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Community building Kickstart Marketing

Creating Superfans And Building Brand Communities.

From Kickstarter to Star Wars, Superfans and brand communities are everywhere! We look at what it takes to create them, share success stories of who’s doing it well, and discuss how marketers can create generations of fans.

Episode 022 TOPICS:


  • The power of the community vs the power of the individual

  • Before Kickstarter... there was Radiohead and Prince!

  • What we can learn from David Meerman-Scott 

  • Does every business have a community element? 

  • 5 lessons in setting up communities

Across the Pond- Marketing Transformed.

Episode 22. Creating Superfans And Building Brand Communities.



The last episode Sam, we talked about stories, and what I found was that actually there were fans of the same stories, just getting some feedback from the session and one that did come up was a quote that you said about Maya Angelou, and I was talking to someone else who said that was a great quote, they’d heard it before, it made me want to dig a bit deeper into it, and I was sort of reminded that that’s how stories work. You start off and then you delve and then you take it on your own tangent, and it reminded me of some of the go to stories I tell. Like, spending a week with Mike Tyson in Vegas whilst making a boxing game, that was like a version of The Hangover I can tell you. But that’s for another time. 

Meeting Radiohead at one of their earliest gigs and paying one pound ninety for the ticket. Now, those closest to me may roll their eyes and say, “not that story again” but I still seem to find audiences that want to listen (or at least pretend to anyway) and I don’t get tired of it. And that’s the thing about story telling isn’t it, there’s always a larger community to get to. 


Yeah, and it’s the power of stories, the power of finding an angle, and something that is memorable and something people actually want to respond to, so we’re kind of hardwired for stories and not facts Chris. Your Radiohead story and the one pound ninety ticket is ringing in my mind and probably will stay for a while. 


Well, there we go. And that’s the thing, it got me thinking about superfans and the power of community and how valuable they can be. I did a conference in Boston last year, we talked about it, and that was about superfans and how valuable they can be to the subscription businesses. And I talked about how actually, if you’re being brought into a community it can be huge and amazing what that community can do to you. And it can truly change something or, from the business perspective it can transform your product or a service from a start up to a full-on worldwide success. 

There was a guy there, I think you’ve heard of him, David Meerman Scott and he talked about fandom, and turning a fan into a customer and a customer into a fan and, it was great, I was in a much smaller session and he was doing the key note but I thought, that really resonates with a lot of the stuff that I’ve been talking about or thinking about recently and I’m presenting on it. So, I felt that connection, we had a good chat about it. That made me want to buy his book, made me want to talk about it - the book is great by the way. And again, you’re looking for those connections, you’re looking for like minded people and you start to form a community. So, powerful stuff and I thought we should focus today’s session on that Sam.


Yeah, so, definitely a shout out to David’s book and we’ll put a link out for that. I absolutely agree that communities and using that power of fans do build brands and platforms that go out to the masses. You mentioned Radiohead; musicians definitely find their way into the market this way really well. You mentioned Radio Head and there’s a great case study from them at the time they released their In Rainbows album under a music at your own price strategy and though they’d been with their company for a while, they pivoted and they basically said “hey fans, you can name your own price” whether that’s just a few pennies or a lot of pounds. They experimented with the opportunity to connect with their audience and get them to decide how much value would be paid for it. 

There’s a lady called Anita Elberse, she’s a Harvard professor and I so envy her. She spends her time capturing stories and examples from the world of entertainment, sports and sports management and turns them into case studies for the next generation of business leaders, so this idea of communities of fans, of leadership from those channels is really valuable. 

One of my favourite artists, Prince, found that giving away a free copy of his album with a newspaper led to three million copies of The Mail on Sunday being sold a few years ago versus the usual two hundred thousand and it was a resounding hit. He had all sorts of online streaming and exclusive memberships that was ahead of the time, even though he said the internet was dead, he experimented with memberships and streaming and clubs and all sorts of things, because he knew he could tap into his fans. 


Yeah I think he was one of the originals that turned the tables and realised they could make money out of the events rather than just out of the music as well, wasn’t it?


