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Four Ways to Create an Army of Fans for Your Brand

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Rock stars and fans. They go together like peanut butter and jelly. Batman and Robin. Lindsay Lohan and house arrest... Well, you get the idea.

So why don't more companies have fans like rock stars? If you said "because everyone's naturally a fan of music," you'd be partly correct. True, rock stars do create products that are easy to be fans of. But it can't be just about the product, because we have brands making extremely "boring" products—industrial lubricants, diapers, and orange-handled scissors—that have armies of fans.

What's their secret? Why do rock stars have fans but companies have customers? The short answer: that's what rock stars and companies want to have.

Rock stars focus their marketing on connecting with fans. That's no revelation. But that approach is grounded in solid business sense. A 2010 Satmetrix study found that evangelists (which is fancy business lingo for fans) spend 13% more than the average customer, and they refer business equal to 45% of the money they spend!

So, if the average customer is spending $100, the fan is spending $113—plus referring business worth $51! What sounds better, getting $100 of business per customer, or getting $164 from each fan?


If you said most marketers would rather have $164 per fan versus $100 per customer, you would be wrong. In fact, the top goal for US marketers is acquiring new customers. That's right: Instead of placing the priority on connecting with their most passionate customers, most brands want to grow their customer base by acquiring new customers—who have little or no loyalty toward the brand.

The problem with that approach is this: It not only results in less business per customer but also costs more to acquire that business. On average, it costs 6-7 as much to acquire a new customer versus retaining an existing one. So if the choice is between marketing to a group that spends more and costs LESS to reach, or marketing to a group that costs more to reach and spends less.... well, that's really no choice at all, is it?

If you're ready to think like a rock star and cultivate an army of fans for your brand, here are the four steps you need to take.

1. Figure out why your fans are fans and what your relationship with them will be

You need to figure out why the fans you do have are advocating on your behalf. What are the traits, characteristics, etc. that draw your advocates to want to share their love of your brand with others?

Understanding why your fans are fans may require a lot of time and research, but it's a vitally important step. For example, when Brains on Fire started working with Fiskars to help the scissor-maker better connect with its advocates, it had to first learn who its advocates were and why they were advocating on Fiskars' behalf. After doing some digging, the firm discovered a passionate online community of scrapbookers who preferred to use Fiskars' famous orange-handled scissors. So, in Fiskars' case, advocates were coming together over a common love: scrapbooking. Brains on Fire then worked with Fiskars to create a way to bring these advocates together based on that common love of scrapbooking, and the Fiskateers Movement was born.

Working to better understand your advocates will also help you determine the context of your relationship. Are you connecting with your advocates to help them connect with other customers? Or do you want them to give you ideas about product design and marketing? It's vital for fans and brand alike to understand both each other and what their relationship is based on.

Action Point: Do research to determine who your fans are and what common ties bind them together. What's their identity and what is it about your brand that they love? You can learn a lot from simple online monitoring of brand mentions and sentiment, but don't rely on online feedback alone. Pay close attention to feedback that you get from your customers. What are they sending you as feedback on your brand? Check emails and letters, and especially the results of any customer surveys you can do.

The worst mistake you can make is to assume you know why your fans love your brand. Instead, do some digging and get your hands dirty, because getting accurate information about who your fans are and why they are advocating on your behalf makes ALL the difference in cultivating an army of fans for your brand.

2. Empower your fans and give them control

After you've identified your fans and understood why they are advocating on your behalf, look for ways to empower them to connect with other customers. Give them the tools and the ability to "share the love."

Your fans are already sharing their love of your brand (remember the study about how they spend more and refer business to you?). Your job is to make sharing the love easier for them.

You could institute a formal Brand Ambassador program. But simply connecting with your fans and saying "here's how you can help us" will typically be all the spark they need. Don't fear giving your fans more control; after all, these are special customers who have your best interests in mind, and they want to see your brand grow and succeed.

Action Point: Look for ways to give your fans more input and control over new and existing marketing and communication processes.

For example, Dell has often connected with some of its most passionate customers, offering them the opportunity to write a post for one of its many blogs. The guest posts help lighten the workload for Dell's bloggers while its biggest fans get a chance to be heard, which makes Dell's content more interesting and relevant to other customers.

Another idea: If you have online forums where certain customers are actively helping other customers, look for ways to publicly acknowledge those helpful customers. Doing so will not only show them that you appreciate their efforts but also communicate to your other customers that you're listening. Never be afraid to find ways to give your fans a voice.

3. Focus on "the bigger idea" behind your marketing and communication efforts

There's an old marketing adage: Sell the benefit, not the product. Remember that your fans typically love your brand for many reasons other than just the product itself. Think about how your fans use your product and what's important to them. Are there certain beliefs, ideas, thoughts that played a role in purchasing your product over that of a competitor?

For example, Patagonia does an amazing job of tapping into The Bigger Idea with its blog, The Cleanest Line. Recently, Patagonia's blogging team wrote a post detailing how the Obama administration had recently passed legislation that provides for a 20-year ban on new Uranium mining in the one-million-acre area immediately surrounding the Grand Canyon National Park.

