tapped out a blog post, they would come and read and comment on it. A lot. We had some serious threads going on! You can still find them if you look, which I don’t hugely recommend as I was just as grumpy as I am now but also way more ignorant. Oh, the irony.
Anyway. As the years went by, my friends got busy with the real world and average monthly views dropped significantly but as they got busier, I got more serious about making money from writing. I realised that had I monetised the blog when it reported 800, 1000, 2,000 monthly views, I could have made, well, not a lot of money, but maybe enough to contribute to the domain names. Alas, the ship had sailed. A lot of those friends weren’t really readers, anymore, anyway.
How can you know that, though, you ask. Are analytics that good you can tell all your readers by name? No. No, they aren’t that good. I can see the country people arrive from. I can see visitors versus views, ie when one person comes to the site multiple times (I think it’s to do with cookies, though, so if you clear your browser history a new visit might count you as a new visitor, or if you’re in a private browser it might not count you at all. It’s not an exact science). You can see from these screenshots that the visitor/view count can, however, mislead or confuse you depending on which statistics you’re interested in tracking. In 2012, I had my best year for views ever. Almost 16k total views! That’s not huge for an influencer, but it was pretty big for 16/17 year old me.
2013 and 2014 look pretty low in comparison, right? Half as many views. But when you focus on the number of visitors I had from 2012 to 2014, it’s a completely different picture:
Although I had fewer visits in 2013 and 2014, the people who did visit came back multiple times. In 2012, it was mostly the same people clicking back lots of times. If you only care about view count, it doesn’t matter to you if 16k people click on your page once and never return. If you care about building a community, you’re likely more interested in who’s revisiting. So these graphs are a data-filled minefield! And maybe you can’t trust your stats if you’re not even sure what you want to track!
Another thing: I can see search terms and number of email subscribers and number of WordPress subscribers but I can’t see name, age, post code, etc. There’s no way of telling if someone’s a casual reader, or pops in twice a year, or reads every post as soon as I press publish. You could go by how many comments each post gets, but I’ll talk more in a tick about how that’s not necessarily a good way of working things out either. Essentially, unless you’re only interested in views or subscriber count, there’s no formula you can plug in. A over B minus C equals engaged fan, etc.
So here’s how I work it out.
I’ve been blogging since 2009. I post one to four posts a month, thereabouts. Back in the day I posted one to four posts a week (insane), but over the last four or five years it’s about one to four monthly. My rule of thumb for discerning a ‘regular reader’ is that they are anyone who leaves a comment, or does a reply to a publication post on social media, or drops me a message, or brings it up in conversation if we know each other in real life, every two-four months. Because I can’t discern ‘casual reader’ from ‘one time viewer’ from ‘very enthusiastic reader, essentially a fan’ from the analytics, I go by how often the reader actively tells me they’re there. And if you don’t tell me you’re there every quarter, or every 12 or so posts, I’m going to assume you’re not there and haven’t been since I last heard from you.
Does that sound too strict to you? Or not strict enough? I came to the ‘every two-four months or assume they’ve gone’ ‘rule’ by considering how I engage with creators, and assuming that the rest of the world acts in a same-ish way. Look, I used the phrase ‘rule of thumb,’ you can’t have expected lots of science. Maybe I’m the only person in the universe who engages how I do.
To break it down my consumer habits a bit: I don’t comment on every YouTube video I watch or comment on every blog I read. But when I think of the creators I like giving my time to, I might post a comment every third or fourth post (or comment on a comment). Sometimes I only comment once in a blue moon, because I don’t have anything to add to the conversation, or I’m not quite ready to start chatting to the creator. Sometimes it’s nice to just be a bit casual or anonymous, especially if the creator’s subject is something I’m new to, or if I’m educating myself about a topic. Sometimes, my way of engaging is to tell people to check out so-and-so (speaking of. Remind me to tell you guys how much fun this last series of The Magnus Archives has been). So I consider myself ‘engaged’ with a creator if I do those semi-regular, well, engagements. If I engage casually, maybe only commenting every few months, then I’m a casual reader/viewer. A fan but in a very relaxed way. No flag waving! It’s flexible, though. You can go back and forth between ‘casual’ and ‘active’ a lot over the years of liking something or someone’s work.
For example, I spent three or four months as a casual listener of The Magnus Archives, but then I joined a subreddit which I comment on sometimes and I’ve been nerding out about the plot of the final series with my friend and I wrote a script inspired by [spoilers] for my friend to illustrate, so now I reckon I’m a committed fan. Oh, and I’m telling you guys about it! So, yeah, I’m a member of the Red String Brigade as of the day I’m writing this. Will I always be this entrenched in the show? No. But I’ll always have a soft spot for the creators and the fandom, which seems to be stocked with very nice people. In the same way that I don’t listen to My Chemical Romance every day* but I do still retweet Frank Iero and keep half an eye on solo projects and merchandise. Many fandom friends from 2011 are still my friends now. If MCR ever comes out with new music, I’ll hit that order button faster than Biden re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement. I’ve spent months designing a jacket for their comeback show. ‘Being a fan’ is an elastic experience, like attending an exercise class. You can stop for a bit and then go back when you feel like it. Let the tide take you where it will.
None of this is designed to make you feel bad if you’ve been reading this blog for 10 years and you’ve never left a comment. You’re consuming entertainment, not applying for a mortgage. I do not need proof of your existence. Like I said, there are some creators I engage with rarely, if ever. Those I’m watching or reading because I’d like to learn more about a subject are more likely to get a quiet private message from me saying thanks for the info than they are a five paragraph comment, you know? Maybe one day I’ll start engaging more publicly or regularly, but I might not. I might not even send that private message; I’m not contractually required to. As a consumer I like to show my appreciation but I don’t like being made to feel obliged to do so. As a creator, I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to comment on every Tweet or blog post in order for me to consider them ‘a real reader.’ If you like the things I write on this blog, you’re one of my readers, as far as I’m concerned! Which probably negates a lot of what I’ve just written but like I said, these things are self-identified so really this rule of thumb business is just me being a giant Guessy McGuesser.
I feel like I’m going to get a question about books, so:
How does this work with books?
Shockingly, I do not know the identity of everyone who buys my book (please buy my book). My royalty statements aren’t through yet but they won’t contain a list of customer names. No one wants that much depth in their analytics… I suppose my only way of telling a casual reader from an engaged one is if they actively engage with the book after they’ve finished reading. For example if they hit me up in a private message, or leave a review.
So what have we learnt? I learnt that I wanted to put a gif of Klaus Hargreeves in a swimming pool below the paragraph about the tide and I couldn’t find a suitable one. Have you learnt anything? If you’re a consumer, how do you know when you’ve become a fan as opposed to a casual viewer? If you’re a creator and a consumer, how do you work it out?
Look after yourselves!
*I am listening to My Chemical Romance as I edit, though, ha!
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