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Specialist Creators with Small Audiences

There are two basic ways that creators with small audiences get a larger audience that supports their work and provides significant value in return.

  1. They make stuff that appeals to a lot of people.
  2. They make stuff that super-appeals to a small audience.

For (2) to work, the audience has to care a lot more than for (1). They have to be happy that their niche is being served at all even though it isn’t very popular. It has to mean enough for them to take tangible actions and ignore minor negatives (e.g. typos, less professional audio quality, worse art, smaller community, the articles/videos impress their friends less, and worse marketing). Worse marketing means the audience has to do more work to see the value in stuff themselves instead of being told the value in words that are really easy for them to understand.

Fans in a small niche have to do stuff at much higher rates like:

  • share, promote
  • comment, discuss, engage
  • praise
  • pay money, donate
  • advocate for the creator
  • help with stuff (e.g. volunteer moderators, helping newbies, making a subreddit, making transcripts, making art)
  • ask questions
  • respond to polls, prompts or questions
  • click buttons such as like, favorite, subscribe, thumbs up, upvote
  • finish reading/watching articles/videos instead of stopping in the middle
  • read/watch older content instead of only paying attention to new releases
  • become invested in the creator and/or community
  • feel inspired and motivated without music, art, slogans or facecam

If they don’t do these things at higher rates, then the niche creator never gets a good deal (from other people, from the external world). He isn’t rewarded for serving that niche. He can’t get value from as many people, and he’s also not getting extra value per person. That means the people in that niche didn’t care all that much, even if they said they do.

For all creators, but especially niche creators, these positive behaviors are especially needed from early adopters. Getting started with little audience is hard and is helped by superfans who care a lot. As Ayn Rand put it in The Fountainhead:

Don’t despise the middleman. He’s necessary. Someone had to tell them. It takes two to make every great career: the man who is great, and the man—almost rarer—who is great enough to see greatness and say so.

If the early adopters for a creator serving a small niche don’t care much and don’t take action, then it doesn’t work. The niche can’t be profitably served, or it wants to be served in a different way. When people really highly value something that is not mass-produced and not readily available, then they act like it. If they don’t seem to care much, then they probably don’t really see much difference between the specialized content and some other more mainstream content, and they wouldn’t mind very much if they didn’t have the specialized content at all. Or they just don’t think this content is especially good. People often lie about how much they care because they like having the specialized content for free or very cheap, and they value it more than nothing. If they mislead a creator into thinking he’s more valued and appreciated than he is, so he expects rewards that don’t materialize, it can provide them with more opportunity to be leeches.

To be clear, lurkers are harmless; people who only care a little aren’t a problem; it’s people who lie that they care more than they do, and then take actions in conflict with their words, who are problematic.

As small, early audiences should have high rates of positive behaviors, they should also have have unusually low rates of negative behaviors. Negative behaviors include saying things that make the creator or his fans lose social status, being adversarial/hostile with the creator or with other fans, breaking rules, being toxic, being passive-aggressive, pushing discussion topics away from the creator’s niche, quitting/leaving, and breaking promises (e.g. implying you’ll follow up on a discussion topic, but then not doing it).

Some people don’t understand that content is specialized for a small niche audience, and what that means. Sometimes when they say they really love it, they mean they like it for an unspecialized thing, but they don’t actually like it much by the higher standards of a specialized thing. If you see it as slightly outcompeting mainstream content, that isn’t good enough – you aren’t a super fan or helpful early adopter. Creators for small niches cannot survive off being liked slightly more; that doesn’t make up for the downside of serving a small niche.

If an article or video gets 100k views, then if 99% of people do nothing that’s fine. 1% of people commenting or donating is 1k people. However, if it gets 100 views, it needs an engagement rate far above 1% or else the creator is simply being charitable. Small early-adopter audiences for specialist creators have to do things like share, donate, discuss, praise, help, etc., at much higher rates than audiences of popular creators do. If they don’t, they are signaling there’s no viable niche there, and that they shouldn’t be served.

It’s like how successful email newsletters have high rates of being opened and read early on (e.g. when they have 1k subscribers), and that goes down when they get to 100k subs. If you view a new, specialist creator as offering 10% higher value than a popular mainstream creator, then to a very rough approximation you will be 10% more likely to share links, post comments, etc., and 10% less likely to do negative behaviors. That isn’t even close to good enough. A new creator with a relatively small target audience needs positive behavior rates way above 1%. Getting 1.1% (from the average person liking it 10% more) won’t work – instead of 1.1% it needs to be more like 20%. Even a new creator with a huge target audience needs to start out with high positive behavior rates, e.g. 5%.

