FEATURE3 July 2014

Tapping into the passion of fans


Ahead of her presentation at MRS’s Connected World conference on 10th July, Hazel Robinson talks passion, social media and what we can all learn from fan behaviour.


What do the habits of fans tell us about consumers at large?

In the bluntest sense, that people consume things they like with great gusto and are less interested in things that can’t drive a spark of passion in them. People are more likely to enter into a subscription model of repeatedly purchasing or buying into something, if it creates some sort of reaction in them that makes that satisfying. But ‘fannishness’ is (although not wholly estranged from) not the same thing as brand loyalty.

Do fans interact with each other in specific ways?

A lot; every specific fandom has its own etiquettes. But there are memes and themes and structures that go across the majority: from the niche, fannish activities like role-playing as characters to the not-exactly-a-rule about putting commentary in the tags on Tumblr so as not to clutter up a post of someone’s artwork, to things that now seem charmingly old-school, like putting a disclaimer on fanworks that you don’t own the copyright to the characters depicted and aren’t making any money.

That said, a lot of fandom’s activities are just more rapid-fire or social versions of things that are commonplace across media – people commission others to write or create works for them, people create works for others, people discuss and debate, people distribute news as reportage and editorial, etc.

The most significant thing in fandom is that no one’s paid for it or very rarely paid for it. But otherwise it’s largely a mirror of anything else, except that it’s narrow and niche to its specific subject. And it’s a lot more excited; fandom is a space where people can be unselfconscious about loving something and it makes people extremely self-conscious whenever that wall’s breached.

Does this differ depending on the age/type of fan?

It does a bit; there’s some difference in the times of day when fans would be online, what sort of things they might share, their guardedness about their real name, etc. However, I don’t think you could easily correlate that to age – there are notable fan characteristics – the serious and critical, the salacious and lascivious, but those tend to simply play off the specific fans’ personalities and the way they engage with a particular product.

So you could look at fans that tweet repeatedly to celebrities/significant figures and you’d get a spread of ages and life stages. I’m a comics fan and I quite regularly realise someone I’m following on Tumblr for writing thousands-of-words critical essays on ancient old four-colour Dr Strange storylines is a fourteen-year-old, when they happen to drop in a homework reference.

Your fan experience will always vary; there isn’t one that’s more legitimate than another, some people might well be one thing in one fandom and something else in another.

Fans are unified by passion; what can marketers learn from passionate consumers?

That it’s a tiger you can’t dismount. If a product film, technology, TV series gets a fandom going then that can buoy it forward and sustain it. There are some TV series (Supernatural springs to mind) that have very explicitly been sustained by their dedicated fanbase. Their fanbase, however, is also what we’d probably in the most polite and affectionate way call ‘terrifying’.

But one of the things about that sort of passion, where people are willing to do things for your product, is that they then (not necessarily wrongly, depending on how the relationship is coded) feel that they have a right to the product, as significant stakeholders. Shareholders, almost.

Fandoms can create something much greater than the original product – create communities and works and critical thinking around it, that it never originally had the ambition for. Did anyone actually imagine there’d be academic fields about Batman, in 1939? No, of course not, now it seems obvious that he’d be a major figure in media studies. Branding and slogans and memes around something can all be generated by fannish enthusiasm and there are many shows and films and products with a fanbase that’s critically and seriously engaged, where the fandom is taken much more seriously than the product itself originally was; Teen Wolf is a great, recent example of this. The show was almost developed as a punchline originally and now it’s still schlocky but with a huge weight of writing and thinking and analysis next to it, the sort of thing a lot of more ‘serious’ works would dream of.

If a product is seeking to be able to cultivate a fanbase, it needs to be able to sustain itself on that. There’s a lot of envy of strong fanbases and people want to access that level of autonomous promotion for their products but they don’t always appreciate that the fanbase may be a glorious steed to move forward with your product on, but if you annoy it enough to buck you off, you’ll be savaged.

Do fans behave in a different way online?

Everyone behaves slightly differently online. So in the same way that a blogger might be more confessional on the internet than they would be in their office, fans will be sillier, more obscene in the privacy of a secluded online spot.

The specific behaviours of fans will vary a lot from medium to medium though. Some fans might be quite coy on Twitter, as that’s often used for more cross-fandom/experience discussion and feels more public, whereas they’d be very open and in-depth about their fandom on a specific message-board or community.

Has the rise of social media made being a fan easier?

In terms of integrating directly into a fandom community, yes. Definitely. Something has happened in the past few years, driven a lot by the TV fandoms I think, where people have simply stopped being so shy about being fannish. It’s partly laziness – if you’re on the settee and you have your smartphone in your hand, you’re more likely to send a tweet reacting to something than you are to go over to your computer, but it’s also a bit of a cachet of wider popularity to fandom activities.

Where five years ago you might have got a Livejournal community live-blogging something together in comment threads, you now have hundreds of thousands of people commenting on, say, Game of Thrones as it happens on Twitter. People want to be the first person to make a smart joke, even if it’s niche to the fans of the show, because the fandom audience is now so huge.

Fans used to wait for meet ups and conventions and specific chats or boards to be able to talk to each other in that rapid fashion, now you can join a maelstrom of strangers just as excited as you about something with a finger-press.

Can it allow a greater connection with the subject of their devotion or is there a converse affect where the famous retreat away from their fans more as a result of the greater intrusion?

Ha, well, it certainly can offer a greater connection; there are a lot of celebrities, creators, executives, sports people, who are active and actively in charge of their own presence on social media. But it’s quite a tightrope, as frontiers go.

On the one hand, it can be enormously rewarding for both fan and subject-of-fandom; seeing people’s enthusiasm for their work and the fanworks created from it but on the other, there’s an extent to which a lot of fandom would feel as an invasion. I think some of it tends towards the fact internet fandom skews wildly towards being female and there’s a desire to create a safe space, where people can be encouraged and not mocked. And exposing it to the original creators would put that in jeopardy. But you only have to cast your eye over Mark Ruffalo’s Tumblr or a celebrity’s Twitter mentions to see that not everyone’s that shy about trying to gain access.

Hazel Robinson is an author and tweets @piratemoggy. She will be presenting at MRS’s Connected World conference in London on 10th July.