How to Keep Your Super Fans From Becoming Super Enemies

A Few Dos and Don'ts for Maintaining Brand Loyalty

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The first time I thought about super fans was back in the early '90s when I was working at a hip ad agency located on Sixth Avenue and Spring Street in New York City. I was assigned to manage the Coach handbags account, but the bulk of the agency was nurturing the growing Dr Pepper Snapple Group Natural Beverages business.

On a visit to headquarters, someone on the account team recognized that Wendy Kaufman, the actual receptionist, was answering lots of "fan mail" for the quirky beverage company that was going head-to-head with Coke and PepsiCo. From that insight, a campaign was born, and the strategy of "You love us, we'll love you back" became the rallying cry for the growing company.

The account team and a production company loaded up a motor home and drove around the country thanking selected letter writers by featuring them in a low-budget, documentary-style TV campaign. Several years into the campaign, the PR whiz on the business masterminded a Snapple Convention where super fans could come together for a day of sharing their Snapple memorabilia and more. I wasn't there, but the convention was rumored to be an early-day explosion. Handmade crafts and jewelry made from oversized bottle caps, artwork and Snapple -logo adorned clothing were proudly shared by attendees who sipped the latest flavors from wide-mouthed glasses.

A couple years later, Douglas Atkin wrote "The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers into True Believers" in an attempt to unlock some of the secrets behind the brand zealotry. Mr. Atkin interviewed not only passionate brand lovers but also members of cult-like groups, including fan clubs, fraternities, religious cults and more. He found that many of the characteristics driving attraction and loyalty were common between the brand fans and members of the cultish groups. Over the phone he said, "It's really about the universal drive to belong. Belonging is the driver of loyalty whether to Krishna or the Brotherhood of Harley." When I asked Mr. Atkin if social media has changed how fans interact with brands, he said, "Absolutely, but the real challenge now is to figure out how to drive people up the commitment curve to more meaningful and rewarding engagement with each other. I do think soon we'll have Twitter tiredness and Facebook fatigue." Mr. Atkin added, "the real trick to cult belonging is to have the fans rub together to create stickiness, so it's not just fan-to-brand, it's really fan-to-fan-to-brand. They need to be exposed to the joy of connection with likeminded others."

The passion that drives a super fan today is very similar to that of the Snapple -lovers of the early '90s, but the modes of engaging, promoting and interacting with brands has changed dramatically. In some ways, brand power is shifting from the boardroom to the living room as real-time, 24/7 social media provides a megaphone for all to share their likes, dislikes and experiences. As brand and marketing managers, it's important to stay on the pulse of this real-time dialog to understand and connect with the super fan -- or even super enemy -- of a brand. I believe transparent, honest brands that focus on great products and service will win in the long run. You can no longer pull the wool over consumers' eyes and creative campaigns based on phony histories; and hyperbole is potential fuel for social-media backfire.

Although I'm no longer with Virgin America, I still fondly admire when the guests of the growing airline showed their passion. Recently, a duo from Philly serenaded the airline with a tune via a YouTube video when their home city was announced as a new market. And numerous Twitter profile photos around the globe appear to be snapped in the airline's mood-lit cabin. I'll never forget receiving an email from a super fan wearing a dress made out of boarding passes.

With all the love that can be displayed via a click, post or a tweet, it's important for brands to understand and learn that a super fan can quickly turn into a super enemy if expectations drop below an acceptable barrier. A video of a fragile Federal Express package being tossed over a fence received hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. And consumer-generated content can go mainstream, as evidenced when my 10-year-old started singing her own cover version of the "United Breaks Guitars" viral video. Today, consumer posts can have more reach and impact than a multimillion dollar Super Bowl ad. To gain more insight on how to nurture super fans, I asked several digital experts to share their do's and don'ts. Below are some tips and tricks I compiled with insights from Rachel Masters of Red Magnet Media, Clay Eichner of 11 and Rob Fuggetta of Zuberance:

Do make them feel special. If super fans are tweeting extensively about their love for your brand, show them some love back. The simplest ways are retweeting them, engaging with them on Twitter, and including their handles in a simple #FollowFriday (or #FF) post. On Facebook, respond to your posts' comments. "Like" the comments that really resonate with the brand, and participate in the conversation by chiming in with your own comment every once in a while. For a personal touch, call out super fans' names when you're responding to or referencing their posts, or feature their profiles and content if you have a niche community network.

Don't ignore them. This may seem obvious, but so many brands let all kinds of wonderful things get shared about them without acknowledging them in any way. You can't win any new fans over by not participating in the conversation a bit and, likewise, you can't expect to keep a super fan's love if you don't thank him once in awhile.

Do consider VIP treatment or special access. These are your best and most-loyal consumers. They are the 20% of the Pareto principle (roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.) Reward them with early access, discounts and swag. They'll let everyone know about their special treatment. Highlight and reward. Showcase fans of the week. Do be prepared in case a super fan is angry. These people may take the brand more seriously than you do and may react poorly to change. Know how to respond. Brands have made mistakes in social media -- learn from them. Have a crisis plan in place. Inevitably, you're going to mess something up and make the crowd angry. Be ready.

Do let them share. Make it super easy for fans to advocate on your behalf. Do track and optimize results. Utilize analytics to measure the results you're getting from super fans or advocate marketing programs. With testing tools, you can see what approaches work best. Don't pay super fans. Don't give financial rewards or incentives to get them to recommend your brand or products. It's inauthentic and can backfire. People who learn that they've been given a paid or incented recommendation are actually less likely to buy the recommended product or service, studies show.

As social-media usage and the distribution of smartphones increases, the connection between the super fan and her ability to influence purchase decisions will be on the rise. My advice to brand teams is to consider the Do's and Don'ts above and to nurture potential super fans and learn from their activities without giving them unfair rewards. For example, in the case of an airline, I would not give a super fan upgrades unless he or she met the stated requirements of a set loyalty program. However, I might give a super fan a tour of headquarters or a pass to a free movie screening. It's important to "love your Super Fans back" without unfairly rewarding them or impacting the service or product provided to other guests.

Porter Gale Porter Gale is former VP of Marketing at Virgin America. She is a public speaker, marketing and social media expert and contributor to AdAge and The Huffington Post. Porter is working on a stealth start-up that will hopefully launch next year. She can be reached at @portergale.
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