Good YouTube click through rates (CTR) provide another example:

  • Views below 1000 can have a CTR between 25% and 35%
  • Views between 10,000 to 20,000 can have a CTR between 18% and 25%
  • Views between 100,000 to 200,000 can have a CTR between 10% and 15%
  • Views above one Million can have a CTR between 2% and 5%

In other words, according to this article, videos below 1k views need roughly a 30% positive behavior rate to stand out and be successful. The drops to 22% by 15k views and 12% by 150k views. Past a million views, 2% can mean things are working well. Those are good numbers that indicate success; average or typical numbers are lower.

These are loose numbers but the point is small/initial audiences should on average be significantly more positive than big audiences, and audiences for specialists should be significantly more positive, and with both at once (small audience and specialist content) there should be a lot more positivity. A fair amount of fans need to see a qualitative difference instead of just an incremental improvement. There need to be super fans and high rates of positive things in the broader audience too (excluding the super fans). If positivity rates are low early, there’s a big problem, because they are only going to get lower as the audience expands (early adopters are the best fit there’s going to be; growing the audience requires expanding to people whose preferences don’t fit the content as well).

Some audience members make excuses to themselves. One excuse is that they are busy – that almost always just means they are prioritizing other things, and don’t care all that much. If they don’t follow any other creators, don’t use social media, don’t play video games, and don’t read the news, maybe they really are busy. That’s rare. Broadly, everyone is pretty busy (even if they are busy watching YouTube rather than doing obligations), and creators have to compete for the attention of busy people. Every creator has audience members who are busy but choose to spend time on his stuff anyway.

Another excuse is people think they don’t know how to help with anything or they aren’t in a position to do anything. That’s not true. Anyone who appreciates stuff could leave positive comments regularly. They could also share stuff (basically everyone has friends and/or could figure out how join some relevant online communities that enable sharing like on Reddit, Facebook or Discord).

People also make excuses about barriers to entry. But if you highly value specialized stuff, then you would find ways to overcome barriers – happily, on your own initiative. If you don’t have initiative for anything then you just aren’t capable of highly valuing things. (Many people who are generally low-initiative suddenly do have some initiative when it’s actually very important to them – e.g. trying to get a spouse or job, or trying to fix some problem in their life that they regard as urgent.)

Another thing people do is: The creator makes X and Y. Some people say they like X a lot but act more like they like Y (e.g. they upvote it more). Often X is a more specialized thing (e.g. epistemology) and Y has broader appeal (e.g. political commentary) and is available elsewhere.

If an initial small audience has a bunch of excuses and isn’t engaged, then a larger audience in the future, if it ever happened, would be less engaged. But engagement wouldn’t have enough room to decline a normal amount with audience growth, and still exist. So basically a larger audience is impossible because if some growth somehow happens (e.g. using paid advertising) engagement would go down to near-zero and be too low for e.g. stuff to get shared enough. The bigger the audience you find, the less good the fit will be with them, and the more engagement and appreciation will drop.

Talking about these issues is unusual. It’s often counter-productive. People interpret it as desperation, as an admission of weakness and failure. And it leads to increased lying from moochers who are willing to pay with a few lies to try to get more “free” ice cream (usually this is done without conscious understanding of what they are doing or why, and without conscious knowledge that they have lied).

Some people exaggerate to try to flatter the creator in order to appease him, but don’t consider that dishonest.

Some people feel pressured and respond negatively (or short term superficially positively) – they don’t think they signed up to be asked to actually do anything so they resent it. But asking a public readership in general for something isn’t pressuring (e.g. if someone makes a GoFundMe, they aren’t pressuring you), and explaining a situation isn’t even asking.

Other people feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of trying to act like they value stuff (many people are bad at valuing anything and are unsuited to being early adopters or active members of a specialized community, but don’t admit that to themselves).

In general, if people highly value stuff, they will act that way naturally, without being asked/prompted. If you’re trying to explain to people what leaving positive comments on articles and videos is, and why to do it, then they just aren’t that into you (but those same people somtimes won’t admit to not being that into you). Having to ask (or bring it up without asking) is a bad sign and asking mostly doesn’t increase how much people genuinely value stuff.

