Ask Your Audience: A Winning Product Development Strategy

As individuals with a desire to bring new things into the world, you get a lot of “how to” messages. Creative people tend to struggle with a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum. Should you begin with the product (for lack of a better work–though it could be a service, art, etc.), or by building your audience and starting a dialog?

What if you want to offer something, but you’re not even sure what it is?

It’s more common that you might think. In this situation, an entrepreneur or maker might begin not with an idea for a product, but with a desire to connect, knowing that he can offer value in the relationship. The starting point is building a brand–conveying why you’re out there doing what you do–wherever that may lead. You want to build an audience around your innate “why”, find out what that audience wants and what you can do for them.

Here’s a great example. Like you, I read a lot, gathering insight and inspiration from various disciplines and voices. There’s a lot of noise out there, and the voices that cut through the noise, who we return to again and again, are the ones that we can trust, and with whom we have some affinity. Over time, if their message remains relevant, we begin feel as if we have a relationship. One day, we might make a product purchase. In the case of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand goop, she began by building an audience and learning what they want. First selling partner products, Paltrow eventually initiated her own products, which include a skin care product line. Gwyneth built an audience, learned what they wanted, and found ways to fulfill those desires while staying true to her brand.

Think of your own brand. You’re considering an idea and timing your move. What if the most important thing (after why) isn’t the what, but who, as in the audience that can also be your first customers?

According to Dorie Clark, we don’t have to go to market with products and services; starting by building an audience is inverting the typical model to your advantage. According to Scott Belsky (Making Ideas Happen 2010), many thought leaders keep blogs as laboratories where they experiment with ideas, gathering early feedback before deciding whether to execute.

Focusing first on audience is a product development strategy that works for many entrepreneurs and artists, and it might work for you. So next time you’re trying to develop product ideas, consider first “who is my audience” and “how can I find out what they want”. It might just be a winning approach.

TOLDJA! Diversity Pays

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on April 13, 2016 

Last month, I wrote about the make-believe economics of the movie industry that people use to convince themselves to cast actors who are white, and avoid actors who aren’t.

The diversity issue is particularly annoying because as much as the movie industry has reinforced racial and gender stereotypes, and it has, films have also pushed audiences to important social change. But diversity casting is often challenged based on a common misconception among my industry colleagues.

Here’s a true story from earlier in this decade when I was approaching a well-known sales company about representing a film I was putting together. I gave them a list of the actors we could consider for starring roles. They were not all white.

“You can’t cast these people,” the sales agent said, crossing the black actors off the list. “We can’t sell them overseas.”

“What about Will Smith?” I asked.

“Will would be OK. He’s not black,” the agent said.

Yep, that’s verbatim dialogue.

Racism in Hollywood is rarely that overt. But, as I wrote, “The lack of overt racism, like so much in the entertainment business, is an illusion. I have never had financiers or producers tell me they only want to cast white actors. Instead, they couch their racism in economic terms, explaining that the movie business is, first and foremost, a business.”

In my article I used historic box office performance numbers to dispell the myth that only white actors do well at the international box office.

Now there’s data to drive the conclusion further: diversity can be a key component of box office success. This week I attended CinemaCon, the annual convention of theatre owners, where Chris Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, and John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, presented their state of the industry reports.

Movies have had a record-breaking year, grossing $38.3 billion worldwide and $11.1 billion domestic. Globalization has its upside, and the expansion of international markets bodes well for diversity casting. Furious 7, with its diverse cast, grossed $351 million domestic and an astounding $1.16 billion international. As John Fithian said, “When movies look like the world, the world goes to the movies.”

Then there’s U.S. audience. Among the many facts and figures of the MPAA’s 2015 report, this one stands out:

Moviegoers by ethnicity graph

U.S. moviegoers’ ethnic breakdown, 2015. Source: MPAA

“Hispanics are more likely than any other ethnic group to purchase movie tickets (23%) relative to their share of the population (17%).”

Let’s be clear. When it comes to social justice, money cannot and should not be our guide. There are far more important reasons than money to cast movies in a way that represents society. In fact, we should use the beautiful medium of film to represent barrier-free images of people of all ethnicities and genders.

Movies are often about the way we want the world to be, and we should not pander to audiences. But in this instance, the audience — global, rainbow-hued, and hungry for great entertainment — is there and they are right. When the false economics of racism fall, we’ll all make better movies.

Top image from Furious 7, courtesy Universal Pictures.
Headline with apologies to the legacy of Nikki Finke, Deadline.

Connect Like Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is a performance artist, dramatist, singer and songwriter who has built a remarkably loyal following. They love her punk-cabaret music as performed solo, with the Dresden Dolls, and in various collaborations. As she describes in her TED Talk, her former label considered her album releases failures because her audience didn’t expand enough. Palmer decided to leave the label, and her fan base has continued to support her via Patreon, a platform that enables her to continue to support herself while making her art. It’s a phenomenon any artist should like to repeat themselves, and a story that translates well to any type of entrepreneurship.

