Why Understanding Fans is the New Superpower (Guest Column)

Why Fans Matter: Studying the Power
Courtesy of The CW

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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  1. Paul says:

    Just a suggestion: there’s been 30 (or so) years of academic research into fandom and fan studies, much of it from media studies or anthropology. Much of it uses ethnographic research methods, including interview research. I see the comments below reference some work on Supernatural, but there is a history of fan research stretching back to at least 1989. Start with Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers and move on from there. There are fan studies conferences and journals to look at too.

  2. .gmamaoj says:

    You need to read Fangasm. Excellent review of observing as well as being in the Supernatural fandom!

  3. James Cannon says:

    I can see targeting fans for some things. Not only is it important to spread the series to target other demographics, but its important that they play to their fan base every once in a while. This keeps the show rooted and where it belongs. Sure, it can branch out like they did with the Darkness (I think it was) or the civil war going on in God’s absence in Heaven. But as long as they pander to the fan base once in a while, the story will never leave its original premise, and will continue to attract a decent fan following. Oh, and I love Supernatural. I can relate to the Winchesters as I have a couple of brothers whom I’d do almost anything to alive. They are more important than myself.

  4. I think Supernatural fans are special because of the men involved in the show. They are down to earth, caring, humbled by their popularity and concerned citizens of the world. They are loved for this and protected by their fans while we, at the same time, are being fans of the show. Jensen, Jared and Misha plus the others involved have all proven to us that we are important to them as people, not just fans. This helps to create the foundation for fans that never will leave them and never stop loving the show.

  5. That’s quite a lot of work? You might want some help from Crowley. Uh.. wait…

  6. Bhavya says:

    ‘How TV shows are being directed towards fans’ It’s biggest example is given my SPN itself, with all the meta moments and meta episodes. If fans didn’t support or love the show, nobody would try such a thing.
    And of course, the 200th episode is nothing short of a love letter to the fans only, who came and stayed and thrived.

  7. Christy says:

    One thing I can say about fandoms is many times they reflect the actors they love. in the case of Supernatural, the actors took the time to cultivate a family atmosphere and so the fandom because spnFAMILY. They paid attention to the needs of the family – mosty famously the need for support when it came to depression and mental health – spearheaded by Jared Padalecki who struggles with the same issue, it was lightning in a bottle for encouraging affection and devotion to each other and to the cause.

    I like Supernatural. Love it even. But watching the show is almost secondary to supporting the ideals that the actors stand for. I watch the show to make sure it keeps the people I respect in a job. When they do another project, I pay attention to it as if it were a close friend or family member. I am not what you’d call a fangirl, but I have genuine affection and appreciation for the people in the Supernatural cast :)

    I don’t know if that helps with your study, but I’d suggest taking a look at how the actors relate to their fanbase and how that shapes the way the fans relate back and their enthusiasm grows :)

    • behnnie says:

      Right there with you, Christy — particularly in your point about seeking out and supporting new projects from those involved in creating the things I already know and love.

      I’m 34 myself, but you’d better believe that doesn’t stop me from tweeting thrilled emojis to fellow SPN fans when I spot Madison McLaughlin in something new so we can share our congratulations with her on her continued success, or from messaging fellow Fannibals about another Kacey Rohl sighting as we collectively cheer her on via Tumblr.

      It seems fan retention is increasingly about a brand of loyalty buoyed by having that sort of opportunity to directly interact with those involved in creating the product that’s brought us together. Never before have consumers been able to relate to creators as *fellow fans* the way we can today. Being able to share that devotion and giddiness with the people responsible for bringing to life the stories and art that tipped us off to each other in the first place — it enriches the experience in a way that cannot help but breed a type of camaraderie and devotion not previously possible.