Even though I’m a philosopher and writing about an issue like this is on-topic for me (unlike for most creators) – it’s the kind of thing I might write about even if it had zero relevance to my community – it still will be interpreted by some people (including some who deny it in their own minds) as low status, even though it’s an explanation not an ask (and a brief flurry of activity that dies off without explanation is not something I actually want anyone to do – I’m not asking for that; please don’t). Also a lot of rationalist people are like “I don’t care about status. Why are you even talking about status? Do you care about status? That is a you-problem.” But they do care a lot about status without realizing it, and it determines a lot of their behavior like whether they share links, buy stuff, spend time on stuff, etc.

Regarding my own community, I think a major problem is that most people (even of the relatively small group interested in rational philosophy) don’t actually want to put effort into improving themselves. The more I’ve moved to explaining pathways for progress – actions people can take to improve – the more I’ve seen people are mostly unwilling to actually do the work, practice stuff, and keep at it over time. And I think clarity about that drives people away, because some people liked to pretend to do that stuff, and it’s harder to pretend now.

I also started outclassing people at debate too much and they don’t actually value losing debates in clear, conclusive ways (that’s something I value highly but have nowhere to get).

I’ve also put long term effort into suppressing tribalist political posting and other tribalist behaviors, but lots of people want ingroups and outgroups to be biased about. There are various reasons for this like wanting to feel accepted/sanctioned (whereas I suggest they should actually put effort into learning stuff instead of expecting immediate praise just for joining the group). And having an outgroup gives people a way to write safe comments that won’t be wrong/refuted/unpopular (if they do get attacked, they’re likely to be defended by others, since they’re saying what most of the group thinks). One of the reasons people don’t post much at my forums is they don’t know what they can say without a risk of receiving criticism.

They also are unwilling to say they don’t want criticism and thereby appear irrational. Some people want me to sacrifice my integrity for them – pretend to do unbounded criticism while actually holding back most criticism, so they can appear highly rational. That’s a common mutual arrangement among “intellectuals”, but it’s bad, and I actually want to receive more criticism not less, so both parts of the arrangement are bad for me.

Anyway, a lot of people treat philosophy as entertainment or as a source of clever things to say (usually without giving adequate credit for where they got it), but they don’t really want to examine their life and put work into improving much. Also they see a lot of life in terms of social status without realizing it.

One solution to a bad early audience is to give up and make something else. Serve a niche that there’s more demand for. Another option is to find a different source of initial audience members to use (e.g. go recruit Goldratt fans). Another is to change how the content is presented and communicated (there could be misunderstandings). It’s possible with a small sample size that having a bad audience is bad luck, and things will improve by themselves over time as some new members join, but that’s uncommon.

Another option is just to ignore the audience – get money in a different way and create stuff as a (charitable) hobby (I’ve done a lot of this). Another option is to keep creating the same stuff but don’t share it publicly – just send it to friends or keep it for just yourself (I’ve done a lot of this too, e.g. I wrote a few books worth of material privately before I started posting regularly to the CF website).

I think my basic problem is that people don’t want rationality. There isn’t demand for it. But I’d rather do it anyway than change niches. I don’t think better marketing could fix this. It could bring in more people who claim to want rationality, but I think that would just lead to problems. The more I put effort into communicating clearly and offering practical, accessible actions people could take, the more I’d be in conflict with my own audience that wants to posture about rationality, and gain rationality-related social status, but doesn’t actually want rationality. I think I’m serving a niche that lacks demand but which people are particularly dishonest about.

Is that plausible? Consider the lack of any other creators or communities that are very rational. There’s no one else who has an audience I want if only I could somehow get their attention. No one else is having success at this (though a few pretend to). There’s no forum I can join to interact with other people with interests and values similar to mine. As usual, of course, these claims are open to debate and criticism – but note the non-existence of any website with high quality rational debates happening. While that is a thing many people say they want, there is no company or creator which has been able to serve that niche successfully.

