Amplify’s very own head of insight, Bexy Cameron. talks about FanCulture in even more depth, giving an exploration into the role fans could, and should, play in brands and marketing.
My life seems to revolve around fans, influencers and brand ambassadors. It all started when I was head of creative at MySpace and we were trying to ascertain what was at the essence of this colossal and global platform that actually made it interesting, gave it heart and a human side. The answer was simple, not the brand which was failing, definitely not the product that was disappointing, it was the passion, excitement and power of the fans.
Fans are of great interest to academics, the media, brands and marketers; not only dissected, theorized, observed and documented but there is also huge commercial value on harnessing and leveraging their power and influence. And for me fans are fascinating to the point that I have dedicated both my professional and now academic life to this topic.
The original objectives of my research included the question: Can fans be created/manufactured and if so, what is the formula? While research into this topic progressed, it became clear that although there might not be a proven formula, brands are devising strategies to pinpoint people of influence, and target them with a view to converting these influencers from consumers into fans and in turn create brand ambassadors.
The evolution of fan strategies
When considering fans; their drivers, habits, structures and communities, it is clear why these cultures are very appealing to brands. Fan are loyal consumers, they can be creative and vocal and now have increasingly more platforms on which to ‘Follow’, ’Like’ and love the object of their fandom.
Influencer marketing, Involving fans and in turn brand ambassadors, is still in its pre-paradigm phase, while it has been organic since before the Ramones wore Converse at the doors of CBGBS, in the past brand and marketers were hesitant about utilizing this strategy - without the quantification of return on investment a substantial amount of faith would be needed to believe in an individual’s effect on others. Historically endorsement was a tactic solely for celebrities, whose ‘worth’, reach and influence could be measured by television appearances, column inches and album sales; memories of a young lycra clad Paula Abdul contradictorily (and contractually) claiming ‘Nobody tells me what to wear’ while in an advert and endorsement campaign for LA Gear. But with changes in the digital age it has become progressively easier to quantify and measure both reach & digital footprint, bringing the power and influence of the ‘average’ individual into the brand endorsement sphere. At MySpace one strategy was tracking down ‘power users’ who were not celebrities but had celebrity quantities of followers and involving them in influencer schemes; a 19 year old illustrator from Manchester with 17000 friends, a red headed amateur model with ADHD with 40,700 friends and a 30 year old that used to glue crystals on hats and t-shirts, with 170,000 friend count who’s name was ‘T shirt Steve’. Even Kanye West was a friend of his.
The Rise of fans in the digital age
The rise of fans and brand ambassadors in marketing schemes has come about not only because of shifts in the digital age, but a shift in perspective on advertising as a whole; research papers proclaiming peer to peer marketing as a powerful force, word of mouth (WOM) is considered a strong tool, combined with popular texts such as Malcolm Gladwell’s theory on ‘the tipping point’ these and other factors have caused marketers to think outside of regular strategies such as ‘Above the line’ billboard and TV, or digital marketing. Intelligent marketing strategies strength lies not in whether an individual has merely seen or heard a message - it is about relating and having a connection to it. But in a space that is so crowded with advertising noise, click through banners, youtube stings, event and festival branding, marketers are ever on the quest for new ways to ‘cut through’ and penetrate their target audience in a more meaningful and emotional ways. For example; Nike's billboards proclaiming ‘Just Do It’ has never really resonated with me, but their under the radar strategy of empowering women to jog in urban communities at night through running crews is a local and physical manifestation of this message which I find compelling.
The Dilution of Fandom
But while fans are of increasingly more importance to brand strategies, the term ‘fan’ has been somewhat diluted. Significant reasons for this being the emergence of both social networking sites and marketing companies that promise the ‘creation’ and ‘manufacturing’ of fans for marketing strategies. On facebook brands have put a large importance on ‘likes’, which is perhaps a false signification that a ‘like’ equates to fandom, further more to this there are companies working to the business model of paying people to ‘like’ brand pages. Which seems to contradict the constituent ingredients of fandom. But these schemes can be a lucrative business model, CrowdTap, an agency that gives ‘redeemable points’ for ‘Liking’ brands crossed the $1 million revenue mark in its first year.
When Brands turn to Fans
There are many reasons brands turn to fans and brand ambassadors; to generate new and genuine PR stories like Nike’s Run Dem Crew, to launch a product into a new target audience like Converse with their StarPlayer product, to ensure that their current form of programming is on target like e4, and some just to ensure that they have a dialogue with their target audience. Fans have been integrated into strategies as both mouthpiece, critic, and the face of brands.
An advanced example of fan involvement in marketing that started organically but ended as a branded activation is the fans of the band ‘30 Seconds to Mars’ who call themselves ‘The Echelon’. The Echelon are given incentives, tasks, web platforms and tools and have structure. They work as teams (called cells), they are given missions, there are cells in all major cities the globe over, they perform PR stunts - in 2009 in Rio De Janeiro under cover of darkness an Echelon cell wrapped the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue in white linen baring the bands logo - and they have progression and promotion within their cell structure. Although there is a an air of mystery around them and many consider the group to have ‘cult’ like qualities In effect they could be used as a example and template the strategy for the involvement of fans in brands.
In my experience intelligent brands and marketers realise that while the manufacturing of fans seems to be a contradiction to the essence of fandom there are frameworks that can pinpoint fans and utlize them in marketing strategies - by giving them extra information, value, incentives and challenges.
While the strategies used to involve fans are many and varied and depend on the desired result, there are some key points that could be integrated into most schemes; fans are a long term play, ‘fans are for life’ and should be considered a valuable investment. The fan voice should be pure; do not try to control it as it will not be genuine. Fans put in more, but they require more; always ask what is in it for the fan? Conversations with fans should be a genuine dialogue; fans should be allowed and encouraged to feedback.
Word of Warning
The findings of my research and study have raised a number of important implications for future practice of fan involvement in brand marketing strategies, there are questions around exploitation of this culture especially when youth are involved which lead me to believe that it is important that the framework, incentives and recruitment for this strategy take a cautious approach and consider the personal development of the fans involved.
And while fans involvement in marketing is an increasingly utilized strategy, it's important to remember the power of the fan can have a duality in effect; If a brand or marketer follows the correct framework to pinpoint a person of influence they will not only have a large reach, but will be considered credible by their peers, and this credibility and reach will run across platform - which while the fan is on the side of the brand is a powerful force. But if mismanaged the effect of fan influence could backfire turning influential loyal fan into disgruntled and vocal antagonist. But brands, whether marketers and strategist like it or not, are public property, so fans and antagonists are already part of the conversation.
My belief is that marketing strategies and frame works can and should have dual purpose of value for brand and value for fans and audiences involved and that these objectives should be a matter of course when devising any influencer/brand ambassador/or fan scheme. While this methodology sounds overly simplistic it is one that I rarely see come to fruition in most campaign work. Whether the strategy contains an altruistic, ontological or cultural value, these are the strategic solutions that not only have worth but provide brands with authentic stories that have longevity and fans with even more reasons to be loyal.