      And by God if that enrichment involves tweeting with Janice Poon and Bryan Fuller about what *exactly* was in Hannibal Lecter’s beer: Mark me down for more of that “growing enthusiasm.” ;D

      • Amy says:

        And you can also see the reverse when actors and creators really get it wrong in interacting with their fanbase. Teen Wolf’s initial popularity mostly came off the back of fans really getting interested in the relationship between two of the supporting characters, Stiles and Derek, and the showrunners played on this mercilessly, talking about it constantly to the fans and to the media, pushing the two actors together, but never actually doing anything about it and in fact actively separating the two characters on screen.

        The showrunner, Jeff Davis, talked himself up about how great he was at representing gay characters – then kept killing them off and sidelining them on screen. Combine that with the lead actor Tyler Poesy’s tendency to say horribly offensive things and to be visibly jealous of the popularity of his costars and it’s a toxic mix that lost the show a lot of fans.

        It was never a perfect show – its plotlines were shaky, the writing average at best – but it had a following it could have capitalised on if it had actually followed through on anything they tried hocking to the fans.

  8. Julie C. says:

    Something else worth looking into, IMO, is the appearance/creation of Superwholock. It’s a separate fandom consisting of fans who are part of all three fandoms (Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock). I think it’s fascinating that it’s survived and thrived. Tumblr is full of Superwholock memes and posts. It’s doubtful that the shows will ever cross over in real life, so why these three shows together? I’d be interested to know.

    • Laura Walker says:

      Superwholock is how I finally got onboard the Supernatural train. I’ve been a fan of Who since ’89, a fan of Sherlock since it began, and I started seeing Superwholock things at sci-fi conventions and on Tumblr. Since I knew I loved two of the three, curiosity led to watching SPN in January. I quickly became a raving fangirl of the show and specifically these actors and their causes. I’m going to my first SPN convention in August!

  9. Terri S says:

    At least the CW seems to recognize the value of die-hard fans as far as generating revenue by taking risks with new shows. If only syfy would take a few pages out of that dog-eared novel.

  10. DJ Doena says:

    Listening to fans is a double-edged sword. Sure, you can’t ignore them completely or your show/movie/franchise will not succeed.

    But you also cannot allow your creative work be taken over by fan demands. For one, because there will always be more than one fangroup out there, the Bangels and the Spuffys and so forth.

    For another, if you listen to the fans you will mostly get the old stuff over and over again. People love what they know. But someone had to introduce them to the idea of an automobile and an iPod.

  11. Rena Moretti says:

    What complete nonsense!

    Supernatural is a flop. It’s been a flop since it premiered.

    The only reason it’s still in production is that it allows CW to pretend it has a hit.

    And now the excuse to explain how audiences don’t count is that “but the handful of people who watch are REALLY dedicated”.

    As long as Hollywood continues to wallow in excuses, it’ll keep failing.

    • Dacia Robb says:

      Besides the soon to be 12 years in the running. Most shows dont make it past 5. Plus have you ever been to a convention let alone one of theirs? I just went to my first supernatural convention..I had thought about going but didnt have the money. Then one of my friends could not go and gave me her ticket. This was a four day even and out of the over 2000 seats…I say 75 percent had been there from thursday on. Let alone all the merchandising out there among other things. I would like to know what “fandoms” you are a part of or what shows you think are successful then? I do agree with someone else who said cw knows how to market towards fans…it is the network I watch the most and the ONLY network where I see tons of advertising for their shows. And like wintergirl said..the point is how they are changing their marketing from viewers to fans cause when a fandom really loves a show it thrives (or as you probably think survives) I mean look at firefly..one season and yet the fandom is still strong even though the show was cancelled.

    • wintergirl66 says:

      Wow, Rena, way to :completely: miss the point. Not that it matters, because no one cares what you think. Go PMS somewhere else.

    • Arthur says:

      A flop, huh, Rena? It’s going to be on the 12th season and just gets better and better (and gains more and more fans) each year. You seem bitter.

