What community builders can learn from superfans

My early teen years I spent obsessing over Lily Allen; updating my MySpace profile to reflect hers, packing in an issue of Nylon Magazine (of which she was on the cover) to a haircut appointment and asking for the same cut (only to be devastated when she appeared not long after with extensions). Those around me knew I was a fan of Lily Allen and much to my mother’s dismay, I spent time lurking on internet forums to find out when her latest single would drop, making a pilgrimage to Oakland as a young adult to see her live.

Being a fan of something or participating in a fandom is something many of us can relate to and can list off 20 or so things, persons, movies, or pop culture icons we're a fan of. Maybe they're mainstream, maybe it's something you love to hate, maybe it's something you experience distress over — whatever it may be — it's a curated and created image that has, to some extent, provided a community of folks that you could share your admiration of.

As community-minded individuals, we've likely either participated in some fan community knowing or unknowingly. Believe it or not, if we break down the objects we're a fan of and why we relate to them so much, we can learn a bit about how to create fandom within our own community.

But first — what is fandom?

Fandom is a verb. According to Zoe Fraade-Blanar, faculty at NYU’s ITP program, founder of Squishables.com, and author of Superfandom, this latest wave of fandom should be looked at as a participatory action—through creation, community building, and brand advocacy your fans can often be your most loyal consumer and brand advocate. By understanding the nature of what inspires and makes someone a fan, we can determine how to leverage the social science of fandom in our own communities.

Fandom is a crowd-sourced perception of being. While we herald the concept of authenticity, we must remember that the true intrinsic nature of someone's being rarely appears online. What you see is often a calculated persona that they choose to present to the world. By choosing what to post (or not post) in a public place we curate this calculated image of self. Fandom oftentimes is the a sort of reflection of individuals interests or even desired perceived interests unfolding. The very things community builders strive for as success are the core tenets of a strong fandom. That’s because fandom is a community. It relies on the interpersonal bonds between their members through fanclubs, showing up to concerts and events, and displaying their fandom publicly through shirts and merchandise. A key tenet is visibility: you cannot have a fandom of one.

Don’t force someone to do something — ask them, trust them, and invest in them

Zooming out from this a bit: How do we create a shared collective fandom? What are the lessons we could take from these folks? Well, the first step is trust.

In an article from the New York Times featuring Mary Franklin, the woman who leads Lucasfilm’s fan efforts from 2010, this means establishing a rapport with fans. “But the trick is to make fans feel tended to rather than managed, and Lucasfilm pulls that off with year-round tactics that many rival studios have not quite committed to. ‘You can’t fake it,’” said Mary Franklin.

From picking employees who run avid fan communities, to top-tier response times to monitor and manage fans, Lucasfilm invests in their community. The return on this investment? A forever-loyal fandom. The New York Times article also mentioned the early prioritization of financial investment in the fandom.

When you’re building something, make sure that you’re taking time to build relationships with people around you. Invest time, money, and resources in your community.  Take time to answer the questions, help someone out, and dammit, be kind.

This can help you build a community larger than yourself. I’m reminded of my own community fan participation and how it has evolved. This evolution has included trekking to an Off-Broadway show, myself dressed in a dress decorated with planets, my then-boyfriend in a button up with stormtroopers and lightsabers across it, all to watch front rowA Musical About Star Wars,” a meta production about the fandom of Star Wars.

So how did Star Wars go from a movie to a ginormous fandom? Through trust. By leaning into the natural fervor about the film and enterprise, and trusting those who were the franchise’s superfans — being a Star Wars fan became something larger than themselves.

Trust your fandom, and trust the people who want to support you, but remember that trust is a two way street. You’ve got to hold up your end of the bargain (even unwritten rules, traditions and agreements) as well.

“I didn't make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I'd connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you. It's kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists. They don't want to ask for things. But it's not easy. It's not easy to ask. And a lot of artists have a problem with this. Asking makes you vulnerable.” — Amanda Palmer, The Art of AskingSource: TED: The Art of Asking

This two-way street of trust can help you gain insights to what makes your fandom tick and helps you identify community rituals and organizations, as well as how you can give them ownership over different resources and activities for your brand.

