What Every Marketer Needs To Know About Social Media ‘Fandom’

A group of people standing with their arms raised at a concert

Social media fans can be lovely, but they can also be brutal. We Are Social’s Cristina Forlani explains exactly what you need to know about your online fan base and how to leverage them.

Cristina Forlani
Posted by Cristina Forlani

Word of mouth and consumer advocacy are marketing gold. Marketers know that peer-to-peer recommendations carry much more credibility with consumers than brand generated content.

Creating and maintaining a highly engaged fanbase on social media may appear to be a daunting undertaking, but the benefits for brands and their fans may just be worth the effort.

One of the first consequences of having a highly involved fanbase is the positive impact on customer loyalty and the influence on how often they buy your brand’s products.

In a recent study by US company Share This it was revealed that “extremely positive online shares generate a 9.5 percent increase in purchase intent”.

But there’s definitely more to ‘fandom’ than this.  Rather than looking for short-term engagements that spikes then peters out, it’s about having fans involved in shaping the evolution of the brand itself, strengthening the bond with fans, igniting brand passion and building consumer trust and loyalty in the long term.

Through social media brands can truly engage with customers and potential customers at scale, driving advocacy and word of mouth both online and offline. So how can brands build advocacy or even, as in some cases, brand fandom?

Fandoms can be an intense phenomenon and potentially a brand’s strongest ally in social media. To build such a deep level of advocacy brands have to demonstrate their values every day by engaging their communities with the appropriate tone of voice. Brands looking to develop true ‘fandom’ need to provide a genuine interaction with people online – essentially talking and behaving like a smart, positive, honest, inspiring person.

Most of all, what brands must do is focus on the quality of the content they share online. Every single piece of content should be created as a conversation starter; a fundamental part of the story the brand is telling to its community. This facilitates an authentic opportunity to share brand messages through creative dialogue.

Another important piece of the puzzle is encouraging users to create content about the brand itself. Fashion brands seem to be particularly good at this strategy. For example, this is exactly what fashion retailer Black Milk has done, leveraging thousands of Sharkie selfies and creating specific hashtags for every single product. This encourages customers to be not just fans, but Black Milk models, playing a big role in the brand’s storytelling, giving value, adding credibility and sparking users’ interest in the brand.

When thinking about creating highly engaged social communities it’s important that we take a channel agnostic approach. There is no one platform that dictates success. Rather, we need to keep in mind demographics and the interests of our target audience as the first criteria to consider when looking for the best place to develop social communities.

Generally speaking, Instagram and Pinterest are the top players for fashion fandom, but other platforms like Snapchat can provide a more exclusive interaction with the brand. This is working well for brands like Free People, Juicy Couture and Rebecca Minkoff. By using Snapchat to give fans sneak peeks at new collections these brands are sharing exclusive content with their most highly committed fans before anyone else, making the content even more elite and ephemeral.

Fashion brands are known to be forward thinkers when it comes to social media. While there are many fashion brands doing great things online, one of the best is Burberry. This is a brand that actively engages with its fans and followers on a daily basis, experimenting with new platforms and looking to find the best ways to respond to the changing needs and social behaviours of its consumer base.

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Burberry is always careful to create the right content for the right platform, and in doing so, strengthens its relationship with its community. This strategy has also delivered a strong user-generated element, with the community highly involved in content creation for the brand. Other fashion brands doing great work in this space are H&M, ASOS and Lorna Jane.

But as with any marketing strategy, there are risks as well as rewards for brands with highly engaged communities. In the case of fashion communities, very often, fashion industry lovers act as a tribe. In many cases they are so highly committed and involved with brand values they show a unique level of advocacy and loyalty and contribute to the brand’s evolution by providing inspiration and constructive feedback. There is a downside however, as fans can also be pretty vocal about what they don’t like, showing their disappointment in a highly visible and emotive way.

At some point, every brand will experience negative or hostile behaviour from followers online, especially if it involves the community in marketing strategies and product development. After developing a strong emotional connection with the brand, the community members can feel so highly involved that they assume the brand will meet their expectations, whatever it takes: unfortunately, sometimes this is just not feasible and can generate frustration amongst fans.

Case in point was the very strong fan backlash that Black Milk experienced earlier this year while trying to celebrate May the 4th (Star Wars Day). Some of the brand’s highly engaged Facebook community took offence at a post that some considered negative and counter to the brand’s stated position that “you shall not make critical comments on other women’s bodies”.

The brand then chose to delete these comments, claiming that the people who had been offended by the post were a minority. The brand admitted that they would continue to delete any comments that weren’t “positive” enough. When this was, again, received negatively, they even went so far as to tell their own customers if they felt that this particular thread was out of line to unlike their page and to stop supporting them. The situation escalated and many of the community were unhappy with the brand’s approach to their concerns, with the story hitting the news as word spread across social networks.

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The brand response to this crisis was definitely not best practice in terms of community management, openness and transparency. In cases like this brands can only hope to learn from their mistakes. The strong lesson from this case is that all brands engaging with their communities through social media must have clearly articulated crisis plans in place to respond to issues with their communities before they escalate into fully-blown crises.

The reality is that most brand advocates are motivated by the desire to play an active role as main stakeholders: they like to tell other people about their experience with the brand, share their knowledge with others to help them make better decisions. In return they are looking for recognition and appreciation for their positive contributions.

This level of advocacy can impact brands on several levels. Brands may involve fans by implementing feedback in product development, offer them insider knowledge about the upcoming collections, encourage user-generated content creation, implement special loyalty programs for supporters or provide fans with discounts.

Brands that have succeeded in harnessing the power of fandom tend to have certain traits in common: they are good listeners, open to trends and willing to change their social media strategy based on social behaviour and insights from their communities. By recognising the rewards and risks of courting ‘fandom’ brands that actively commit to remaining deeply engaged with their communities, and to evolving their strategies to meet the changing needs of those communities, stand to gain tangible business advantages from their efforts.

Cristina Forlani is an account director at social media agency We Are Social.