We dive into what we can learn from experiential retail and direct-to-consumer brands.
It’s the stuff of every chief marketing officer’s dreams. Imagine you’re a company that generates huge sales from a product that’s still in development. You’ve got a legion of
customers who love what you sell and stand for so much that they’ll commit on the spot—regardless of cost, and without previewing the product first. These customers aren’t just any customers; they’re what entrepreneur and author Pat Flynn would call “superfans.” These customers are all in, and here’s the best part: They tell their friends. As Flynn says, “You don’t need to change the entire world to build a successful business; you just need to change someone’s world.”
Well, maybe about 1,000 “someones.” While attempting to get his own entrepreneurial venture off the ground in 2009, Flynn says he came across an article written by Wired co-founder and editor Kevin Kelly and titled “1,000 True Fans.” Kelly’s essay, he says, was vital in helping him realize that all he really needed to build a successful business was 1,000 true fans, not celebrity status, not a best-selling book or wildly popular YouTube channel.
The quickest way to earn those true fans—or “superfans,” as Flynn coined them—was not through some complicated algorithm. Instead, through a combination of inspiration from Kelly and his own experience, he determined that, above all, superfans were the result of putting your audience first. Success didn’t come from creating something you were sure that customers needed; rather it was the result of understanding what your customers wanted but didn’t yet have—and then delivering it.
Why are Superfans so Important?
In a word–engagement.
“Advocacy strongly differs from satisfaction or even loyalty. It is a business strategy built upon trust, an enduring competitive advantage which has become increasingly important as companies lose control of the brand message to customers who can reach the masses in an anonymous, everlasting way,” said Matthew Rhoden, a partner at management consulting firm Peppers & Rogers Group, in an article for Harvard Business Review in 2011. Advocates are not only emotionally attached to your brand. They will actively support and even defend it. In essence, they’re brand ambassadors.
Being able to claim that you’ve got thousands upon thousands of followers on social media doesn’t mean much. How many of those followers see everything you post, or take action based on what they do spot? Unless the site is promoting your content, only a small percentage of those fans will happen upon your messages. Brands have to take a more direct and strategic approach to foster relationships with existing and potential customers. In August 2019, blogger Susan Johnston Taylor interviewed Flynn for multimedia company StartupNation, during which he recommended that “brands find some of their most engaged audience members, even some superfans, and highlight them.” The idea, he said, is to create a sense of relatability so that others see themselves in the stories you share.
Flynn also recommended taking people behind the scenes, providing that VIP treatment or air of exclusivity that makes them feel like insiders. Transparency is key. According to Flynn, pulling back the curtain on what you do and how you do it communicates trust and creates an experience your customers aren’t likely to forget. “Really, the whole idea of superfans is making people feel special.”
Leveraging Our Own Superfans
Direct selling companies are perfectly positioned to incorporate into their marketing plans the tactics Flynn describes. Indeed, many companies—if not most—already are. Take, for example, preferred customer programs designed to incentivize repeat sales by offering exclusive deals, freebies and other extras. Of course, this segment of customers is among an independent representative’s strongest candidates for future team members. When it comes to interacting with distributors, companies have made concerted efforts to remove any perceived barriers between themselves and the field, whether through live events, live video, social media or other means.
“The answer to whether direct sales companies will emerge as a leader in engaging their customers in the digital age, or struggle with new social media trends, depends primarily on how they’re able to capitalize on their strengths to reach a broader audience. Their inherently social model has the potential to make them uniquely suited to a marketplace in which trust, relatability, and a strong network are critical features of a competitive edge. To fully leverage this affinity, they must invest in marketing to not only their sales force of consultants but to the end consumer,” said Shama Hyder, CEO of Zen Media, a B2B communications firm, in a guest column for Forbes in 2017.