See also Demand For Intellectual Discussion and the lack of productive discussion of Popper, Rand or Goldratt online. Or search the web for terms like debate online – none of the results appear to be both very rational and very successful (usually neither). And I’ve been asking people for leads on this kind of thing for years in case someone else had found something good, and none of my fans (or the groups or non-fans who I’ve asked) have ever shared anything good. It’s uncommon that anyone has even claimed to know of something good except sometimes the venue I’m asking at (e.g. at Less Wrong a lot of people think Less Wrong is good (including associated stuff like EA or SSC) but think everything else online is bad – and Less Wrong is actually bad). When people do claim to know of something good, it’s usually something I’m already familiar with and they (or any other advocate of it) don’t want to discuss or debate the flaws I identified with it.

I think community dynamics is an interesting topic and that these concepts are worth understanding like small early adopter audiences, rates of positive behaviors, and specialized niche content. It’s unintuitive to some people that specialized content require more demand (higher prices and other more positive reactions) to be viable. It doesn’t have to exist and be available at all (if it does exist, either some people value it highly and treat it as special, or its existence is charity). It’s similar to custom, hand-crafted physical products, which people often want at mass-production prices (they don’t seem to understand that that’s impossible – they have to be willing to pay a lot extra or they aren’t actually a viable customer base). The sellers often don’t understand this either, have the prices of mass-produced products anchored in their minds, and set prices too low (and often go out of business). To justify the existence of custom products that can’t be mass-produced and mass-marketed, there has to be enough demand for them at much higher prices than the typical mass-produced, mass-marketed products which people are familiar with. People who (economically) demand custom niche products at mass-market or slightly higher prices, but not at way higher prices, are not actually fans of those products, and are not the sort of customers who can keep the seller in business, though they sometimes don’t know this.

For a simple hypothetical example, if you’d be willing to buy my book for $10 (a normal mass-market price) but not $100 (a perfectly reasonable premium for a niche product) then you aren’t really my fan – you are not providing customer demand for my stuff at relevant price points. You don’t value my stuff enough for it to exist. A good fan would be not just willing but very happy to buy a book from me for $100 – the value to him is much higher than that and he’d be thrilled that the book exists at all.

I find it helpful to think about how I treat people I’m a fan of, and then compare behaviors of my fans to that. I was a superfan of David Deutsch and, at that time, I would have viewed a new book by him (or video courses or other format of his choice) as pretty much priceless. I also shared and promoted his work a huge amount, and gave a huge amount of feedback/replies.

Recently, I’ve promoted much more mainstream and popular creators than myself (like Stark, Stoller, Pueyo, Yglesias and various YouTubers) much more than any of my fans promote me. They aren’t perfect but they make some things that I think are good enough to share. And they do a somewhat reasonable job of not pretending to be something they aren’t; flaws are much more tolerable when they aren’t denied or lied about. Another example: there are plenty of people who know more about politics and economics than Asmongold does, but Asmongold is more tolerable to listen to than many more knowledgeable people because he’s more humble – he’s pretty reasonable and open, instead of dishonest, about his limited knowledge.

I know I’m particularly willing and able to take actions at all. Partly I share more because I’m much more energetic than the average person. Directly comparing myself to fans isn’t perfect. But I’m a person with pretty non-mainstream tastes, and I’m really happy when I find things somewhat suitable to my tastes (despite major imperfections, e.g. I’d prefer philosophy over politics but I read some politics anyway due to the severe shortage of readable/watchable philosophy content). There’s a comparison there to fans who don’t really act very excited to have me. If it’s actually because they do value me but they’re passive in their whole life … that’s not that different than not really liking me … it doesn’t particularly matter. The outcome is the same.

Most people aren’t very good good at valuing things and taking actions. Perhaps that’s an even bigger bottleneck than people wanting specialist content. Popular mainstream stuff has the social status, community frameworks and other resources to get regular, passive people to take some positive actions – whereas a tiny niche community can’t offer all that social/community/institutional support to help address people’s passivity for them.

It’s similar to how a lot of people need school classes because they’re too passive to just go online and learn, even though the internet has better content at lower prices in more convenient formats. “Passive” isn’t the exact issue btw, it’s just an approximation.

To summarize/conclude, you can be pretty passive when you’re a fan of mass-market stuff and it’s fine. But when you’re a fan of a new/unpopular creator serving a small/specialized niche, you need to do more positive behaviors (and fewer negative behaviors) or else you’re relying on other fans to do that and/or relying on the creator’s charity.

Elliot Temple on May 13, 2022


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