Pro Triathletes: You Only Need 1,000 True Fans

Very few professional triathletes will make enough money through prize money alone to pay the bills, let alone save for the future. Unless you’re winning world championships, you must to find ancillary ways to make a living. Primarily, this is accomplished through either a second job, affiliate marketing arrangements, coaching or entrepreneurship.

This isn’t a problem unique to triathlon. This weekend, I heard a wonderful interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Tim Ferriss podcast, and he talked about how in the 70’s body builders made jack squat. Arnold made money by selling training programs through the mail and he started a construction business with his friend and fellow body builder Franko Columbo. He invested in real estate and thanks to the inflation happening in the 70’s, he became a millionaire before his Hollywood acting career took off.

I have some good news: you can do something similar. If you can build a base of true fans, you can earn a living either selling your own products or services or by selling things for other people. Chris “Big Sexy” McDonald is selling wine. Jesse Thomas and his wife are shipping Picky Bars. The possibilities are endless if you are able to cultivate true fans.

NOTE: While I’m talking to professional triathletes in this article, many of these lessons are also applicable to bloggers, marketers, coaches or NASCAR drivers that I’m at war with. 

Attracting True Fans

DurazoKevin Kelly (writer and co-founder of Wired Magazine) argues in his 1,000 True Fans essay that any artists or other content creators can make a decent living if they are able to attract just 1,000 true fans. I think this could apply to professional triathletes as well.

A true fan will buy whatever you’re selling and they will drive 3 hours just to watch you race. They follow you on every social media platform and probably even have a google news alert for your name. They will even buy your crappy tee shirt. (Confession: Angela Durazo did not pay for that shirt.)

“Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day’s wages per year in support of what you do. That “one-day-wage” is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that. Let’s peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.

One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years. True Fanship is doable. Pleasing a True Fan is pleasurable, and invigorating. It rewards the artist to remain true, to focus on the unique aspects of their work, the qualities that True Fans appreciate.”

Acquiring true fans will not be easy, particularly since many of you are introverted by nature and you’re tired from training all the time. Furthermore, you probably have absolutely no formal schooling in relationship building, selling or marketing (these are all basically the same thing by the way).

You have a website, you blog about your races, you have a few social media accounts that you update just about every day. However, what you need to do is use these tools and other vehicles to deeply and personally connect with people. For the remainder of this article, I’ll recommend a short list of methods.

#1 – Follow Back and Reply

You don’t need to execute a twitter strategy where you follow and unfollow hundreds of people every day in order to boost your numbers. You don’t need 20,000 followers. Remember, you only need 1,000 true fans. That said, if someone takes the time to comment on a Facebook post or reply to one of your tweets, you should absolutely close the loop and make a connection. Believe it or not, that small digital conduit might really mean something to somebody.

Too much stuff in your feed? Following too many people? So what?! Use the mute button. They’ll never know.

Be a giver. Check in on forums like ours at TRS Triathlon. Answer a random age-groupers question about training or equipment. Give some insight on the pro racing scene. It will make their day.

#2 – Be Genuine and Open

Chris McCormack has figured out that honesty pays. Some people think he’s a horse’s ass. However, there are EVEN MORE people who admire him for being candid about his feelings and opinions. Love him or hate him, Macca speaks his mind and does not hold back when he’s asked about potentially controversial topics. Listen to my recent interview for about 15 examples of keeping it real.

No one is expecting you to have the personality and charisma of Chris McCormack, but you can do yourself a huge favor by being radically honest in terms of your personality, your thoughts and your opinions. I didn’t know much about Heather Wurtele prior to interviewing her before Ironman Texas, and I was pleasantly surprised by her willingness to talk about some potentially controversial topics in a live broadcast.

Heather addressed a hurtful conflict with a triathlon magazine in Canada as well as a recent twitter spat with another competitor at Ironman 70.3 St George. She was uncomfortable talking about it. It was risky and it put her in a vulnerable position. However, that vulnerability and radical honestly turned me from casual follower to true fan. I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

#3 – Get Creative

Callum Millward went from relatively unknown by most to household name in less than a year without winning a race. His video series, Cupcakes with Cal, was a great idea and beautifully executed. People connected with not only the humor, but also with his awkward vulnerability.

It’s cheap and easy to create good content these days.  Eric Lagerstrom takes his GoPro footage from races and creates amazing videos.  Emily Cocks teams up with age-grouper and Fantasy Triathlon enthusiast, Zach Miller, on a YouTube video series where they analyze upcoming races and help people make fantasy picks. She’s jumped on a new opportunity and is increasing her fan base every week. Plus, she’s having fun and even winning money from time to time.

Brett Blankner of Zen and the Art of Triathlon produces most of his audio content with nothing but an iPhone. Why not embed some audio via SoundCloud in your next race report?

