Have you built a fan community as part of your overall marketing strategy?

Do your people, products or brand have raving fans who talk about you?

When integrated into your marketing strategy, a fan community is a special group of people who choose to associate with your organization for more than your product or promotions. These individuals feel an emotional attachment to and become externally involved with you.

Most frequently, fan communities grow around high-profile celebrities, sports teams and musicians.

From a business perspective, you can distinguish your offering in a way that builds loyal and engaged fans. Doing so creates a competitive moat that’s difficult for others in your niche to copy.

For example, when I worked at Bertelsmann, our science fiction readers were big fans of the genre and their purchasing extended beyond books, our main offering, to other science fiction-related products. By tapping into their fan affiliations, we profitably expanded our offering.

The Grateful Dead remain one of the best examples of a fan community that continues to endure and generate significant revenues, even after the death of their high-profile guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995.

Let’s examine how you can improve your marketing by tapping into the power of a fan community regardless of your offering.

Fan and Fan Communities Defined

To understand how to tap into the power of fans and their communities, let’s define their key attributes.

Fan Definition

People want to connect with a celebrity, sports team, media entity or business because they often feel empathy for and want to associate with others who have the same shared interest. In the process, they invest their time and money in their passion.

Over time, these people develop an in-depth knowledge of the object of their interest. Also, they often produce and enhance creative work related to their passion to express themselves and support the larger community.

Many of the characteristics of fans are grounded in Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and his 6 principles: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity.

Kevin Kelly defines a “True Fan as someone who will purchase anything and everything a creator produces.” You must have a direct relationship with your fans to consistently communicate with them to maintain your relationship so they continue to support you.

Your need 1,000 fans because it’s a feasible number of people to acquire in a well-defined niche to support your efforts directly. Although, the actual number of fans may vary. Beyond your diehard direct fans, you have fans who sometimes buy from you who are influenced by your true fans. Additionally, indirect fans buy from you but, without a way of maintaining ongoing, direct communication, you need more of them to generate the same level of revenue.

Kevin Kelly's 1,000 True Fans

Fan Community Definition

A fan community expands an individual’s connection to a broader sense of belonging to something bigger. In the process, it provides members with a sense of involvement, identification and connection to others who share their passion. As an added benefit, this group identification makes people feel happier decreasing depression.

In their book, Fanocracy, David Meerman Scott and Reiko Scott define a fan community as “fanocracy”. Specifically, they state, “Fanocracy [is] an organization or person that honors fans and consciously fosters meaningful connections among them.” The fundamental element of a fan-based culture is meaningful and active human connection where fans rule. (Source: Fanocracy, by David Meerman Scott and Reiko Scott, page 21.)

Focusing on fans shifts how businesses view and treat their customers. To transform their audience into fans, they create new customer experiences. By tapping into their customers’ passions to create human connections and build long-lasting relationships, businesses develop a competitive advantage.

From a marketing point of view, Tony Robbins explains: “You and everyone on your team must be obsessed with doing whatever it takes to create a fanocracy in your organization. You need to create a culture in which your entire reason for being is to make sure that your clients are continuously blown away.”

For Robbins, your obsession to add more value for your customers than anyone else becomes the secret sauce for business growth. Where possible, serve a higher purpose beyond your business goals to create passion to attract people to what you’re doing. Empower and motivate your organization to build this type of business culture. (Source: Forward to Fanocracy)

9-Step Fan Framework by David Meerman Scott and Reiko Scott

In their book, Fanocracy: Turning Fans Into Customers and Consumers Into Fans, David Meerman Scott and Reiko Scott outline 9 steps to develop your own fanocracy. They include the following (Source: Fanocracy, pages 47 – 246):

Heidi Cohen reads Fanocracy

Heidi Cohen reads Fanocracy

1. Get Closer Than Usual

Since spatial boundaries influence how people relate to each other, getting physically closer to others builds a sense of emotional connection. Since people want to be with others, the closer you get to them, the more you build powerful shared emotions. To create closer human proximity in your business, use mirroring to facilitate face-to-face interactions and create a sense of human connection according to UCLA Professor Marco Iacoboni.

2. Let Go Of Your Creations

After you put your creation, art, music, product or service, into the world, let your fans transform it. When your fans re-envision your work, they extend your reach. Also, it deepens your understanding of your work by seeing it through your fans’ eyes.

But, don’t try to control your fans and their interpretations of your work.

3. Give More Than You Have To

Offer your fans unexpected gifts without expecting anything in return to develop fans. BUT don’t put any conditions on your gift or expect anything in return or you’re doing it wrong! This approach is grounded in Cialdini’s Principle of Reciprocity. It states that giving a person a gift, causes them to feel a sense of obligation to reciprocate.

4. Build Identity To Become More Than A Product

Fans take ownership of what they love through their self-expression, often by making it their identity. Brands provide strong ways to identify ourselves by what we choose to buy, wear, associate with and assign an emotional weight to.

