The Fan-ship Factor: Understanding the role of the superfan in social media marketing

Alison Hulme, research analyst at Decode, argues that marketers must aim to build superfans when they use social media for marketing.

Alison Hulme

The number of companies now using social networking as part of their marketing strategy has surged in the last six months. Not least, this is due to the way social media is perceived as key in attracting the all important youth consumer.

A report commissioned by the Social Media Examiner in 2010 found that 91% of companies were using social media for marketing purposes and at least 67% were planning on increasing their social media use. Despite this, the same report found that only one-fourth of companies felt they had gained ’real, tangible value’ from social media.

Understanding this gap between use and results is the crucial next step for marketers. However, the answers may not come in neat statistical form allowing insight into how friends become sales, but rather through the less know-able quantity of the superfan.

The superfan differs importantly from a friend, or even a fan, who may have linked to a brand as part of their reputation management, in order to ’look cool’, with no intention of interaction. The superfan is dedicated to the brand – a Generation Y digital native, often aspirational, always motivational.

Unlike Malcolm Gladwell’s ’connectors’, who merely link, superfans also persuade. They are zealous connectors with a strong desire to convert others and can sometimes stir up the frenzied worship of a brand. They convert brand awareness into something tangible by convincing people to act who otherwise may not have done. Acting as kind of online missionaries, they turn friends into sales – so an evangelical superfan is a seriously valuable asset.

Superfans not only glue friends to the brand, but also glue the network together, sometimes proving instrumental in making a group of individuals into a cohesive whole.

It is the self-awareness of a network that is key here. In being keen to make deep relationships with individual customers, social network campaigns have often made the assumption that these individuals are aware of their own connections to each other. They have failed to understand that a group of individuals does not necessarily amount to an entity that recognises itself as such. An unconnected network fails to acknowledge its own existence, so has no social capital and cannot be galvanised.

Being network glue also means superfans are knowledgeable about the network as a whole, effectively operating as thermometers of what is acceptable to it. Ill-fated social media campaigns may well not have fallen quite so wide of the mark had they had superfans on board to allow them insights into what is appreciated and what is not.

Perhaps Skittles would have thought twice about converting their home page into an aggregator of all tweets using the word skittles – it was of course deemed pointless and quickly hi-jacked. Perhaps Habitat would not have so horribly misjudged their use of Twitter hashtags to piggyback the Iranian election traffic.

In contrast Nike Jordan has developed immersive experiences for highly engaged fans which build intense community engagement whilst remaining small-scale enough to feel exclusive. Dominos Pizza is sponsoring a new application that challenges Facebook users to become superfans, offering prizes for those who recruit the most fans to the Domino’s Page. Similarly, Rick Marini’s social game which gives superfans credits on their favourite brands is going strong.

What all three have understood is the importance of giving users control and personalisation – something which established companies who came of age in an era when marketing was all about top down tactics often find hard to accept.

But Generation Y are not only digital natives who see social platforms as a ’right’; they also perceive the internet in general to be ’theirs’ and will fight fiercely against its colonization by powerful ’others’. They are inherently bottom up, as is the Internet, so campaigning must come from within. And who could be better placed for the task than a frenetically connected, stoically loyal, healthily zealous superfan?

The superfan could well bridge the gap between influence and sales, but companies must be prepared to relinquish a certain amount of control in order to utilise them and they must relinquish that control in intelligent ways.

In short: get superfans involved early, connect them to one another and the network, listen to them often, and they just may start to being the kinds of benefits social networking has promised.