  12. You should check out Orlando Jones’ fan outreach the two years he was on Sleepy Hollow. Many fans learned how to use social media to interact with him. He was a one man PR company and it helped grow the show’s fandom which has varied racial and age demographics. When he left the show in Season 3 no one stepped up to the plate to carry on the type of fan interaction he did and it showed in the decline of viewership. Orlando understood the impact of SM on today’s viewers. We miss him.

    • behnnie says:

      Great point Deb! He really did know what he was doing, and made it easy — and even more fun — to become invested in not just the story and the characters, but in the actors as well. He helped make it fun to cheer on the show’s success, and not just the characters’ success in achieving their goals within the story.

    • Rena Moretti says:

      And yet Sleepy Hollow started with disappointing numbers and after three episodes was firmly in Flop territory where it still wallows…

  13. If you haven’t delved into the books by Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis on Supernatural Fandom (Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships, Sep 1, 2012; Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls Oct 1, 2013; Fan Phenomena: Supernatural May 15, 2014) you should. Dr’s Larsen and Zubernis have looked at this same topic from both inside (as fans) and outside (as academics).

    Just today, at a Supernatural Convention, Mark Sheppard spoke about this cultural shift as well. I think you will find that this is a production that has managed to tap into this shift. Sometimes they have hits, sometimes they have misses, but the writers, producers, cast and crew are definitely tuned into the topic you are going to be researching. And I imagine they would love to talk about it.

    • behnnie says:

      I feel like I’ve learned as much about tv story telling from the misses as from the hits. Reading along as fans dissect what didn’t work for them, and *exactly* why, has been eye-opening in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated had I not started engaging in fandom myself and following what’s being said by those who love something, but who are also willing to be honest in their criticism of it. I’m used to academic reviews of literature, of art hanging in museums… Reading in-depth academic episode analysis from random bloggers with expensive letters after their names has been an unexpected but very much enjoyed surprise. ;)

    • Rena Moretti says:

      What “cultural shift”?

      This show is a flop?

      Or maybe you mean the shift in out cultural industries embracing failure since they no longer can produce winners…

      Sorry, but hearing that a show nobody watches is witness to a “cultural shift” is just pushing it to absurd levels.

      • Sihaya M. Clarin says:

        Who pissed in your Cheerios? Seriously, if you don’t like Supernatural, or other shows within that genre (saw a few of your other comments), why on Earth would you read an article about it?

        Nobody watches? Where are you getting your data from? The fan base has grown exponentially. Just look at the main actors’ FB and twitter likes and follows. Millions there does not equal nobody watching.

        There is a bridge somewhere that is missing its troll…

  14. A fandom you should definitely use in your research is Person of Interest. It is an intellectual syfy crime drama. It started as science fiction but has evolved into quasi-science fact. It predicted the Snowden affair, it’s 4 season story arc is about Artificial Intelligence which is in the news today, it’s about the government keeping tabs on everybody in the name of national security…….but its human characters & their relationships with each other and The Machine are that drive the story. The fandom has a huge age range of fans 10 years old to 80 year olds. No sex, only inferred, off camera, leaving it to the viewers imagination. There are several strong fandom groups under the POI umbrella….filled with very passionate members. The fans have banded together with a petition to get a Season 6 or to get another network to pick up this show since CBS has no idea of the jewel they are letting slip through their fingers. This tv show has a huge INTERNATIONAL following/fandom.

    • Dacia Robb says:

      wow Rena…so you hate sleepy hollow..you hate supernatural…instead of talking about how you hate everything and its a flop..how about actually donating comments to what this article is about to the conversation

    • Please stop says:

      BEWARE OF MISS CARO BARRETT!

      She gets paid to kiss Nolans butt. She hates on everyone who doesn’t share her views.
      The Person of Interest is a joke and full of hypocrites like herself.

      • Rena Moretti says:

        It’s another one that’s far from a big hit (to be fair it’s doing better than Supernatural, but what isn’t besides most of CW!?)

      • UserZero says:

        There is only one word for you: Troll. Please don’t feed the trolls.

