The New Fandom Economy: No Persuasion Necessary
At the most recent SXSW, the first in-person version of the festival in 3 years, Plus Company’s CEO Brett Marchand sat down with globally recognized designer Yves Béhar, founder of globally acclaimed design firm fuseproject; Dani Calogera, VP brand and digital marketing at Showtime; Shawn Francis, head of creative, We Are Social US (a Plus company), and Lore Oxford, global head of cultural insights, We Are Social (a Plus company). The conversation was moderated by Steve Madden, GM, Haymarket Media, Business Media Group. The topic? The New Fandom Economy. Below is an overview of their exchange.
Fandom isn’t what it used to be. The array of tools and features made available by social platforms has transformed fans from devoted observers into passionate creators of their own content in response to the brand content they’re following. As an experience in creative collaboration, a platform for community-building and an emerging economy, fandom has become a powerful driver of brand affinity.
As Plus Company CEO Brett Marchand says “A product truly only has ultimate meaning if others talk about how good it is.” When those ‘others’ are fans, it’s not just what they say but what content they create and share that defines their relationship with brands. Never have fans had as much influence over a brand’s fortunes as they do now.
This is reinforced by Yves Béhar, founder of global design firm fuseproject, when he says that design is “a manifestation of intent”. The same can be said about brand. A brand’s intent has always been to persuade, but the means of persuasion has moved 180° from conversion to conversation to co-creation.
When its intent was only to persuade, advertising was the weapon of choice. But now, as Yves Béhar has said, “Advertising is the price you pay for being unoriginal.” When a brand doesn't have meaning in people's lives, no amount of messaging will keep it alive.
Fandom is freedom
What does it mean to be a fan, and how does fandom impart meaning to a brand? From a content perspective, it used to be that the brand was in the driver’s seat, but now the fan is capable of driving the brand’s story as well. You can consume brand content, or you can make your own and monetize it. The choice is yours. Fandom is freedom.
The world of music is a fascinating example of the fandom-freedom equation, as artists extract and release individual tracks from a song – the drums, or the baseline or the vocals - so that fans can then take them and make their own Garage Band versions. Then there’s Arsenal’s LGBTQ fan base- they call themselves the Gay Gooners - as an example of how a niche community can create a new conversation. No persuasion necessary.
Platforms of power, transformation and intimacy
Fans can take your brand to places you might never have imagined, and social platforms are the vehicles they’re using to take it there. Wattpad, the social reading platform that launched Fifty Shades of Grey – which was based on Twilight fan fiction – is an example of how fans are piggybacking on existing franchises to create their own original content. Fandom isn't just people loving fan fiction. It's generating original content and having an impact on the wider culture. Content begets fan fiction begets a whole new entertainment product.
It's to the brand’s benefit that fans want to imagine different scenarios. There is a return to fewer, bigger, better, deeper relationships and experiences. People are investing in communities where they can go deeper into their interests. For example, Discord is a platform where consumers are having hyper-specific conversations with people that share their passion.
The pandemic has accelerated this trend. It’s called the “pandemic intimacy deficit”. During lockdown, there was a surge of fan requests for greater intimacy with influencers, who struggled with these new demands. A recent We Are Social study confirmed that fan communities became a new source of connection during the pandemic, standing in for the loss of real intimacy imposed by the lockdowns.
Creative freedom vs policing fandom
The need for depth and intimacy has unleashed a democratization of creativity on platforms like Discord and TikTok. An account called Creepy American Girl Dolls took American Girl dolls, dressed them up as characters from a Showtime production, photographed them in the woods and shared the images on TikTok. The world of major league soccer packs stadiums but hasn’t been able to break out of the ‘soccer cul-de-sac’. Plus company We are Social engaged fan creators to make content and push it out into the wider culture. When a kid posted a video of himself in the bathroom recreating a winning goal with a toilet paper roll instead of a soccer ball, they knew their engagement strategy was working.
But what happens to brand integrity when you’ve handed the creative keys over to fan creators? While you have to stand by the integrity of your content, you also need to let the fans take the story in whatever direction they want. You can’t police fandom. The brand might not agree with what the fans make with it, but they make it for themselves, not for the brand. Let them. It doesn’t mean you have to change the original content.
The emergence of a fandom economy
What’s next for fandom? Remunerating people who are contributing to culture. Fans are willing to pay the people they love to make sure those people can keep producing. The next phase is going to be fans wanting to be stakeholders and have equity in the things that they love. With so many ways for people to become creative, the challenge is for brands to find ways to give those people a stake in creative decision-making; an early example of this is fan tokens.
We see more brands deputizing the evangelists, giving them the tools to keep doing what they do. But brands should take a light touch with fans. You want to make it easier for them to keep talking about your products. Help them if they need it, but don't interfere if they're doing a great job.
Fandom isn’t what it used to be. The array of tools and features made available by social platforms have transformed fans from devoted observers into passionate creators of their own content in response to the content they’re following. This conversation examines the evolving present and potential futures of fandom as an experience in creative collaboration, a platform for community-building and an emerging economy.
any thoughts or questions?