While the etiquette around company-to-consumer communication has been a hotly debated topic in the industry, direct selling organizations do in fact have a responsibility to engage consumers creating superfans among the public—particularly around education. Explaining what our industry is and what it isn’t, shining light on the oft-overlooked contributions of direct sales companies, and demonstrating the value and benefits of our products and business opportunities all establish greater transparency. This will begin to sow seeds that may ultimately lead to eventual superfandom. While we’re at it, expounding the facts about direct selling also can help bust lingering myths about the industry.
Demonstrating commitment to a set of principles, most notably through actions like corporate social responsibility initiatives, can go a long way toward creating the kind of brand loyalty that creates superfans. “To survive and thrive, direct sales companies will need to devise marketing strategies that endear their brand to end customers AND consultants,” said Hyder in the Forbes article. “They must present as fabulous places to work, as well as to shop from and support. This point is particularly salient when it comes to reaching the millennial market.” Her point is equally valid for the Gen Z audience. Seventy-one percent of Gen Zs seek brands whose purpose aligns with theirs, according to the PSFK x Suzy Gen A Survey, a study of 1,000 U.S. consumers ages 18-34.
Direct selling representatives, too, are in a strong position to create their own superfans among their respective teams and customer bases. Our industry has long coached representatives that they don’t need to know everything to provide meaningful service and lead others to success. As Flynn told Forbes writer Laura Shin in 2014, “You don’t actually have to be an expert—you just have to know more than the people who are looking for that information.”
The ‘Pyramid Of Fandom’
Where should you begin to focus your efforts? Flynn created a model for this very purpose, and it’s called the “Pyramid of Fandom.” The pyramid comprises everyone who’s ever made contact with your brand, and it’s split into four levels based on engagement: Casual, Active, Connected Community, and Superfans.
Casual members are the base of the pyramid—your largest segment, which Flynn estimates is more than 50 percent of the average company’s user base. This crowd has spotted your ads, social media posts, your name on Google search results, and the like. Something you said interested them, but they haven’t engaged with you beyond that.
Marketers aim to convert this group to the segment above on the pyramid: the Active category. Around 30 percent of your audience sits here. They’ve taken some kind of action in favor of your brand and are actively listening to you. However, they’re not part of your community.
Your Connected Community, which represents between 15 and 20 percent of your audience, is joining the conversation. They identify not only with your brand but with their fellow group members. In short, they’ve created a tribe and feel a strong sense of belonging with like-minded fans.
Superfans are about 5 percent of your entire fan base, Flynn says. They’re the most engaged, they spend the most money with you, the most time talking about you, and are your happiest, most repeat customers. While it’s not difficult to encourage Superfans to take action on behalf of your brand, ironically, companies usually spend the lion’s share of their time trying to convert customers at the bottom of the pyramid. That’s not to say they shouldn’t try to move customers; they just need to be more strategic about it and be sure to focus part of their energies on maintaining their Superfans, as well.
Here are a few tips for moving your customers up the Pyramid of Fandom:
FIRST, understand their language. What are the words and messages that resonate strongly with them? Direct selling companies invest a lot of time and effort to communicate with their independent distributors. Keeping those conversations moving in both directions and asking open-ended questions will help reveal your distributors’ pain points. Listening and repeating your understanding of those challenges can go a long way toward building trust—and fandom.
SECOND, capitalize on what direct sellers do best. Make that personal touch with distributors and, if appropriate, customers. Give shout-outs to fans in your own posts, or send them a direct message to thank them for their support.
THIRD, crowdsource. Ask your audience to weigh in with their suggestions on product launches, promotions, etc., or select groups of audience members to engage in this conversation. Mary Kay Ash said it best: “People will support that which they help to create.”
FOURTH, create opportunities for community members to meet, whether in person or online. If you can make it happen, send a company representative to welcome fans and chat with them.
FIFTH, name your fans. The music industry embraces this one. Jimmy Buffett’s fans call themselves Parrotheads. Fanilows love Barry Manilow. It may seem silly, but naming your fans helps enhance that sense of community and insider status.