Absolutely, so, you surround people with multiple touch points, but the idea of appealing to individuals and a large number of them coming together lead to the community that you’re talking about.


Yeah, so, that whole concept of how you create communities and what are the lessons that can be learnt from people that have done that is something we can carry on exploring today.


Fandom and the Media


Media is a classic one. You look at how many people are reported to have seen Game Of Thrones, HBO’s most popular series, but it didn’t start out that way. Firstly, it was watched by about 2.5 million, it was relatively cold at the time and questions about whether it was going to survive. It ended up growing to almost ten times that, becoming the most pirated series worldwide but, interestingly a group of core fans spread that word, but that’s not all that they do, it’s not just about spreading the word. They became creators in their own right, there were spin off shows, they became advocates and finally, if you think about the last series - they become judge and jury as well. 

So following that life cycle of how a community can take the role of being passive to actually being pretty vocal to a point where they’re actually asking you to recreate the series is interesting. My love of the Star Wars genre started when I was about seven or eight. I wasn’t like a Star Wars geek, it’s not like I’m attending expos, dressing up in costumes or anything but all my friends were into it and so was I, that peer pressure, an important point there. If I look at how much I’ve spent on the Star Wars franchise, my lifetime value probably ranges close to a thousand pounds. 

An important point is that emotional connection starts when that connection is young. We agreed not to talk about soccer, Sam, I think that is rightly so. We managed to avoid it when we were face to face, which is good but 1979, watching it with my Dad, in the garden on a gloriously hot summer day, watching us win the FA cup - I was hooked. Now, as a little kid I thought ‘brilliant! It’s hot and it’s sunny!’ Arsenal win every single year, now thirty odd years later after spending literally thousands of pounds on season tickets over the years, replica shirts and food and drink at the venue. I realised, they don’t win every week, and it’s clearly not pleasant sitting on the terraces on a wet February afternoon but, I am still a fan. That loyalty carries on, and that’s about the emotional connection. And it’s also the bond I’ve built with other fans that make me feel guilty quite frankly. When I’m not supporting my team through thick and thin or when it’s four degrees and hailing down out there. So, that emotional bond, that peer pressure and how that community can affect you is important. But that’s the obvious ones though. Interestingly, here if you think of all the different aspects of the Game Of Thrones franchise - if you can call it that and the same with Star Wars, it has a base of incredibly loyal fans that communicate that message to another group of loyal fans and it carries on from generation to generation. I think that’s an important part when we look at cultural change, transformation, how you look to scale your operation, it’s plotting a path for future generations to follow. You’ve got to think big. We’ve talked about that, that vision, that goal, and what better goal and think how can my brand exist for future generations. So, big stuff there. 

Final point from me on that Sam, when I was reading David’s book he said rites of passage we experience as young people profoundly influence the Fanocracy we participate in as adults. And I think that’s a good point, a lot of brands that we relate to are where we’ve had that affinity, and again, we touched on that last week as well didn’t we. 


Yeah, and as you talk about that rites of passage it makes me think of a woman called Issa Rae who is a black female writer and actress who’s created a hit HBO series over the last few years called Insecure. It’s got an audience beyond just the African American and black audience, it’s a really successful hit show but the back story starts with her popular web series Awkward Black Girl which premiered on YouTube in 2011 and ran through to 2013.

And what got that attention was she was telling a perspective, sharing a story, sharing a rite of passage that wasn’t mainstream, wasn’t commonly portrayed but a lot of people could relate to it. And what she did was in marketing terms if we bring it back to the core of marketing transformation of this show is, she used great marketing techniques to engage her audience and to help get the funding to actually make the shows.

Early viewers of Awkward Black Girl from the early days will remember the kick starter notices that started occurring, specifically really close to launch or season episode dates. With a call to action she’d put out a date, say August eleventh and she’d say, if we don’t hit our target goal by August eleventh, this will be our last episode of the season. That was a risky situation because she’d quit her job and all sorts, but imagine that call to action, that sense of urgency, that aspect of this might be the last one, but it got people in. 

