Developing Loyal Fans: The Future of Marketing

  • February 7, 2020
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Do you want loyal fans for your business? Want to know how to build a fanbase of loyal customers?

To explore how to develop loyal fans, I interview David Meerman Scott on the Social Media Marketing Podcast.

David is a marketer, speaker, and best-selling author. His latest book is called Fanocracy: How to Turn Fans into Customers and Customers into Fans.

David explains the neuroscience behind tribal identification and loyal fanbases, and shares three keys to developing fans using social media.

Developing Loyal Fans: The Future of Marketing featuring insights from David Meerman Scott on the Social Media Marketing Podcast.

The New Rules of Marketing and PR

David worked as a bond trader on Wall Street right out of school and hated it. But he loved the information that the bond traders used. He went on to spend 15 years in the marketing departments of real-time information companies such as Dow Jones and a division of Thomson Reuters, mainly in the pre-online era.

When people were first talking about marketing on the web, they mainly framed it in terms of advertising. David instantly knew that this new development wasn’t about advertising: it was about content creation.

David explored this idea in his best-selling 2007 book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR. The book was among the first to articulate many of the concepts behind what we now know as inbound marketing, content marketing, and social media marketing.

A Return to Connection

David once again feels a shift in the online marketing world. We’re heading back to a more human connection, to an era where true engagement with fans and customers will go beyond the superficial.

The early days of social media marketing were very much about community: social media managers were called community managers, and it wasn’t about algorithms or scale, it was about connection. Social media isn’t going away. But so many people are fed up with the incorrect ways that social media is being used.

There are so many organizations online right now that are doubling down on the dark parts of marketing, the nefarious parts of it, the trickery. There are email lists you can’t unsubscribe from. People connect on LinkedIn or Instagram and immediately try to sell. Even the social networks themselves have optimized their algorithms around profit rather than distribution and connection.

A human connection is coming and that’s what David has been thinking, speaking, and writing about for the past few years.


David and his daughter Reiko share a love of their respective “geeky fandoms.” David is a huge live music fan. Since age 15, he’s been to 790 live music concerts (all detailed on an Excel spreadsheet), including 75 Grateful Dead concerts.

Reiko is a huge Harry Potter fan. She’s read every book and seen every movie many times, gone to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando and the movie studio tour in London, and even wrote a 90,000-word alternative ending to the Harry Potter series for a fan fiction site where Draco Malfoy is a spy for the Order of the Phoenix—a story that’s been read by thousands of people and garnered hundreds of comments.

David and Reiko agree that their fandoms—Grateful Dead and Harry Potter—are incredibly important to them. The people they share those fandoms with are among their best friends, and those human connections they have with those people are really powerful in their personal lives. They decided to work together to explore this concept and co-wrote their book, Fanocracy.


David is a self-described “middle-aged white guy who loves the Grateful Dead,” and Reiko is a mixed-race Millennial woman who loves Harry Potter—and also happens to be a neuroscientist finishing up med school. One of the first things they wanted to explore was if the same ideas of fandom could be applied to all businesses.

The answer turned out to be a resounding “yes.” They found numerous examples of organizations in all industries that have developed really strong fans. Those fans, in turn, help support those businesses in ways that transactional product and service selling can’t.

One great example is Hagerty Insurance. They sell auto insurance, which isn’t a product people love to talk about or buy. Furthermore, it’s a product nobody wants to ever have to actually use.

McKeel Hagerty, the CEO of Hagerty Insurance, told David he knew he couldn’t build his business the way other insurance companies had. He didn’t want to become a low-cost provider and spend tons of money on advertising to compete with geckos and lizards on TV commercials. Instead, McKeel specifically set out to build fans.

Hagerty Insurance provides insurance for classic cars, so McKeel gathered a team to attend classic car events. They set up a booth at these events to provide educational seminars and meet with fans of classic cars. They have a fabulous YouTube channel with a million subscribers. They have 650,000 members of their Drivers Club and a bi-monthly print magazine, and they’ve developed literally millions of fans.


