Want to create a viral sensation on YouTube? Try this. Choose a pop star and bring together 20 of his biggest fans to record their own version of his new single. Then video their faces when the star himself walks in to join them on-set. Then upload and see what happens.
This was what the US retailer, Target, did when launching its deluxe edition of Justin Timberlake’s album, ‘The 20/20 Experience’. It’s one of my favourite ever examples of viral marketing. And guess what: it worked. To date, the fans’ shock and joy when Justin appeared has garnered 2.8 million views and counting.
This is just one example of the rise – and rising importance – of the super-fan. It’s a trend investigated in more detail in my recent video blog and accompanying article. But I believe it’s a development whose significance for companies and their CEOs also extends well beyond the entertainment and media sector.
Adding value through adoration
In fact, with the help of digital technologies, super-fans are now adding rising value to brands across many industries. From toys, to consumer electronics, to cosmetics - people with a deep, emotional attachment to brands are going beyond blogging and tweeting to become actively involved in making their favourite brands even better and more valuable. If you look across any brand’s consumers, its super-fans should be among its top priorities.
Not that super-fans are new: fast-moving consumer goods companies have been identifying and engaging with them for decades, including creating personas for different types. And these types vary widely, from ‘fanatical devotees’ who might attend Comic-Con in character costume, to ‘vocal advocates’ who tweet continually about a brand, to ‘quiet advocates’ – or ‘super-subscribers’ – who may only follow their more vocal counterparts, but are every bit as loyal.
Getting inside the ropes – in different ways
In my view, each persona of super-fan should be treated differently. For example, a vocal advocate who tweets positively to 100,000 followers and takes part in product development deserves to be given a premium offering – sometimes termed an ‘inside-the-ropes’ experience – such as a pre-release, exclusive or live version. Meanwhile, the less vocal but equally committed quiet advocate will usually be willing to pay extra for ‘value-add’ premium experiences or products – opening up a growing source of incremental revenues.
What’s key is that a premium experience has to be special – even unique – in the eyes of the fan: witness the ‘V.I.P.’ button displayed discretely on the People Magazine homepage, offering subscribers the opportunity to join the ‘A-List’, including access to an exclusive premium section.
Owning the ‘circles’
As more companies set about capitalising on the rise of the super-fan, I believe its wider implications are becoming increasingly clear. One of the biggest is that it creates a need and opportunity for brands to establish clear ownership of their most passionate consumers, by identifying and building concentric ‘circles of influence’.
What does this mean? Well, the ‘inner circle’ is the people within the business working on developing and delivering new products or experiences. This internal talent pool can then be supplemented and reinforced with an ‘outer circle’ of super-fans advising on product design and boosting the brand on social media, in return for a personalised premium experience.
This outer circle doesn’t need to be huge: it’s more likely to number 100 than 100,000. But companies that haven’t yet started to identify and engage with their outer circle should begin now, by applying a mix of qualitative research and data analytics to find out who their super-fans are - and how best to engage with and reward them.
Avoiding the pitfalls – through two-way relationships
Inevitably, there are hurdles to overcome. Companies in many industries are disintermediated by wholesalers and distributors, making it difficult to engage fans directly. Strategic responses include direct-to-consumer engagement, potentially including collaboration between producer and distributor.
Also, companies that exploit their super-fans as a source of insight, but then fail to reward them adequately, may end up souring the relationship. So premium incentives that add real value are crucial. Remember, all human relationships are two–way: the super-fan’s commitment to your brand is emotional and beyond reason – so you need to show the same emotion in return.
Russell is a principal in PwC’s US advisory practice with 33 years of experience in the media, entertainment, communications, and financial services industries. He’s also a senior member of PwC's Strategy& operations practice, focusing in areas such as business strategy, revenue growth, new business design and launch, business process simplification and risk management. Find out more