The Event Marketer's Guide to Engaging Superfans
The superfan demographic is a force to be reckoned with, but to tap into its power, brands need a genuine understanding of how the subculture operates.
Tips and insights from Syfy, Comedy Central, Nestlé and more
Conventions have long served as go-to venues for gathering and engaging fans. But thanks to the increasing popularity of super-scale events like San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic-Con and yep, even Dragon-Con, passionate fans—or superfans—have never been more powerful, or enticing, to marketers.
Superfans are, of course, loyal. They love their favorite book, video game, comic series and TV series—a lot. They crave the merchandise. They wear the costumes. They self-identify with their heroes. And they flock to live events and social media to connect with their tribes.
Superfans don’t give up on their series. When Fox canceled the series “Lucifer” in May, fans launched the #SaveLucifer campaign on social media. Netflix picked it up (along with the fans), and a new season is set to debut in 2019.
Superfans will pay or wait in line for four hours at an activation if it means it will get them closer to the authors, characters and actors they admire. They travel to events and conventions with their friends, and they wear their experiences and knowledge of each event like badges of honor. Indeed, they’re experts devoted to their genres, brands and franchises, and experts in the events themselves. From a marketing perspective, it’s loyalty, alright—loyalty on steroids.
And it’s why we’ve compiled this special report to explore the conventions, the influencers and the fan-created events driving the superfan phenomenon—and to offer lessons that can help all marketers and experience builders transform their consumers into fans, and those fans into superfans. So, let your freak flag fly as we take you through the ins and outs of the superfan universe—the next frontier of brand activation.
WHAT WE'LL COVER:
- Brand Tips for Building Experiences for Fans
- Maximizing Superfan Activity on Social
- Going Underground: Fan-Created Events
- Venues Your Superfans Will Love
Four insights on building experiences for superfans
Superfans are dedicated, but discriminating. They’re hungry for content, but skeptical of brands. Indeed, the ins and outs of superfandom are more complex than you might think. We sat down with a few superfan-savvy brands to get the scoop on the promises and pitfalls of executing live experiences for this passionate and powerful consumer base. Following are their tips for making meaningful connections.
Speak their language.
Superfans know every last detail about their favorite forms of entertainment (and we mean every last detail), so authenticity is vital. Doing a quick Google search of their favorite movies or comic books won’t cut it. In order to earn the trust of superfans, brands need to speak their language and prove they have a genuine understanding of their audience’s particular passions, pain points and needs.
“Fans are very passionate, but they’re also very discerning,” says Colleen Mohan, svp-brand marketing at Syfy. “So we have to be very careful from a voice standpoint and from an activation standpoint that we are very knowledgeable about what the fan wants, and we’re earning our stripes in our credibility by delivering something that lets the fans understand that we understand them… Probably the biggest guiding factor is authenticity for us.”
Brands that don’t have a firm grasp on the intricacies of the superfan universe can leverage collaborations with more knowledgeable partners to help jumpstart their superfan initiatives. It was the approach Nestlé Dreyer’s took for the launch of DC Super Hero Ice Cream at this year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego. The brand initially teamed up with Warner Brothers Consumer Products group on behalf of DC Entertainment to develop the superhero-themed product line, but took the partnership a step further by working closely with DC to develop a detailed superfan activation.
“The best thing that we did was work really closely with DC Entertainment,” says Temi Lane, marketing manager at Nestlé Dreyer’s Ice Cream. “This has been a partnership with them since the beginning, so you have that authenticity… and the fans notice that and they’ve been sort of promoting this [activation] on our behalf, which has been really great.”
Superfans aren’t afraid to let their freak flags fly, so brands that provide platform for that self-expression will have a leg up on the competition. Simply put, if you give superfans the opportunity to broadcast their passion, they’ll gladly take it.
“What we constructed for San Diego Comic-Con were all of these different activations where fans could express their passion in a very unique way,” says Mohan. “So that could be on our Karaoke Bus that went through San Diego where they could sing from the top of their lungs. They could pick their song and it could be genre-focused or not… Everything we want to give to the fan at a live experience is pure delight. It gives them a platform to express their fandom.”
"We have to be very careful from a voice standpoint and from an activation standpoint that we are knowledgeable about what the fan wants."
Embrace the unexpected.
Comic-Con attendees who participated in one of Syfy’s myriad activations were rewarded with a mystery box containing swag that ranged from fan-made art to collectible figurines. The brand assumed the giveaways would be a hit, but it didn’t anticipate how superfans would use them to interact with one another.
“One of the brightest moments for me just observing the engagement and the interaction with all of these fans was they would get off of the Karaoke Bus or off of the Bingo Trolley and they would all open [the boxes] up and they would trade,” says Mohan. “Talk about a tribe—we had just ignited these passions and these exchanges and it was a great thing to see… When things happen, you don’t anticipate it makes you realize you were doing something right.”