  15. i don’t know if this meets standards for anthropological research, but if you want to get a real sense of the underbelly of dedicated fandom, the place to go is the facebook fan pages for diana gabaldon’s outlander books and ron moore’s tv adaptation of these books. you would find a range of cerebral and biological buttons pushed by the reading, viewing, and interchanging of views and feelings about this atypical [and yes, it is atypical] literary event that you’re not likely to see elsewhere. also, by the way, a range of the affected ages that reaches into the 80’s and 90’s.

  16. EricJ says:

    The “Book is a fan of you” point is the key:
    Working in children’s books during the 00’s, the topic was “Who’ll be the Next Harry Potter?” The British Bloomsbury editor who discovered the first book kept rushing to tell us he’d discovered The Next One–kid archaeologists, kid master-criminals, Artemis Fowl, etc.–and most of them dropped deservedly into obscurity when fans had little sympathy for the main character.
    What fans DID respond to was the notion of independence, of being on your own at school, and training with your close circle of friends to make a difference, while having some newly empowered fun on the side.
    As it turns out, the “Next Harry Potter” of the book world wasn’t even another Harry Potter, but instead tapped into dreamy YA girls wishing they were vampires so they could be Romantically Different–Followed by YA girls realizing that dreaming wasn’t enough, they’d rather make a difference, and they wanted their own crossbow to bring democracy back again.

    The key to fandom is that it’s not the character, it’s not the plot, and it’s not the marketing, it’s a story you WISH was real so you could get in on it. And when you find out that other people share the same daydreams, you find that they share the same ideals that make those daydreams seem so Kewl.
    If people wish they could be superheroes like the Avengers, why were they so repelled by the two more -famous- superheroes duking it out? Maybe we don’t dream about being doomed, angsty and angry, no matter how much marketable Cool Stuff you think you can jam into it with a big enough studio budget.

    (Then again, you don’t want to take it too far to the other side, like the LGBT audiences who tried to concoct desperate crackpot theories about how every single element of Disney’s Frozen was actually a “gay metaphor”, so they could be “allowed” to like it on a personal idealistic level…Rather than just admit they thought it was a fun movie just like every other regular person who went to see it.)

  17. Marco says:

    I love Supernatural and watched it with 3 different people.
    I can relate.
    It’s a cult.

  18. Haley Yu says:

    One interesting point of study would be the “Bury Your Gays” debacle that happened on the 100 and the LGBT Fans Deserve Better movement that arose from it.

    • DJ Doena says:

      Or maybe the actress just wasn’t contracted for more episode and also had a concurrent contract with another party?

      That’s the problem of getting what you wished for. For the past two decades TV shows have changed dramatically in many regards. Two of them are that they have become much more diveres and don’t just have token black people in it (though growing up in the 80s, B.A. Barracus never felt like a token character to me). Now you have people from all walks of life – as it should be. But the second aspect is that in many a show, everyone can die. We’re not in the 20th century anymore where main credit characters were basically immortal.

      And now that everyone can die, there will be an LBGT character from time to time who draws the short stick.

      Don’t worry, the countless nameless mooks killed by the dozens that no one cares about will still be overwhelmingly white.

    • Rena Moretti says:

      Given how few people watched and watch 100, I’d say everything about that show was a debacle.

      You see, fans love to believe “their” show is a hit and in these days where the networks can’t find a hit and renew flops, it’s become easy to believe it.

      Shows get renewed because people in favor at the network made it and we’re told it’s because of the “dedicated fans” (or worse their age!!)

      But reality should be noted at least occasionally:

      Cult is code for flop.

      • tommymarx65 says:

        I’m with you, Jane. This bizarre commenter is obsessed with how Supernatural is a flop. I’m thinking someone from Supernatural – maybe Jensen – murdered her children, raped her dog and peed on her family Bible. Or maybe not. Maybe she’s just a flop and can identify.

      • Jane says:

        What is with your boring obsession with calling every television show you dislike a flop?

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