#4 – Expand Your Reach

Publishers need interesting content. Don’t save your best material for your OWN blog. Think bigger. With just a little bit of extra work, creativity and modification, your blog post could become something quite interesting and you could easily get it published on a site like TRS Triathlon, First Off The Bike, or Witsup.

Why post it elsewhere? Your existing fans will still see it. Plus, you’ll expose yourself to thousands of other people who wouldn’t otherwise visit your blog. Personally, I’m always trying to think about where I could get published in places other than my own site. Unfortunately, I’ve pissed off most of the big players in the lamestream triathlon media, so I’ll have to go it alone. That’s okay, I’m getting dangerously close to 1,000 true fans. Triathlete Magazine can go pound sand.

In the past, I have written for the blue and grey dinosaur. Did they pay me? Hell no. Why did I do it? It expanded my reach and gave me the opportunity to connect with new people. Many thought I was an asshole, but some found my brand of humor amusing.

What should you do with your standard race report? Post it to a forum like ours at TRS Triathlon and start an “Ask Me Anything” thread like Kelly Williamson did just the other day. In just 2 days, her thread has over 600 views and over 52 comments. Her actual blog? Zero comments.

#5 – Appear on Podcasts

hueyTRS 300There is no better way to connect with people than having a personal conversation, so talk to people at races. A more efficient way to have a conversation with lots of potential fans is to be a guest on a podcast. Don’t wait to be invited. Be proactive.

TRS Radio gets over 5,000 listeners per show on average, and we’re booked solid a month or two in advance. To be honest, I don’t really ask people to be on the show anymore. When someone reaches out to me and I have a spot open, they get on the show. Even if you’re a big deal, it would behoove you to be proactive.

I’m not the only game in town. Let Bob Babbitt, Brett from ZenTri, and Tawnee from Endurance Planet know you’re willing and able. Hell, I would even appear on the smallest of shows. In my opinion, appearing on a podcast with just 50 listeners would be better than wasting 2 hours on a blog post. Why? Podcast listeners are loyal, passionate and they feel like they have a relationship with the host. Your appearance makes you a friend of a friend. 

If you do appear on a show, for the love of God share the interview with your existing fan base. I’ve never tracked it, but I would estimate that less than 5% of my podcast guests actually post the episode link on their Facebook pages. Less than 20% share the link on twitter. Typically, a guest will retweet my post one time and that’s it. Unfortunately, no one notices because as people scan their twitter feed, they don’t recognize me and they keep scanning. This is how it’s done:

Why share the links on all of your social platforms?

  1. It’s a wonderful way to connect more deeply with your existing followers. Inviting them to eavesdrop on a conversation is a great way to connect.
  2. It’s polite to reciprocate. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. The host is giving you the chance to plug your sponsors and an introduction this or her audience. It’s just bad manners not to return the favor. If you failed to share previous appearances on podcasts, I have good news. It’s not too late.

On Friday, Conrad Stoltz crafted a blog post where he talked about his appearance on my show 7 months ago. I didn’t ask him to. He just did. One tweet, one facebook post and 48 hours later over 100 people downloaded that episode and listened to him tell stories for over an hour.

If you’ve squandered opportunities in the past, it’s not too late to share. Podcast interviews are timeless. Recycle this type of content. Use it for #TBT (throwback Thursday) or post it under #ICYMI (in case you missed it).

#6 – Give Email Interviews

Email interviews are probably not nearly as impactful as podcast interviews, but not everyone listens to podcasts. Plus, they’re easy and can be done at your leisure. All you need to do is contact people like me and say you’re interested. Be proactive. Don’t wait for the invitation. And by the way, the same rules on reciprocation apply.

Conclusion

You don’t need 30,000 facebook likes. You just need 1,000 true fans who will buy your tee shirt and use your promo codes. Attracting true fans requires authenticity, creativity and some effort. The basics aren’t enough. You need to be proactive with both media outlets and individuals.

Finally, in everything you say and write remember that authenticity and vulnerability are the most attractive qualities. Let your ferocious competitive spirit be known, be open about your failures, and speak honestly about controversy. Do this regularly and the fans (and income) will follow.

To the Pro Triathletes: I’m not interested in being your agent, but I have created a pro-only category within our forum. Please join me there so that we can continue this conversation and/or form a labor union. Just kidding. Not really. Whatever, it’s your forum. Everything that takes place there will be confidential and off the record.

Here’s how to join:

  1. Sign up at forum.trstriathlon.com
  2. Via the forum, message Aaron Webstey for access. He, will verify that you are who you say you are.
  3. If you are an ambassador for or representative of either Challenge or Ironman, you will be denied access. We have a no moles policy.

About the Author

Ben Hobbs
Ben Hobbs is Publisher of TRS Triathlon and host of TRS Radio.