Amplifying your superfans requires a delicate touch: Three ways to make it authentic
Superfans are rabid organic content-generators. For that reason, marketers need to think carefully about how they will invite and influence these groups to amplify their events. After all, superfans are detail oriented and consider themselves the “keepers” of the brands within their fandoms. Amplification, therefore, is on their terms.
Marketers with experience engaging fandoms know that a true brand superfan brings eagerness and excitement to an event before it even begins. “Right off the bat you're not starting at ground zero,” says Matthew Glass, svp-experiential marketing at Allied Experiential. “It's about harnessing all of that energy and maximizing fan enthusiasm and being able to turn it into something that will deliver a lot of sharing on social media. It's building on something that's already huge.”
And if you’re able to capitalize on that power, the rewards can be epic. Take the “Gilmore Girls” reboot campaign for Netflix (Allied Experiential handled), which marked the relaunch of the series after a 10-year hiatus. Netflix took over 207 local coffee shops across the country, recreating the likeness of the show’s hangout spot, Luke’s Diner, and attracting scores of “Gilmore Girls” superfans without any pre-promotion of the event ahead of activation day.
Once word got out on Twitter, amplification took flight, with some coffee shops reporting lines down the block an hour after opening. “Gilmore Girls” became the No. 3 trending topic on Twitter that day. Naturally, and organically, superfans helped move it along. And that’s exactly what you want.
“Let them do the sharing. They are the front line, but they will help amplify your event,” Glass says.
If something is wrong with the experience, Glass warns, that’s what will be discussed on social media. Netflix helped the “Gilmore Girls” amplification along by choosing settings that were authentic, in local coffee shops rather than national chains, which likely appealed to the superfan base.
Shawn Silverman, svp-brand marketing and events at Comedy Central, agrees that superfans can help do the promotional work for you, and that their efforts will also open up opportunities to reach new groups of fans.
“Anytime you have someone that is very passionate about your brand, they are going to be the ones that are championing what you're doing and reposting and sharing that content on their feeds and exposing it to people that we can't necessarily reach directly,” he says. “They're going to be the ones validating and vouching for the activation that you're putting on, so certainly those people's opinions carry a lot of weight.”
Reward the Fandom.
Silverman’s team creates immersive experiences for fans of properties like “South Park” with the goal of allowing fans to step into the worlds of some of their favorite shows. Often there’s a mixture of superfans and more casual fans, particularly when activating at an event like San Diego Comic-Con. But when super fans are easily identifiable—for instance, those dressed up like “South Park” characters—Silverman and his team will spotlight them by sharing photos of the fans on the show’s social feeds or pulling them to the front of the line as a reward.
"We want to reward people for their time and their commitment and their passion for our brands.”
The Comedy Central team also typically monitors the particular hashtag for an event in real time and rewards superfans who post about their excitement by letting them skip the line.
“It’s not necessarily based on who has the most followers, but more who looks the most eager or excited or who's been waiting in line the longest. We want to reward people for their time and their commitment and their passion for our brands,” he says.
Outside of events, Silverman rewards superfans through social and digital campaigns by delivering swag to their doorsteps just based on social conversation. Kenny!
Mind the Line.
Speaking of lines, marketers know superfans tend to spend more time in them than the average eventgoer. In fact, the activation itself is really only half of the experience.
“You've got a captive audience of rabid fans who want to talk about and share and be a part of something, so these really end up being like fan meetups,” Glass says. “What we are doing is creating an opportunity and atmosphere for fans to get together and interact.”
For the “Gilmore Girls” events, a team of brand ambassadors worked the lines, providing trivia quizzes, taking photos for fans, encouraging discussions about characters and favorite episodes and dolling out tchotchkes and gifts to the fans.
Along the same lines, it’s also important for brands to provide material for superfans to interact with—and then step aside and let the fans do their thing.
“We try to make sure it is a special experience for everyone that comes through, because once they come through they're going to tell someone about it or post about it,” Silverman says. “If they have one person or a million followers, they have the ability to influence others.”
Feed the Superfan.
One surefire way to get superfans excited is to give them an exclusive first look at the content they so desperately crave. It’s about “giving them a little bit more than what the general public knows and letting them be the first to learn of it,” says Glass, whether it’s the new artwork for the next Batman film, a character’s new costume or grabbing a cup of coffee at Luke’s Diner for one day only. Creating a sense of urgency and exclusivity will help to generate excitement—and inspire superfans to post the content they’ve come to your event to discover.
Superfans sound off on fan-created events
and the ingredients to their success
There are commercial conventions, there are brand-owned events and then, there are fan-created experiences in the superfan universe. Today, there is an influx in fan-created events focused on single franchises and built from the ground up.
These fan events are embraced by the brands that inspired them but also, in some cases, rebuffed by them. But their viral nature, their authentic qualities and their organizers’ innate abilities to understand the audience, make them case studies worth examining.
Take Saved By The Max, a pop-up restaurant inspired by the ’90s teen sitcom “Saved By The Bell.” The viral experience began as an innocent idea from Chicago club owner and promoter Derek Berry and two friends who recognized the fervent popularity of ’90s-themed nights at their clubs and outfits inspired by the sitcom. Before they worked out any of the details, they posted a Facebook Event promoting the experience. The next morning, 40,000 users marked themselves as “Attending” and another 20,000 marked themselves as “Interested.” The event, which hadn’t even been planned yet, technically, had gone viral.
