If you’ve ever watched a big sporting event on TV, you’ll recognise a few similarities when they cut to the audience in the stands: the chants, the uniforms, the tear-stained war paint, the homemade banners scrawled with messages of support and devotion to their beloved team or favourite player.
Now imagine you’re at the concert of the latest teen idol, watching Harry Styles or Olivia Rodrigo instead of Ronaldo and Messi. Turn your attention to the audience and the view is much the same; audiences singing in unison and basking in the shared joy of seeing their favourite performer up on stage.
The demographics of these audiences may differ, but the behaviour and the emotions are really very similar, and they both speak to a universal truth: there’s nothing more powerful than a fan. Has your brand ever sparked this kind of emotional response in someone? Most likely not.
Fan culture has been closely studied for decades, with academic origins linking back to Beatlemania and Star Trek in the 1960s. But the digital age has allowed fan culture to reach new heights, forming safe havens for their communities and creating an endless stream of new content about their passions.
The modern fan or ‘stan’ is not merely a hysterical teenager; they are writers, designers, editors, developers, community managers and cultural pioneers. They control the charts, the box office and which shows stay on the air.
These huge cultural groups have taken social media by storm, and use it every day as their go to places to connect, interact with each other and share common knowledge on their favourite bands, sports teams or celebrities. Fans actually create meaningful connections in social media, giving a new meaning to the word “social”, since they talk, share knowledge, co-create and organise themselves in social media platforms, building what we call True Engagement.
And it doesn’t stop there. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the great power that is the BTS Army, a global legion of fans for K-pop group BTS who focus their efforts not only on the catchy songs and beautiful voices of the group, but on driving social change.
2020 saw the BTS Army launch a series of powerful campaigns: raising millions of dollars, flooding white supremacist hashtags with “fancams” (short edited videos of the band), and yes they were also responsible for sabotaging a Trump rally in the lead up to the US election, reserving hundreds of seats to ensure Trump would be speaking to a half empty stadium.
There are many more examples of this kind of mobilisation in action. Amidst the pandemic and the closure of entertainment venues, musical theatre fans on TikTok banded together to write and produce a full-length musical based on the Disney movie Ratatouille. I myself paid for a ticket on new year’s day 2021 to watch a live stream of the final result, featuring performances from world-famous actors and musicians.
We’re still yet to see the conclusion of the #FreeBritney movement, another cultural phenomenon of the past year led by a group of determined fans concerned about the welfare of their favourite artist. We’re only just beginning to see the true impact of this movement. And we also all owe Chris Crocker an apology for being ahead of the game.
At this point, it’s clear that fan communities are a powerful force to be reckoned with —and, in fact, platforms like Twitch or Patreon are already leveraging on their potential— so why are they so often disregarded?
These communities work tirelessly in support of their passions, so often behind closed doors for fear of judgement. Sports fans wear their jerseys proudly on game days, but an Ariana Grande hoodie doesn’t generate quite the same response.
Beth Hoeckel put it best in a recent article for Vox: ‘That’s how it always goes. To be a teenage girl is to simultaneously be pop culture’s ultimate punching bag, cash cow, and gatekeeper.’
Well, I say it’s time to celebrate fan cultures and the, largely, teenage girls that power them.
As a professional in our industry, you have to give due respect to the marketing skills and digital tech savvy of these communities. You might be surprised how many self taught creators and technologists started developing their skills in these fan spaces. Social media isn’t just poisoning young minds, it’s fostering the next generation of talent.
As for the brands we work with, there’s a lot to learn here.
- Lesson 1: Empower your audience. Embrace your fans., listen to their needs and give them real influence over your brand. You will be rewarded.
- Lesson 2: Work together. Build your own community, bringing together the skills you need to meet your common goal. Foster collaboration and fierce loyalty within your teams.
- Lesson 3: Echo the passion of your audience. Put love and care into every piece of content you create, and live your values boldly.
In summary, never underestimate the power of fandom. And don’t be surprised if I show up to our next meeting in a My Chemical Romance t-shirt.