They’re now the largest classic car insurance company in the world. They’re going to grow by 200,000 new customers this year and they’ve had double-digit compound growth ever since they started this concept of working with fans. Hagerty Insurance is a great example of an organization doing an incredible job generating fandom in a business everyone hates to buy from.

The second example that surprised David is actually a U.S. government agency that has more than 50 million followers on Instagram and tens of millions of fans around the world. You can walk down the street in any city in the world and see someone wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of this U.S. government agency.

Just last month, David was on vacation with his wife in the Seychelles, a group of islands off the eastern coast of Africa just above Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. David and his wife were walking down a rural street and saw a young man walking toward them wearing a NASA T-shirt: a government agency with tens of millions of fans.

The Importance of Fans

Fans are a tribe of people who love what you do and are eager to continue to be your customers and share with other people that they love what you do. They wear the T-shirt, put the sticker on their computer, and sometimes even put a tattoo on their body.

Joe De Sena, the founder of Spartan Race, wrote an endorsement quote for Fanocracy. Joe says that Spartan’s customers are no ordinary customers. They’re die-hard fans who bleed for Spartan the world over. They love calling themselves Spartans, they bear Spartan tattoos, and they share their experiences with family and friends, bringing hundreds of thousands of new Spartans to the brand each year.

This idea of having “fans” means that you have a sustainable business. You don’t have to stay in transaction mode, constantly looking for where your next piece of business is coming from. You can grow your business by having fans who will support you.

Developing Fans

In Fanocracy, David and Reiko delve into nine specific prescriptions for developing fans. Three of them are especially applicable to the world of social media.

1. Let Go of Your Creations.

Once you put your product, service, idea, or art into the marketplace, it no longer belongs to you and you need to let the fans take over. Reiko wrote about this because she’s a big fan of all kinds of speculative fiction. Some of the authors she loves celebrate when people write fan fiction but others try to clamp down on it. The same thing is true of all sorts of companies. Let people talk about your company the way they want to and share the way that they want to. Don’t try to control the messaging.

One organization that does try to control the message is Adobe. Reiko is a huge fan of Adobe Photoshop and follows many different online forums, chat rooms, Tumblrs, blogs, and YouTube channels where people create art using Photoshop. She found a site where everyone was laughing at Adobe because they were trying to control the way people talk about photos. Adobe said, “You cannot say that you ‘Photoshopped’ something. You must say that you ‘manipulated something using Adobe software.’”

There are probably well-meaning social marketing people at Adobe but the lawyers are more powerful. That’s true in a lot of organizations: People listen to the lawyers’ perspective versus listening to the social media marketers’ perspective. As Reiko explains, “Everything that Adobe says we should say sounds like they’re telling us what to do, and everything that we’re doing sounds like we’re fans talking.”

David coined the term “newsjacking” to describe the art and science of injecting your ideas into a breaking news story. If you create a blog post or a YouTube video as a result of a breaking news story involving your area of expertise and put it out in real time, you have the potential to generate lots of attention. Maybe you’ll get quoted in the media or even drive sales as a result.


Everybody told David that he should trademark the phrase “newsjacking.” Instead, he chose to let go of his creation. Yes, he owns the URL. Yes, he wrote a book with the title Newsjacking. Yes, he speaks from the stage sometimes about newsjacking and he blogs about it but he didn’t want to try to own it. People told David that he was making a mistake. But now, so many other people are writing and talking about newsjacking.

Other people have even written books about it. The Oxford English Dictionary shortlisted “newsjacking” as one of 2017’s Words of the Year, with credit to David for its modern usage. None of that would have happened if he had trademarked it. People wouldn’t have talked or blogged about this idea of newsjacking if he had tried to own that term.