So, what does trust look like? Actively trusting your fans, and thus encouraging the fandom, can mean diving into larger relationships with them.

Embrace your fan growth

Even when it seems a bit risky. Right now trusting your fan growth means potentially taking risks for the long-haul, even if it's a risk that at times can seem completely off base, say, crowdsourcing your entire perception of celebrity?

Hatsune Miku is a crowdsourced celebrity, an animated vocaloid that relies heavily on fan created content for much of its entire existence. Originally a logo for Crypton Future Media, the character began to develop a life of its own, especially after Crypton Future Media decided to creative commons the likeness in 2007.

At the time that Miku’s likeness was granted a creative commons license, she had likenesses that had been remixed, resulting in 170,000+ videos, 95,000 songs, and 500,000+ artworks created by the community (Creative Commons). This—in combination with appearances on David Letterman, sold out concert appearances, partnerships with Toyota, and even a slated 2020 appearance at Coachella—shows the impact you can have by trusting your fans, and tapping into them to do good.

In an article for Engadget, we see this phenomenon take shape: "All of Hatsune Miku's music is written by fans," says Amy Fineshriber, a 21-year-old American artist based in Japan, who was recently commissioned to illustrate Miku for Crypton Future Media's American Expo campaign videos. "A lot of pop stars have teams that write their music, control their look and plan concerts. They have an artificial personality created by an industry whereas Miku is created by the fans. While her songs aren't her own, they don't belong to the company either."

The takeaway: Crypton Future Media trusted their fans, and even encouraged them. Through providing resources, places to gather, and leaning into partnerships and appearances that would allow them to grow, they have successfully taken a logo and turned it into a community.

Support your fandom

Lately I’ve been fascinated by how streetwear and sports brands have been tapping into the community, relying on fandom as a way to activate their audiences. Earlier this year, if you were even remotely interested in sports, you probably watched the Last Dance docuseries about NBA superstar Michael Jordan.

The fandom surrounding professional athletes, if done right, is one that can grow beyond the size of the fandom itself. In one article from the Bleacher Report, the Michael Jordan division of Nike is rumored to be worth $60 million dollars annually, and dominated 51% of the basketball shoe market in 2012.

How did Jordan build a brand and a legacy that grew beyond the athlete himself? Through planned activations and providing opportunities for his fans to connect with him through product, events (attending games), fan objects (signatures), and a narrative that so many can relate to (or at least strive to relate to): underestimated, hard working, caring about your family, and kind.His brand partnership deals, and even the legacy behind the original red and black shoe that was banned, only created a fervor for ways to tap into it. The collaborations and merch available now, whether official or fan generated (a quick search on redbubble alone brings up nearly 6,000 responses), are all ways that you can encourage this fandom.

This latest docuseries? Just another way that the Jordan brand tapped into the fandom providing them insider information, a look behind the scenes. By making themselves accessible, even the perception of being accessible through documentaries, Jordan supports the fandom.

Don’t ignore your fans

The worst thing you can do if you’re working to build a fan community is to ignore them. Going back to something mentioned very early on in this article — fandom is a community, it should be cultivated.

Your fans should be the first ones you tap into for ideas, feedback, and opportunities. Why? Because they’re people who care. No one will give you better feedback about your product other than someone who has used it time and time again and wants it to be true.

One of my favorite examples in this arena is how Netflix tapped into its fans, and continues to do so. Rumors float around about the company hiring those who are high consumers of their product, and they’ve embraced fan activations, and cheeky content to help them carry a more relatable tone online. Heck, Netflix even helped one fan of their show Santa Clarita Diet propose to his girlfriend, an event that to my knowledge ended in a happy marriage, but also an additional 110,000+ views and counting!

This isn’t just done through cheeky content and a star-studded proposal, giving fans the fodder to do what they do best is an important part of Netflix’s success story. I can distinctly remember the online excitement when Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch came out, which triggered a few more fan activations. Countless fan-generated maps, and a subreddit encompassing 9,000 members specifically talking about the show demonstrates the power of what can happen when you provide content that encourages curiosity and learning.