People were engaged and on board, and that call to action worked. Another thing that helped was her Research and Development (R&D) - it was her testing ground, building a ground spot of passionate fans for her work and for her characters. So, you think of it in terms of R&D, then that’s a less risky bet for HBO a few years later to then invest in the full production and full efforts of putting in a show to the market because think of that early days, the testing of platforms as the R&D efforts, and I think that’s a huge mindset shift from how people might think about what that was all about.


That’s great, definitely a trail blazer there, without a doubt I would say. It’s a brave move and there’s something about completely putting yourself out there isn’t there, that authentic self, saying “look this is it. If you don’t help me out, this is the end so, help me out”. That is a very courageous approach there. Interestingly that also, you think about a lot of RND in terms of music now, they will look for people who have a fan base before they will even consider whether they will take them on as an artist.


Yeah, and the costs of producing a TV show for a major studio and network is huge so thinking about it in RND and we’ve talked about  bringing shows to TV but of course, the stakes are higher when it comes to actually bringing it to the movies. Bringing talent from the internet to broader TV viewing public - how about bringing talent to the cinema world. 

Let’s take the increasingly dominant Marvel franchise and I call them, them because the comics actually serve as their R&D. It actually costs a few thousand dollars to test out characters and plot ideas through the comics, you only need to publish a short run and it’s a relatively cheap way to understand what works, what doesn’t work and who can translate to other platforms. Then you can monetize on the movies, the merchandise and the toys, which are a huge cultural phenomenon and you’re actually bringing in a new generation of consumers, so they’re a new entrance into the marketplace through the toys. 

Perhaps they’re not buying comics, but they can certainly buy the toys. And then you’ve got licensing across product categories and age ranges, so you’ll see Marvel across all categories, stickers, books, tv’s and all sorts of things, backpacks - you name it, you can get it with Marvel. And then think about the theme parks. Now under the bigger Disney brand, you’re creating experiences, bringing people together. So, that’s where being fans and building that community actually scales to a much larger level .

Cosplay or Common People?

Then of course, there’s a whole industry building on that and this whole sector of the Comicon star conventions, and the Cosplay space, which for me is true fandom. When you’re getting adults and kids to dress up as these characters but, listen, the main thing to recognise here, let’s not just think of it as ‘geeks’ in sci-fi or space or Star Trek or Star Wars gear, which a lot of people actually jump to. Think of it as everyday people and there are millions of them. Whether you are wearing the sports team shirt for your basketball or your soccer team or your American football team. Last week I got about three or four different Rugby shirts and I support England and I still wear them. 

Yes I know, I’m not playing but I will invest in that because I want to be part of supporting that team. Or whether you’re dressed as Harry Potter - it’s all the same. It’s definitely a female thing too. Millions of people dressed up as characters from Sex And The City to attend those films, so a lot of people think it’s all guys and geeks, but actually it’s truly a mass behaviour, a mass audience. That explains the phenomenon of all these Comicon, these characters and platforms that succeed, people can truly relate to them and adults, whether you’re young or old, will dress up as their favourite character.    


Yeah, let alone the impact it has on fashion as well. I’m not entirely sure Star Trek had an impact on fashion but certainly Sex And The City did. Profound cases there. So, what does that mean for our day to day job then? We always try to bring it back to if you’re a Marketing Exec or a CMO, what does it mean and does every business have a community element? And maybe not, maybe there are examples where you’ll struggle to find the community. But I think this quote is important, our old colleague that we quoted before, Simon Sinek wisely said: ‘Customers will never love a company until it’s employees love it first.’ And I think that’s so true because, when you’re going to create a community of fans, make sure that those fans start off as your own employees. I think, if you don’t do that you’ve almost lost the battle already. Would you agree with that Sam?


Yeah, absolutely.