Another example comes from Roomba. i-Robot makes Roomba vacuum cleaners. Millions of people on YouTube have posted and viewed videos of dogs and cats riding on a Roomba. i-Robot could have said, “That’s not an appropriate use for our product—take those videos down,” but they didn’t. They celebrate the fact that their fans are using Roomba in a weird way and embrace that exposure.


It’s not that lawyers are always wrong. You should trademark something if it makes sense to, and of course you should be selling your product or service. But once you put your creation into the world, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the fans.

2. Give More Than You Have To

This idea came out of David’s love of the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead was the first band to let fans record their music. Every other band’s ticket says, “Recording Prohibited,” but the Grateful Dead said, “Sure, why not?” The band even gave fans a spot right behind the mixing board, the best place for sound, to record the concerts.

The only rule was that fans couldn’t sell the tapes or MP3 files that they made at those concerts. They could trade them, give them away, or collect them, but they couldn’t sell them. This resulted in a huge network of Grateful Dead fans who organized around this idea of sharing free content before Mark Zuckerberg was even born.

In our world of social media and generating attention and delivering content, many people put squeeze pages around their best content, requiring an email address. David believes that if you take your page out of the Grateful Dead’s playbook—give more than you have to and make that content completely free—then you’re much more likely to build fans.

Sure, if you set up a squeeze page and require that people give you their email address before they download your white paper, you can build your email list. But is your goal to gather some email addresses or to build fans? If it’s to build fans, make the white paper completely free.

There’s also a hybrid model, which is to make the initial white paper completely free and then have an offer in the white paper that can generate an email address from readers. “If you like this white paper, why not subscribe to our email list, or participate in our next webinar?” That’s a practical idea where a white paper can be used to generate fans, as opposed to simply generating email addresses.

David suggests making almost everything free, and then have much of that free content lead to the piece for which they have to share an email address. But make sure that content that generates an email address is super-valuable. People are already your fans because of all of the free content you’ve delivered, so by the time they get to the page where they have to enter an email to get that big report, they’re happy to do it. They trust you by then.

Those people are going to be hot leads. They’ve already consumed a bunch of your stuff and they’re fans. They’re cold leads when they give you an email address because they want your initial report. This sets up an adversarial relationship.

When I started Social Media Examiner 10+ years ago, I noticed a lot of consultants/bloggers weren’t giving away their knowledge and were complaining about the social platforms. I decided instead to give away everything I knew for free in a how-to article. That’s giving way more than I had to because it’s absolutely everything that I had. Today, there are others who do this.

Brian Solis, for example, will keynote at a private paid event and then post it to YouTube afterward. In our particular case, because we gave everything away, the one thing that we chose not to give away for free was our annual study. We still get about 200,000 email subscribers a year off of that 50-page report. I believe that it’s useful to have something to generate emails with but not if it’s the only thing you do. That’s the difference.

For the small consultant, it’s a little trickier. The idea of giving more than you have to is about developing fans who will want to be your customers. A free webinar is one idea that could work. There might be some opportunities where, in certain situations, consultants could give away a small amount of their time. But generally, separate the product you sell from the content that you give away. You don’t necessarily have to give away your consulting; you should give away something scalable.

David gives away a ton of content. He’s done around 1,500 blog posts, a few hundred videos, and all kinds of white papers and eBooks. But he also sells books and books speaking engagements and serves on advisory boards. He’s not giving those things away (except the eBook version of Worldwide Rave, which you still have to pay for in hardcover).


Think about the content you create, whether spoken, written, or video. Give more away than you feel comfortable giving because it will benefit you.

3. Get Closer Than Usual

In Fanocracy, David and Reiko spoke to a number of well-known neuroscientists about what goes on in our brains when we become a fan of something. It turns out that all humans are hardwired from our caveman days to want to know if the people around us are part of our tribe or a potential enemy.

When David is at a Grateful Dead concert, or Reiko is at a Harry Potter event, or people are at Social Media Marketing World, they’re with their tribe. They’re with like-minded people with whom they’re comfortable.