Surprise and delight

Having fans is a privilege, and it’s important to make sure that we’re working to surprise and delight our fans as well. As community builders, surprising our communities is something we should work hard and strive to do. I’m reminded of something shared within our own little Rosieland slack channel a few days back, of the dedication that Roam had to its community. Rumor has it that during a recent Roam meetup — co-founder Conor White-Sullivan showed up and engaged with his community, and stayed for hours.

Taking time out of your day to just engage with people who are fans of what you do should always be commended. This is a simple way to provide surprise and delight to your fans, and something that we should focus on more. How can you thank the folks who are your fans, how can you give back to the community of which you are a part of? How can you show a bit of delight in your fan’s day? Ask yourself these questions, then do just that.

Crowd-sourced and community-first

Some could argue that we're in an era of peak fandom, with fans sometimes out of control. I’m reminded of what an art professor in my undergrad drilled in my head — “the line between love and hate is a fine line, and the worst thing for a creative is to be considered just okay.”

Society is quick to dismiss fans — there's the all-too-common trope that fans are weird, bizarre or some sidecast of society, as parodied on Saturday Night Live by William Shatner. This skit was later picked up in an article by the Ringer, declaring this the start of the nerds-rule-the-world sort of wave, but in reality, the world is run by communities of passionate fans, not limited to nerds.

[Will Shatner Get A Life clip]

Fandom is how people connect, build, and relate with one another through a shared interest in an individual, object, or their perception of them. While this may seem to be an organic, naturally-occurring phenomenon, it is in fact one that is carefully crafted and cultivated in order to operate at its fullest potential.

This careful crafting and curation unfolds on the web around us more often than we realize, creating a feeling of FOMO. The #RoamCult, an act of curation by Roam on a Twitter timeline is the perfect example. Why the FOMO? Because I’ve tried Roam, and no matter what, I just don’t get it, but I want to… so damn much.

In the case of JK Rowling, this careful crafting and cultivation meant going on a talk show only to announce that the protagonist, Harry Potter, may not live to see the end of the series (Consumer Tribes). After an online uprisal of backlash—how dare she kill off Potter?—the narrative shifted. Curious what happens next? Paperbacks for the 6th book hit shelves shortly after this announcement.

On a more grandiose, less niche scale, we can follow the mindset of fans of Harry Potter, throwing their hands up at whatever transphobic commentary that JKR has said most recently, or the numerous spats spurred by Nicki Minaj’s fans who have come out against her haters.

But individuals gathering together to hate something is still a form of fandom. There’s the concept and saying that the unsaid way to make a new friend is to have a common enemy. According to Wanna Thompson, a freelance music journalist who found herself in the middle of a spat with Nicki Minaj, in an article on the New Yorker: “These people think that they’re doing some due diligence by the celebrity.” In the eyes of marketers, and celebrities as a business, these fans, no matter how toxic a community can become, are sometimes a brand’s biggest advocate. Nicki Minaj’s name hit the press, brand awareness was increased, and records were sold.

These popular cult fandoms — and this latest wave of community building — have many things in common:

  1. Strong interpersonal bonds
  2. Surprise and delight can be found
  3. Inspired/Incentivized to create their own fan objects

While those of us in startup and tech could quickly list off the fandoms of tech and maker-based products like the PayPal Mafia, the RoamCult, NoCode Founders, Makerpad and dare I say Rosieland, we owe it to the pop culture fandoms that paved the way for us to model, even if subconsciously, how we want to behave.

From the Beyhive to the Beliebers, or even the perceived to be obsessive Barbz fandom of Nicki Minaj, celebrity fandoms can prove to be an exponentially growing force of nature.

Final thoughts on fandom and communities

The biggest thing that we can take away from this is that there are few forces stronger than passionate people. Fandoms are communities, passionate communities at that, and can be cultivated. Through using some of the same logic we rely on as community managers, we can create a future where we’re building passionate people that set out to do good work.

Embrace those who are rooting you on, embrace your little communities and fan groups that you exist in. Provide surprise and delight, and most importantly be kind. Following these guidelines, you can make your passionate fans a loyal and embracing community.

How can we build better communities?

We are on a quest to learn and explore what makes great communities.


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