5. Be Smart About Your Influencers

Select and develop fan advocates who support your brand because they love your offering. To expand your base of these loyal fans, continue to add and support new advocates who are aligned with your brand. These brand advocates want to spread the word because they care deeply about it while expanding your reach.

6. Break Down Barriers

To eliminate the barriers between sellers and buyers, take your fans inside the world of your business or behind the scenes. Do this by focusing on creating unforgettable customer experiences to build fan relationships.

7. Listen To Re-Humanize

Make your business human-focused, not data-driven. To build loyalty, listen to what your customers want and why it’s important to them and treat them as individuals.

8. Tell The Truth, Even When It Hurts

Build trust with your customers through consistent behavior over time. Act transparently and truthfully in every customer interaction. This is most critical when you make a mistake or encounter a problem, even if it’s beyond your control.

9. Develop Employees Who Are Fans

Cultivate fans among your employees. In turn, they show their passion for your offering to your customers. To accomplish this, treat your employees well. Then build a culture of passion so they feel engaged and act as advocates for it.

How Do You Build A Fan Community? Use These 5 Easy Tips

1. Show up on a consistent basis to attract and build audience attention

Ideally, follow a regular schedule to develop a habit for when your community can connect with you. The Grateful Dead built their fan base by showing up and playing on a regular basis.

2. Create locations online and in real life for your community to gather

Build an online home base that you own. Specifically, create a website for your community; it can be part of your organization’s existing website.

As Content, Inc. – Second Edition author, Joe Pulizzi says, “Never build on rented land!” Since other people’s websites and platforms can disappear overnight.

In his book, Belonging To The Brand, Mark Schaefer advises using existing technology such as Slack or Discord for managing the public community discussion. Also, have a community manager to support your fans.

3. Cultivate raving fans by engaging with them directly

Beyond connecting with your fans on social media, develop your own, opted-into list of members. This proves your community’s desire to associate with you and enables you to communicate with them on a regular schedule.

The Grateful Dead built a postal address list of their fans, known as Dead Heads, to share their news and behind-the-scenes activity using traditional direct marketing methods. Band Manager Jon McIntire placed a call to action inside the Skull and Roses album. In the record’s liner notes, the request asked “Dead Heads” to write a note and mail it via the post office to create a list for the Grateful Dead.

Grateful Dead Build Postal List

4. Give content and product away

Tap into reciprocity by giving special gifts related to your brand and offering, such as previews, VIP perks, bonus materials and more, to your fans for free. Your raving fans want more of what makes you and your brand special! Where possible, focus on creating unique fan experiences.

To figure out what to offer them, observe what things they keep that you might not consider being of value. Also, examine what other businesses including celebrities, music and sports offer to their fans.

5. Stay true to your brand while crowdsourcing fan content and products

The Grateful Dead tapped into the power of their followers before the term crowdsourcing existed. They allowed fans to create unofficial recordings during their concerts to help expand their audience. The Grateful Dead created a dedicated taping section. requiring a special ticket to the location behind the special soundboard.

Fan Case Study: The Grateful Dead

Staying true to their brand while following these Fan Community principles, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead sold over 35 million albums.

To maintain and preserve the legacy of the Grateful Dead and their brand, a group of stakeholders now maintains their brand and business. They agreed that “One: working on this never tainted our love for the music. And, two: that we only release things or approve things that we as Deadheads felt resonated true to us — that felt right.” (Source: Variety 2020)

The Grateful Dead showed up consistently to build their fan community. At the core of the Grateful Dead brand was their live performances. Formed in 1965, the Grateful Dead played over 2,300 shows until Garcia’s death in 1995.

To provide an online location for Dead Heads to keep up with news and buy products, both the Dead and the family of Jerry Garcia continue to maintain websites.

The Official Dead Website

Jerry Garcia’s Official Website

Jerry Garcia’s Official Website

Unlike other musicians, The Grateful Dead didn’t limit their brand to music. Instead, they extended their brand to other products as a means of creating related experiences and other revenue streams. As a result, their licensed products have brought in millions of dollars in revenue. One of the best known is Ben & Jerry’s Grateful Dead Inspired Cherry Garcia Ice Cream.

Ben & Jerry's Grateful Dead Inspired Cherry Garcia Ice Cream

Using these fan community principles, The Grateful Dead built an amazing brand that continues to entertain and stay relevant to its fans while yielding significant revenues.

Fan Community Conclusion

To distinguish your brand and your business, build an emotionally engaged and committed community of fans that support your business. In the process, you create a competitive moat that others can’t imitate.

But, understand that fan groups often don’t happen on their own. It requires cultivating a business culture where a fan community can thrive. This includes your employees!

Provide your fan community with the support and location they need to express their fan feelings without trying to control their actions and creativity. This can be difficult to accomplish in an established organization.

Instead, support this self-selecting group of fans who want to associate with you and/or your organization. While you may not be able to directly measure your results in business terms, you’ll generate revenue and other measurable benefits over time.

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen



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