Why Understanding Fans is the New Superpower (Guest Column)

I completely admit it.  I’m obsessed with fandom.

When my daughter turned 13, and my patience with her teen attitude was absolutely depleted, fandom stepped in to help. At that point, almost the only thing she would talk to me about was a show that she and her friends had discovered on Netflix, the CW’s “Supernatural.” She would enthusiastically recount whole episodes to me, one tiny detail at a time. Finally, she asked me to watch the pilot with her so I could understand the basics firsthand.  Since that day, we have watched every episode together – 232 to date (please don’t judge), attended one of the show’s conventions (and have tickets to another one), bought matching t-shirts (and phone cases), and shared countless show-based memes, videos and crafting ideas with one another (sigil cookies, anyone?). More than anything, we’ve found a new language, a way to communicate and connect through the show when our previous mode was failing us.

But my appreciation for fandom isn’t just personal.

As an anthropologist working in the entertainment industry, I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past decade conducting research with fans of one thing or another, from iconic comic brands and heroic space adventures, to immersive dramas and adult animation, to game shows and slot machines, to professional sports and video games. Regardless of what form their fandom takes, fans are my favorite types of consumers to learn from. Deeply knowledgeable, forthcoming with information, and passionate about the topic, fans make great teachers.

Over the last two years running the Research and Insights team at Troika, I’ve watched many of our clients come to similar conclusions about the importance – and value – of fans and fandom. Many of them have shifted their language, now targeting “fans” instead of “viewers” or “audiences.” Marketing strategies are increasingly crafted to drive not just breadth but depth of engagement. And the conversation has in large part moved from how to “manage” fans to how to “relate” to fans, even learn from them.

Why the shift?

In short, it’s digital empowerment – from streaming content to connecting through social media to creating fan works. When we became capable of consuming, connecting and creating on our own terms, with access to multitudes of others who share our passion for a show, movie, book, story, character, sport, band, artist, video game, brand, product, hobby, etc., the power of fandom began to show. In research we conducted last September, 85% of those surveyed reported being fans of something – 97% in the 18-24 age range. And when we define ourselves as fans, we do more – we watch more, share more, buy more, evangelize more, participate more, help more.*

Yet, for all its power, there are many things we don’t really understand about fandom. Why do some stories, characters, experiences, and brands give rise to strong fandom and not others? Can someone go from just liking something to becoming a true fan? How is fandom born, sustained and fractured within the individual? How does it spread and reproduce socially? What sparks, sustains, strengthens and weakens fan communities? What makes fandom the same no matter what form it takes? And what makes it different depending upon what form it takes?

The answers to these fundamental questions have real implications for our businesses, from programming to marketing to corporate social responsibility. They may also offer a new paradigm for organizing audiences and even modeling the business of entertainment.

So, my team – a mix of anthropologists and “fanthropologists” – is out to answer these questions. For the next 12 months, we will be embarking on a year-long study on fandom. Using a variety of research methods, both qualitative and quantitative, we will be studying fans of all kinds including fans of entertainment, sports, video games, music, celebrities and digital influencers. We’ll learn about the big events and the everyday practices of fandom; we’ll engage deeply with fans over extended periods through digital ethnography and take a broad quantitative snapshot at one specific moment; we’re talking directly with fans and observing them passively (in public forums both digital and in-person); we’re reading relevant academic research and scanning the mainstream headlines.

And while we’re admittedly nerdy enough to do all of this for the fun of learning about something so fascinating, we’re doing it because we need to. Because in business – especially in the rapidly changing business of entertainment – we need to understand the deepest forms of value we create for people if we ever want to fully translate that value into stock prices, dividends, and paychecks. Call me a dreamer, but we may even find ourselves deriving greater meaning from our work.

The comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick once told an interviewer how scores of fans had emailed her photos of their tattoos — designs patterned on her fictional heroine’s logo. To explain their motivation, she quoted a friend’s pithy comment: “You don’t get that tattoo because you are a fan of something in the book,” it went. “You get that tattoo because that book is a fan of something in you.”

How different will our businesses look when we understand how to purposefully create that kind of value for people?

Susan Kresnicka is a cultural anthropologist.  Along with her team at Troika’s Research and Insights Group, she just launched a yearlong, multimodal study of fandom funded by a group of major broadcasters. 

*Troika quantitative survey conducted September, 2015.  N=385, ages 18-80, U.S. sample.

 

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