If you walk into a room at Social Media Marketing World, those are people you know—maybe not personally—but they’re all part of the same tribe. It’s the same at a Grateful Dead concert: You can turn to anybody next to you and know that they’re a like-minded person. You can strike up a conversation and have a very strong personal connection.

But if you get into a crowded elevator or a crowded subway car, you’re not part of the same tribe with those people and you naturally feel nervous because your brain’s fight-or-flight mode is kicking in.

Neuroscientist Edward T. Hall identified the levels of proximity. Public space is defined as 20 feet or further; between 20 feet and about 4 feet is called social space; and inside 4 feet is called personal space. Our brains know that at 20 feet there are people far away from us but we don’t really track those people. Our brains begin to track people who get between 20 feet and 4 feet away, or the social space.

Inside 4 feet, personal space, is cocktail-party distance. The closer we get to people who are part of our tribe, the more powerful the positive emotions. The reverse is true when we’re that close to people who aren’t part of our tribe. The closer they get, the more nervous we feel.

Can your business bring people together physically? Can you create an event like Social Media Marketing World, or can you go out and meet customers on their home turf? Can you have customers meet other customers? Those physical connections with like-minded people are incredibly powerful.

When we talk about this idea of proximity, that hardwired neuroscience concept, people nod their heads; it makes sense to them. But they often counter that their business doesn’t lend itself to having a physical meeting because they run a business that’s global or even virtual.

It turns out there’s another concept around neuroscience that’s equally fascinating: mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the parts of our brains that fire when we see or even hear about somebody doing something, and it feels as if we’re doing it ourselves.

While we were recording this, David announced that he was going to bite into a lemon. He had a lemon right there in front of him. He had both a full lemon and a slice of lemon. He told me he was going to bite into that lemon, and then he bit into the lemon.

He told me that it was really powerful: his eyes closed, his mouth puckered up. He salivated. He could really taste that lemon in his mouth. I couldn’t even see him do it, but just hearing him talk about it got my brain firing and my mouth salivating. If he had been on video and I had actually seen him with the lemon in his hand, it would have been even more powerful. That’s the idea behind mirror neurons.

Here’s how this is really powerful for social media marketing. When you use video and photographs cropped up close as if you’re in the personal space of the camera—in that 4-foot space of cocktail-party proximity—looking directly at the camera, that’s incredibly powerful. The brains of the people who are seeing those videos or photographs perceive that they’re in your personal space, even though they’re not.


If it’s a live video, you could be thousands of miles away, but those people’s brains believe they’re in the same room with you. That’s exactly why you feel you know a movie star. You’ve never met them. But because you’ve seen them on the screen, typically within close physical proximity, you feel as though you know that movie star.

It also explains the selfie phenomenon. Many people believe that selfies are frivolous, but they’re fabulously powerful because your arm is less than 4 feet away and you’re typically looking directly at the camera. The brains of the people who see that selfie are telling them that they’re in close physical proximity to you; therefore, they feel as if they’re part of your tribe.

If you get another person in there, they have to get really close to you to even take the shot. You’re showing that you’re in very close physical proximity with the other people in that photograph. The brains of the people who are seeing that image register that you’re part of that tribe. This is really powerful for social media marketing and it’s seldom used.

Yes, many of us use video. Yes, many of us use photographs. But we don’t consciously think of the neuroscience aspects of how to best crop those photos.

Go look on your social media feed for those photos that are cropped close: a selfie or some other close-up photo where you’re looking directly at the camera. Count the reactions, likes, and retweets. For most people on their social feeds, those are going to be the most reacted-to images. That’s because the people who react feel like they’re part of your tribe. This is a powerful way to grow fans.

Contrast that with what a lot of companies do, which is the 60 Minutes-style interview: two cameras, sometimes three, with two people talking to one another. The camera is never trained on someone’s eyes; they’re never looking at the camera. It’s much harder to get traction around videos like that.

Looking directly at the camera is, from a neuroscience perspective, the best way to build fans.

Key Takeaways From This Episode:

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