Power for The People


And we can all take lessons from why communities form and the power of creating communities as well. I’ll run through a couple that I think are strong, and the key lessons are strong communities are stronger together, it’s the power of the people. Definitely. Superfans are within them, and you want to try to find those superfans. And it’s easier to find communities than it is individuals and the message spreads more easily once you have a community hub as well. and you must make a community feel like they belong. The community members. So, a couple of examples which I think bring this to life Sam. Crowdfunding- great one., obviously it’s not the only crowdfunding site, there are loads of other ones but, there’s this game Sam; Exploding Kittens, it’s a card game. Have you heard of it? 


I haven’t until now, so you better explain it. 


It’s a card game. It’s a bit like Russian Roulette in aspects, it’s a bit like Uno as well. They were looking to raise ten-thousand dollars and in the end they actually raised eight-point-seven-eight million dollars from two hundred and nineteen backers, which is just incredible when you think about it in terms of what they’ve managed to achieve. On the back of it, they’ve got ten thousand reviews, on Kickstarter they’ve got now a whole spin off industry that they’re looking at, they’ve got their own expo in Portland called Burning Cat from the creators of Exploding Kittens. They’re asking their community, have you got an idea for a game? Get in touch, get me the juicy insider info, all the classic marketing techniques but, think about it. It starts off with ten thousand dollars that they’re asking for and it starts to create a mind of its own and starts delivering to the point of eight point seven eight million dollars. If you were in charge of setting that overall objective, you would be quite happy with what you’ve achieved wouldn’t you. 


Absolutely, you talk about the numbers there, huge.


Interestingly, one in five Americans - that’s twenty percent- report that they’ve contributed to an online fundraising project on a website, like a Go Fund Me or a Kickstarter. And the ones that are successful, because clearly there’s thousands of potential pitchers out there, but the ones that seem to make a success are the ones where there’s a great idea, but the campaign owners update the backers every five days or less. Classic marketing techniques. Make them feel part of something, make them feel as if they belong, and interestingly ones that do update backers every five days or less tend to raise three times more than those who don’t. It begs the question of “why doesn’t everyone do that?” you can Google that in a minute but, that’s the fact of it. People want to feel like they belong, they want to feel like they’re engaged. And campaigns that gain thirty percent of their goal in the first week are more likely to succeed. Again, build momentum, build excitement, get a bit of zeitgeist behind it, and you’re more likely to be successful in the long run as well. So, a couple of examples there I think which show that classic marketing techniques we’ve been talking about apply to communities as well. 



Yeah and what I like about what you’re sharing is that there are some key principles, key facts and numbers there which make us students of this to actually apply and practice on our brand. Some examples that I can think of, some that I’ve personally been involved in, is the launch of a new product called Farm and Oven. You can go to, a gratuitous shout out to a former Co-Manager of mine, who founded this company which is essentially baking old veggies into old fashion bakery treats. So, they’re these wonderful flavours such as zucchini and chocolate, beet and dark chocolate, carrots and cinnamon; essentially you can get your veggie servings plus also get other nutrients in these wonderful, nutritious food bars.


Brilliant, so, get your five a day while eating your chocolate food bar.


Yeah, like chocolate and beetroot. Imagine combining things you wouldn’t usually consider and that gave it some intrigue, and they’re a few years old and they’re getting some good momentum there. But, it’s the idea of launching as a Kickstarter, they got me to subscribe, sign up early, get the first shipment and I was excited about bringing this to market, but we can think about this on another level. 

There was a quite strategic innovation and design company called Idea Couture, and they stand for looking forward, strategic foresight, which is about looking into the future, innovation, ideation, they work with brands and thinking about the organisation for the future. They’re doing all this great stuff, but instead of coming up with another presentation, PowerPoint, video or publishing a book they brought all their thinking to life in a really engaging way by creating a game called Impact; a foresight game. You can actually rather than presenting about it, you can bring it to a meeting, bring it to a forum and get people to play with the idea of foresight and innovation versus just talking about it.

So, I think it cost me two hundred Canadian dollars, I bought five of them but actually gave them away to colleagues who are like minded as a gift and they were so impressed and so excited to have this as a gift. So, think about different ways you can create fans for your product, for your services, for your ideas, you can get the excitement and the intrigue of the development as well as finding out about the challenges and the setbacks as you anticipate the final product arriving. 