"How in the world does that help Patagonia sell more clothes?" I can hear some of you asking. Patagonia focuses its content on The Cleanest Line on topics and ideas that its customers are passionate about.

On the About Page, Patagonia explains the purpose of its blog: "The goal of The Cleanest Line is to further Patagonia's mission by encouraging dialogue about the products we build, the sports we love and the environmental issues we're concerned about. By talking openly about the products we build, Patagonia users can help us achieve ever greater standards of quality and functionality. By spreading the word about specific environmental issues, we can increase awareness and take action as quickly as possible. By sharing field reports, we can inspire one another to keep experiencing the natural wonders of our precious planet."

Note that Patagonia does discuss its products, but it does so in the larger (and more relevant) context of issues that are important to its customers—such as protecting the environment, sustainability, and outdoor activities. Its content focuses on WHY and HOW its customers are using its products. That makes its content more valuable and relevant to its biggest fans.

Action Point: Understand what ideas/thoughts/beliefs are shared by your biggest fans in relation to your brand, and create communications/marketing/content that focuses on those Bigger Ideas. Think about why your fans buy your products and how they use them.

For example, if you sell digital cameras, don't create a blog based on your different camera models; create a blog based on teaching your customers how to be better photographers. That type of content is far more valuable and relevant to current and potential customers, and will help you cultivate fans of your brand.

That approach can even extend to sponsoring events. Last year I talked to Greg Cordell, the chief inspiration officer at Brains on Fire, about how companies can better connect with their fans. I loved what he said about sponsorships: "The greatest thing you can sponsor are the people that love you. Why not sponsor your best customers? Sponsor the things that they care about, that are relevant to your brand. Like crafting and scissors, we're not talking about the love of scissors, we're talking about your passion (for crafting). Sponsor the things that connect people to people through the things that they care the most about."

That is the perfect example of creating something amazing for the people that love you, which is also something that rock stars have always seen the value in doing for their fans.

4. Embrace your fans

Rock stars thrive off interactions with their fans. They look for ways to shift control to their fans, and really almost view their fans as partners for their marketing and communications. That is in stark contrast to the approach of most companies, which want to keep their customers at arm's-length and don't want to involve their customers in the marketing and communication process.

Because rock stars seek ways to embrace their fans and stay more connected to them, it makes it far easier for fans to advocate on their behalf.

Action Point: Look for ways to connect with and embrace your biggest fans. In 2010, Dell identified 15 customers who were advocating for the brand online and flew them to Austin to spend a day talk to them directly. The goal was simple: Dell wanted to learn more about why its fans loved the brand and how they could work with them on an ongoing basis (Disclosure: I worked with Dell to facilitate this event).

The feedback that Dell gained from that day was far more valuable than any survey it could have sent out, and that first event has expanded into an official program known as DellCAP (Customer Advisory Panel), with several meetings with customers having been held around the world in the last two years.

In fact, one of the Dell advocates who attended the first DellCAP meeting in the summer of 2010, Susan Beebe, was hired soon afterward by Dell as the company's first Chief Listener! In 2011, fellow DellCAP alum Connie Bensen was also hired by the company as its Sr. Manager of Community Strategy! Dell continues to benefit from this connection it has to its fans via the DellCAP program.

* * *

Rock stars have always understood the value of connecting with and embracing their fans. Thankfully, as companies become more comfortable connecting with their customer thanks to social media and emerging technologies, brands are also seeing the value in connecting with their most passionate customers.

This article will help you get started on a path that will lead to cultivating an army of passionate fans of your brand. But remember: It all starts when you begin to think like a rock star.


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Mack Collier is a social-media strategist based in Alabama. He helps companies build programs that let them better connect with their fans. His first business book, Think Like a Rock Star: How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies That Turn Customers Into Fans, was published in April of 2013 by McGraw-Hill.

Twitter: @MackCollier
LinkedIn: Mack Collier

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  • by Mark Masters Mon Apr 15, 2013 via web

    With every rock star, if you have an attitude of 'who cares who doesn't like me' then you cut through to those who want to listen and become part of your community. It's not a popularity contest, it's about standing for something you believe in.

    Now, time for me to find out how I can make 'Sex On Fire' apply to a cash flow forecast!

    Enjoyed the article.

  • by Rosemary O'Neill Mon Apr 15, 2013 via web

    Thanks Mack! This was really timely for me...we're in the process of building a formal program and this had some great ideas I can use right away.

  • by Mack Collier Mon Apr 15, 2013 via web

    Hi Rosemary! Glad the article was helpful, if you need any more help feel free to email me at mack.collier@gmail.com.

  • by Richard Dumas Mon Apr 15, 2013 via web

    Nice article Mark. There are some great community tools out there to help companies implement the strategies you suggest. At the high end there are products like Jive and Lithium and for the mid tier Get Satisfaction and DNN Social (one of my former projects) that enable organizations to add community functionality to their sites making it easier to identify and enable fans.

