I had a clarifying moment the other day about the level of my own nerdiness. At nearly thirty years old, you’d think it’d be fairly established, but I’m continually surprised by how weird I am once you put me in a room with “normies.” I feel like I have to blame the Internet, whose strategy seems to be “Provide as many opportunities for nerdy freaks to find each other as possible.” And I’m here for it! But not everyone is.
Case in point: I was recently chatting with some friends, digging into the lore of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and how it pertains to the HBO series inspired by it, Game of Thrones. (And yes, I am the “It’s better in the books!” friend.) I brought up how I’d read a theory positing how, in the show, main player Jon Snow might take on the role of the “last hero,” who helped bring an end to the Long Night. This statement was met with a lot less fanfare than I’d anticipated. While I knew a lot of the people in my GoT crew aren’t book readers, I’d just assumed they knew the story I was talking about. I mean, the Long Night is such a huge part of the history of Westeros—why wouldn’t you look into it?
After giving a brief lesson that seemed about as well-received as the theory that made it necessary, I realized something: Even in a (chat)room full of people who are obsessed with Game of Thrones, I’m on a whole other tier of interaction with the content.
The concept of fandom has been around for about 130 years; the stories of Sherlock Holmes are often credited with creating the very first fandom. For those of you lucky souls who have yet to get involved in one, at its simplest definition, a fandom is a community of people who are fans of something, usually a fictional series. But it’s so much more than that, because you can simply like something without being part of its fandom. Once you’re in a fandom, you are locked in for life. It’s basically like being in the mob, but instead of illegal activities, you’re just committed to getting into arguments about who should be paired up with whom and whether the integrity of the story has held up over the years.
It should come as no surprise that my first experience with a fandom was as a child, when J. K. Rowling began publishing the Harry Potter series. I devoured those books with an obsession that even fellow fans found odd. When I reread the first four books a total of eight times each while waiting for Order of the Phoenix to come out, that was likely a sign that I’d crossed the threshold of casual consumer and was now along for the ride to superfan, willing to die on the hill of “Severus Snape is a garbage person because what respectable adult man makes an enemy out of a child?”FF16
Once my husband and I dove into the fold of Ice and Fire fandom, greedily consuming outrageous fan theories and reading way too much into GRRM’s blog, I was surrounded by people who did the exact same thing. I grew to believe that this was part of the appeal of the show. But as I interact more and more with people who appear to have little to no interest in the greater lore and implications of this story, I begin to understand that the fandom’s voice may be loud, but it is not the majority.
This story plays out when consuming actually means paying for something, and businesses have picked up on it. However, they’re using this fundamental difference in the fan experience to their advantage.
If you’ve used Spotify’s music streaming service or downloaded a free app only to come across in-app costs, then you’re familiar with the freemium business model. Basically, consumers are allowed to use the product for free, but there are certain limitations (with Spotify, it’s ads; with other products, it might be lack of access to add-ons). If they decide to upgrade their service to the paid subscription level, then they’re able to engage with the product and all its offerings. Mobile apps make wildly liberal use of this model; no less than 95 percent of revenue made through the Apple and Google app stores comes from this price construct. It’s popular among Software-as-a-Service companies, like Dropbox and Slack, and even the gaming industry is on board these days.
In a way, freemium easily lends itself to the concept of fandom. Like a Potterhead bringing someone new into the fold, marketing for these services tends to come in the form of consumers spreading the word to anyone they think will benefit. By hooking a strong contingent of consumers, you’ll ensure that they shout your praises so loudly that others are compelled to check it out, even if it’s just the base level of consumption at first.
Now, it’s all well and good to sit here and say, “The people who love your stuff will pay a premium for something extra.” But how does that help content marketers, who are simply trying to get audiences to engage with companies in general? It actually provides a pretty solid strategy foundation, if you know how to read between the lines.
As you develop your content marketing strategy, it’s important to determine what kind of content your brand’s superfans would like versus what casual consumers care about. While there will be a lot of similarities, the former group will always have something that piques their interest just a bit more.
Consider the plethora of thinkpieces surrounding Game of Thrones. Casual fans are often content with a simple recap of the latest episode, maybe a “What could happen next?” post leading into the upcoming season, so entertainment sites make sure to dish out those simple takes. But superfans want it all: deep analyses of conversations between minor characters, scrutinized looks at hairstyles and costumes—apparently Euron shops at Hot Topic now—and speculation about how much the story has changed from what GRRM intends.
By offering up a content marketing mix, you’re showing fans of all manner of intensity that you care about what they want to see. It’ll keep them coming back, and it’ll keep them spreading the word.
Another tactic is hosting the more premium content in a semi-gated area of your online space. For example, Medium, a publishing platform and online community for creatives, recently launched a subscription membership. Subscribers get access to exclusive content and audio versions, and they can even allocate part of their monthly fee directly to their favorite writers.
A subscription wall around content may not be the best strategy for your brand. But a similar effect can be accomplished through a targeted e-newsletter for people who create a profile on your site or have purchased a product your company sells. By putting in this extra effort, you’ll show those who are the most engaged that you value them, and eventually the casual consumers will be curious about what’s going on behind door number two.
As much as superfans may love you, there’s often an eventual line that they won’t cross. You see this most often in the gaming community, in the form of backlash to microtransactions or downloadable content (DLC). In an effort to bring in the most profit, gaming companies might release games that aren’t all the way complete. Conceivably, this would motivate players to spend more money in-game (if it’s app) or download that additional playable content in order to get the full experience.
It shouldn’t surprise you that gamers have a problem with this. Many have little issue with the idea of DLC in and of itself. What’s sticking in their collective craw is the feeling that they’re being asked to pay over and over again for a single finished game.
If you’re going to offer your content at a premium, whether it’s asking consumers to hand over some personal information or pay a monthly fee in exchange, they need to feel like what they’re getting is worth it. What’s more, casual consumers shouldn’t feel like they’re getting an incomplete experience by opting to exist in the free space. With a freemium approach to your content marketing mix, the lower level should feel whole, while the upper echelon is viewed as a great reward for those who want to support you with their hard-earned dollars.
If I’ve learned one thing about fandoms, it’s that the one for Supernatural has a GIF for literally everything. But if I’ve learned another, it’s that the line between a casual fan and an obsessive is very thinly drawn—nearly invisible until you’ve crossed it. For the content marketing crowd, knowing when consumers have crossed that line, and how many superfans you actually have milling around on that side, is a major key to crafting your best marketing strategy.
For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.
Featured image attribution: Nicholas Green