So, we’ve shared a lot of good news here Chris and I don’t want to be the naysayer, but also, there are watch-outs here. It’s not necessarily guaranteed to succeed, and we’ve talked a lot about music and unfortunately there’s a story of Pledge music

That was a community driven music platform, where you could fund and invest in new music by artists that you love. And the founder was really about this idea that you wanted to change the level of engagement by offering hard core fans a virtual ticket to experience an albums creation. So, you weren’t just a purchaser of the final product, you were actually part of bringing that album to the market. It had some momentum, it had some success, an album by a band called Elder Island is a UK, dance, pop band and it was going beyond the package and the focus group and part of bringing the idea to life and they had a few financial issues. Unfortunately, they went under and they left a bunch of people hanging and they actually left over ten million dollars’ worth of funds that they actually didn’t pay back to these cash-strapped artists. And so, some of these artists ended up having to fulfil the demand themselves and ended up being out of pocket because they didn’t want to let their fans down. So, that’s the kind of sad example, but it also shows that ultimately when you’ve got fans there you really have to meet their needs and delight, there’s nothing worse than not shipping or not delivering the product, and we’ve heard quite a few horror stories in that space. 


Yeah, I’d like to look into that myself a bit more. But, before we wrap up it makes me think of petitions as well. Another classic way of making change happen. Quite frankly, there are loads of examples where petitions don’t do the job that is intended and a lot of that relates to Government, policies or politics. But, when it comes to business it can be more successful as well. 

There was a campaign in the US, a campaign for having no fees for having a debit card. The Bank of America pulled back it’s fees in 2011 after a petition from a twenty-two-year-old. They were proposing a five-dollar monthly charge for having a debit card and scrapped that policy because the petition started and there were only three hundred thousand people that actually signed that petition. And I was thinking about that. In the grand scheme of things, in America, that’s not a large volume. But, it provided a base. It provided that touch paper and that spark for the media to get involved. And The Bank of America pulled the plug on the idea. 

So, it’s interesting again, that communities can have a much more far reaching effect if they amalgamate into a larger group, and I do wonder also in terms of coming back to your pledge example - it would be interesting to explore that whether the commercial business module was just not sound in the first place and actually the number of hard core fans were just not enough to sustain the proposition or whether it was just mismanaged. Could we come back to that point that within a community you would imagine that only one percent of the community would be creators, nine percent would be those that interact and the ninety percent are more passive. 

A lot of studies have been done, sometimes it varies, but broadly speaking that tends to be it, so you should never underestimate that superfan segment of your audience is pretty small. There’s a lot going on there I think, the interesting thing and I think we should come back to it Sam, there’s a bit of a paradox here. We spend a lot of our time focusing on community marketing yet actually a lot of the marketing techniques at the moment, especially in digital, are about how do you target the individual, how do you get down to the segment of one. And I think it would be good to explore that next time to see if you live comfortably beside it, or do you need to follow one school of thought or the other.

Today’s Three Takeaways


Ok Chris, I’ll get to the point with the three takeaways. 

  1. Firstly, the principles of marketing apply. Think of call to action, engagement and lifetime value, they’re all relevant here. 

  2. Secondly, think beyond the cliché or what you think fans are. It’s not just Star Wars and geeks. Think of Sex And The City and Flea Bag, where women are actually taking part in this space more and more. 

  3. And thirdly, think of the principles that specifically relate to this area. If you get in touch with your community and your backers every five days, you’re going to get a three-ex improvement performance, and if you can get to thirty percent of your goal in the first week, you’re probably going to get success. 



That’s great Sam, I like that a lot. It’s a nice warm up into next week’s show I think as well. We’re going to explore the concept of B2I and not B2C, business to individual and not business to consumer and focus on the fact that marketing at the moment is around targeting that individual segment of one and how do you become more personal relevant, and does that sit comfortably beside some of the concepts and principles that we’ve talked about today. I think it’s going to be really interesting and nice to carry on the conversation Sam. 

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