What do CSA farms, Minecraft, and punk cabaret artist Amanda Palmer have in common? They’re all looking at a more direct way to connect with their supporters instead of just selling things to them.
Community supported agriculture (CSA) farms ask consumers to pay up front for weekly shares of the harvest, so that they can buy seed, feed and fertilizer without taking on crippling debt. In return, shareholders pick up a bag of locally grown vegetables, eggs, herbs, and even meat from someone they know and trust.
The developers of Minecraft asked gamers to play their game before it was even finished, and used that money to finish programming it. In the meantime, it became a phenomenon of word of mouth marketing and shared, user-generated content.
Performance artist Amanda Palmer became the poster girl for Kickstarter last year, when her campaign to raise $100,000 for a self-published music CD, art book and tour netted a $1.2 million return. And that’s when the trouble started. After literally making a career of asking others for help and collaboration, Palmer faced the wrath of the internet when she blogged for local musicians to beef up her band onstage – for free – during her tour. Many were incensed that she would have the nerve to ask for free labor after receiving a nice juicy windfall only months earlier. Palmer later retracted her offer to pay musicians in beer, hugs and free merch, and announced that she would pay in cash instead. The controversy spawned debates about ownership, accountability, and the differences between collaboration and exploitation.
Last month, Amanda Palmer gave an incredible, inspiring talk at TED, in which she explains why we should let people pay for things instead of making them do so:
Wait! This is our job, as marketers, to make people buy our ideas, services and products. Or is it? Everything we have learned in the past few weeks keeps pointing to the consumer as the one who has all the cookies. She is less persuadable, harder to find through broadcast media, and better informed than ever before. She wants what she wants, when she wants it, and, if possible, it should come with her name on it, please.
On the other hand, if she likes what you’re offering… that’s when the magic happens. She’ll tell everyone about it, via phone, text, email, tweet and online review. She’ll fund your Kickstarter campaign, buy your unfinished game, and give her personal information to your social network – and smart marketers will provide opportunities to let her do these things.
And when the consumer doesn’t like it… same thing. Everyone hears about that, too. This is the tricky part of a gift economy, where transactions are based on social currencies and relationship building. These supposedly come with no strings attached, and all is gratefully received.
Unfortunately, sometimes people are unhappy about the gift they’ve been given, because it isn’t really what they wanted. Or they feel under-appreciated when the thank you is not as sincere or as fast as they feel it should be. As Amanda Palmer found out, when your business model is based on making connections instead of just making money, things can get messy. But does that mean we shouldn’t bother?