“I’m like, hold on here… is there a glitch on Facebook? What’s going on?” says Berry, operating partner of Saved By The Max. “Then I get a phone call from a friend. I’m at the gym and looking at the TV and on the news, they’re talking about our pop-up.”
From there, the story of the “Saved By The Bell” pop-up went national. They spent six months in Chicago, selling out night after night, and recently popped up in Los Angeles. It didn’t take long for NBCUniversal, which owns the rights to “Saved By The Bell,” to contact the founders, and, after a meeting, they became partners in the endeavor.
“People have traveled across the country for this experience,” Berry says of the fans. “They’re not just coming to have dinner. They’re coming to lose themselves. They want to dress the part. They want the waiter to call them ‘Preppy.’ We have influencers here all the time, but these people, the fans, are probably helping sell more tickets than these influencers. They are our sub-promoters.”
Berry says the key strategy for him and his partners is value. “We really listen to them. Every inch of the space has something for the fans to discover and post on their Instagram, and it keeps them coming back because they feel like they didn’t get to see everything.” Not to mention, the ticketing strategy keeps the space full seven nights a week. You know, FOMO and all.
But the secret sauce, perhaps, is in the quality of the experience itself. It’s light on gimmickry, and the pop-up does not skimp on the F&B. The menu is full, real and delicious, conceived by Michelin Star chef Brian Fischer, and the restaurant itself has a staff of 50, front-of-house and back.
Indeed, fandom events often begin with that spark, thanks to social media. Wizarding Weekend, the annual gathering of fans of magic and fantasy in Ithaca, NY, ignited after an observation by two local teens that one of Ithaca’s alleys reminded them of a famous alley from a magic book series they loved. (We won’t name the book series since this event cannot due to legal action by Warner Bros., but it rhymes with Barry Fodder.)
“It’s kind of like writing good fiction: if you’re going to create a world, you have to create the rules that go with it.”
Darlynne Overbaugh, a local candy store owner at the time and now festival director, created the event to celebrate that connection—a simple, trick-or-treat event around Halloween with magic, games and a good time. “So I put it on Facebook as an event, and I boosted it for $17. Then 8,000 people came,” she says of that first year, 2015.
The event in October attracted more than 25,000 people and included vendors, street performers, celebrity appearances from those in the fantasy genre, magic and science classes and more. Its ticket sales benefited local causes. And in response to the legal limitations placed on it, Wizarding Weekend, a nonprofit organization, has evolved without relying too heavily on the themes from the book series. “It comes back to that fandom principle: That everyone has a right to celebrate,” Overbaugh says.
As expected, fans have not taken the “cease and desist” news well. One superfan was quoted in the Ithaca Journal as describing the situation as “… Voldemort, trying to use dark magic to destroy the light of the little town.” Yikes. But Wizarding Weekend has persevered. This year the event is embracing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineer, Arts and Math) principles, because science essentially is “magic that works,” Overbaugh says.
“The thing that’s pretty intrinsic about fandoms and particularly fandoms in the magical realm, is they tend to want to see things better,” she says. “So even if you’re a fan of the magical series or any magical series like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ anything of that nature, you’re still going to enjoy this because this event pushes the next level of thinking.”
She also says that in her time attending fandom conventions and events, she noticed family was an often-missing component, which is why Wizarding Weekend is family-friendly and affordable. Overbaugh, who has embraced many fantasy fandoms throughout her life as a reader and self-professed geek, keeps the event’s formula simple, engaging and making decisions as she puts it, “for the good of the cause.”
“I think that’s the real key to any fandom event. It’s paying attention to the details of what a fandom is—and how it exists, and its rules,” Overbaugh says. “It’s kind of like writing good fiction: if you’re going to create a world, you have to create the rules that go with it.”
Activation venues that will impress superfans
If there’s one thing superfans crave, it’s access to their favorite forms of entertainment, and selecting the right venue is one way to deliver it. For this demographic, it’s about immersion. Following are some of the top venues for engaging superfans—including the underground lair from "The Dark Night"—available on Peerspace, “the Airbnb” of event spaces.
- The ‘Kill Bill’ Church, Hi Vista, CA
- 'The Dark Knight’ Bat-Lair, Los Angeles, CA
- The Historic Kingsley House, Los Angeles, CA
- Former home of Frank Sinatra, Clint Walker, and Roger Miller in the 1970s, Los Angeles, CA
- English film director James Whale’s home, Los Angeles, CA
- Loft From ‘Julia & Julia’, Long Island City, NY
- Brooklyn Art Library From ‘The Big Sick’, Williamsburg, NY
- ‘The Crown of Sugar Hill’ Townhouse (home to Madame Jumel), Manhattan, NY
- The set of 'The Walking Dead', Senoia, GA