    Richard (richarddumas.com)

  • by Mari Baskin Mon Apr 15, 2013 via web

    Your headline grabbed me the instant I read it, Mack. We've learned that although our fans come in a variety of shapes and sizes their fan-rapture is interestingly homogeneous. As we redesign our site it's now up to us to implement your tips to better empower and embrace our fans. Thanks for a very useful article, especially your example for "the bigger idea."

  • by Mike Camplin Mon Apr 15, 2013 via web

    Great article, Mack. I ran a developer relations "fan" program for Kodak in the 90's for software develepors that influenced or purchased 40% of Kodak's digital cameras using many of the techniques you describe. Similar to your recommendation, we focused on the benefits our software "fans" mentioned in focus groups rather than the cameras themselves. The results speak for themselves. The program returned ROIs of 2-300%.

  • by Kris P. Mon Apr 15, 2013 via web

    Solid points, Mack. I've also had experience finding a group of passionate people around a brand to leverage an outreach strategy. It is honestly one of the most successful jump off points for a brand's social media strategy. Often times engagement with fans/follower is not about what the product is and does, but what that small group of passionates can do with it.

  • by Mack Collier Mon Apr 15, 2013 via web

    Thank you Mari, glad you liked the headline!

    Mike can you please email me at mack.collier@gmail.com? I would love to hear more about the program you were involved in with Kodak. LOVE how you focused on the benefits of using the product vs the product itself! I am always looking for case studies like this so I'd love to hear any additional information you are willing to share.

    So glad y'all are enjoying the article. This is a topic I am extremely passionate about because I believe when a brand understands and embraces its fans, it not only greatly improves the quality of its marketing (lower costs, raising effectiveness), but it also creates a much better experience for its customers, which drives up loyalty and increases sales!

  • by Great article! Tue Apr 16, 2013 via iphone

    Spot on! Identifying your real fans and who they are and what they love is so important and also a tremendous challenge. I sell a product that has a number of different types of Customers.. Trying to speak to them all has been a bust... Would love to discuss this with you if you have a few extra minutes... Thanks for your help!

  • by Mack Collier Tue Apr 16, 2013 via web

    Figuring out WHY your fans love your brand is very important, and very difficult. A lot of it comes back to simply engaging them and ASKING them what it is about your brand that they love. Maybe it's the design of the products, how they work together. Or maybe its stellar customer service, or maybe its your brand's commitment to protecting the environment.

    This is why I am constantly stressing the need for brands to connect with their biggest fans and TALK to them, so they can understand who they are, and what type of relationship they want to have with your brand. For every 100 fans your brand has, there may be 5 different reasons WHY they are fans of your brand. If you try to communicate with them all in the same way, your message may only connect with 20% of them, if that.

    Communicate, communicate, communicate. Too many brands view their fans as a marketing channel, when it's far more valuable to the brand (and by extension, their fans) if they view their fans as a FEEDBACK channel.

  • by Arnold Waldstein Tue Apr 16, 2013 via web

    Good read.

    Some good points for certain and great to be enthusiastic.

    Aspirational thinking causes change.

    But...I simply don't buy into the belief that the marketplace is flat as you presume and that all consumer fan behavior is equal.

    Simply not behaviorally true.

    Consumers relationship towards their musicians, brands like Apple, brands like Armani or Porsche are not the same and do not create the same emotive response as people have towards more practical apps.

    Take that part away from the post, I'm in. leave it in as it is, and I see this as more enthusiasm less guidance for action. Which is still useful

    No one believes in community as a core brand builder more than myself. I've built many and blogged endlessly on it.

    Experience tells me that all products don't engender it at the same level.

    My thoughts...

  • by Mack Collier Tue Apr 16, 2013 via web

    Hey Arnold! I agree with what I think is your point, that all fans are not created equally. That's true because all brands aren't either. They make different products aimed at different markets set at different price points, etc etc.

    But while certain brands creating certain products might more easily lend themselves to creating fans, even the most basic of products can create passionate fans. At the start of the article I talk about how Fiskars has turned one of the most basic products (scissors) and created a movement of passionate fans. They did this by understanding how their customers were using the scissors, and built a fan movement around HOW they used the scissors (in scrapbooking projects). A few years ago there was a fan-created Ning community for fans of WD-40 that became so popular that I believe the brand bought it and incorporated it into its corporate website.

    Is it easier for some brands to cultivate fans based simply on the type of product they make? Sure, but let's remember that customers become fans of a particular brand for a myriad of reasons, and type of product is just one of those reasons.

  • by Custom Made Embroidered Patches Wed Apr 24, 2013 via web

    Embroidered patches and emblems are awesome for branding.

  • by Cynthia Tue Apr 30, 2013 via web

    Great article. Much food for thought as I attempt to maximize potential with my website. Will be sure to pass this along to others in the small business world. We don't all have to be Apple to have a great fan base. (Particularly love the interactive company suggestions. People - fans - love to be valued and have input.) Thanks again!

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