Perhaps the best advocate for how to connect like Amanda Palmer is Palmer herself. Since departing from Roadrunner (a Warner Music subsidiary) in 2009, Palmer serves as her own promoter, organically sharing and cleverly partnering to trumpet her work to the widest audience possible. As she told Pitchfork in 2009, building an audience requires a long view of success. “You tour and you work hard and you take care of your fans and very real things lead to other real things. There’s never been some fantastic fluke or break in my career, it has all been very slow and steady.” Here are a few techniques that have served her growth:

  1. Collaborate–She recorded her album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” at Ben Folds’ studio. Ben Folds produced, and he and others played on the album. She has included people such as Margaret Cho in various projects. Each time she collaborates, she inches herself out there a little bit more, connecting with her collaborators’ fans as well.
  2. Borrow—Covering other artists’ songs is yet another way to spark connections with audiences who may not have encountered Palmer otherwise. This could be said for her ukulele covers of Radiohead songs.
  3. Facilitate–Palmer hosts a community, Shadowbox, where fans discuss all things Amanda Palmer. It’s meta, it’s bold, and it keeps her fans engaged when there is downtime between tours and album releases.
  4. Share–Palmer makes masterful use of social media (follow her on Twitter here). There she manages a balance between the public and private that is compelling. Palmer shares personal updates, political views and links to content, as well as frequent updates about her creative life and progress on new work.
  5. Ask–Palmer is a big proponent of the “ask”–of being forthcoming about the economic exchange artists require. Art is work, and artists deserve to be compensated fairly for it. She made headlines in 2012 when she funded a project by launching a Kickstarter that earned $1.2M, setting records for funding on the platform. Rather than empowering gatekeepers to set prices for her work, she prefers instead a true free-market approach. Leveraging her own website, you can download her music for free. The “ask” comes in when you donate what you think it’s worth or can afford. She has also used the Patreon platform, where you can subscribe for early access to releases and extra content.

There are many who claim to know how to build an audience–here Palmer truly shines. She is a tremendously approachable artist, and I challenge you to adopt some of her techniques. Consider your audience early and often in any undertaking, and find ways to connect that create a dialog. That way, your audience knows what’s coming next, its value and place in your body of work.


Originally published in Cultural Weekly on April 6, 2016.

Trump is the symptom. We are the cure.

It doesn’t matter if Donald Trump becomes the Republican presidential nominee, takes a third-party run, or retires from politics and uses his increased brand recognition to inflate his net worth.

His candidacy has unleashed a nativist anger, an anger that has always existed in America but, until Trump, had not found an mass-market spokesman in this generation. It will not go away even if Trump leaves the scene.

Trump is part of a long, tragic lineage of American hatred. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Trump said, “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ We have been disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher.”

Is it just me, or do you hear a reference to the America Firsters, the pro-Third Reich group led by Charles Lindbergh before the US entry into WWII? In Trump’s vilification of people who are “smarter, shrewder,” do you detect anti-Semitic jargon? That’s the idiom of dog-whistle politics. You can hear it if your ears select the right frequency.

But Trump is just the vessel; these new America Firsters now have an organization and they will continue to mobilize it. The implicit violence he advocates – against Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, women, the poor, anyone who opposes him or stands in his way – is not new, it is just magnified. We’re witnessing the creation of an American National Front, with Trump as our Jean-Marie Le Pen, and, likely at some point, Invanka as our Marine.

The anger of artists is not the anger of the mob.

It’s a time of cultural transformation, and not the good kind. As always, artists will be on the front lines. Artists will be targets even more than we are now. And artists, as always, will be prophetic in showing a path out of the mire.

Artists are angry too. All good art has anger in it. Art is the reaction to seeing the world as it is and the desire to shape it in a different way.

But, as artists, our anger is different.

Artists’ anger is borne from love. Real love. Not the pretense of love that’s cloaked in violence, which you’ll hear from some fundamentalist groups – the people who say they “love the sinner but hate the sin” as a veiled threat to women’s rights or the LGBTQ community.

Artists’ anger comes from the love that wants to make the world a better place. Our anger is not prone to physical violence because we seek constructive change instead of destruction.
We’re scared of violence and have every reason to be. It takes years to create and seconds to destroy.

That’s why, now, it is imperative to support artists of all kinds, and especially artists at the margins, whose creative spirit moves in the direction of change. Their work, our work, is to move culture away from the destructive anger of nativist politics and toward a better world. Given the rise of the new America Firsters, this work will occupy the rest of our lives.

Image modified from Doanld Trump’s official website, photo by Gage Skidmore.