The Problem With 'Fans'

Starbucks is the biggest brand on Facebook, ( with over 3.7 million "fans." This achievement is both a testament to the power of the Starbucks brand, and to the outstanding approach Starbucks takes towards leveraging social media, which goes well beyond accumulating fans -- as Alexandra Wheeler, Starbucks Digital Strategy Director, tells Brandweek in a recent interview. But more and more brands are looking at gathering fans/followers/friends, as the end goal of their social marketing efforts. Why?

(I will use "fans" to refer to Twitter follower and MySpace friends as well going forward). Fans, by definition, have raised their hand to indicate some sort of affiliation to a brand. The intent of that affiliation can vary widely, depending on the individual. Perhaps the "fan" simply wanted to tell her friends about a brand she liked, one time. Perhaps the "fan" wanted to get the coupon offered by a brand for becoming a fan. Or perhaps, and this is the one the brands want to hear, the "fan" wants to hear from and talk to the brand going forward.



Whatever the reason, an individual has opted to form a loose connection to a brand within social media. There is no doubt that this is the next generation of CRM (customer relationship management), and will be an incredibly valuable tool as brands better learn how to communicate in a social media setting -- but it is no way a complete answer to social media marketing.

Consider the number of brands the average person interacts with in his or her daily life. Now consider how many of those brands a person would be willing to become a fan of. Even if an individual is willing to become a fan of every brand he interacts with, at what point does the amount of communication coming from the brands become too much? Also, in what setting does marketing to your most loyal fans only constitute the whole of your marketing efforts?

Many people become fans because they are already sold on one aspect or another of the brand, and they are very likely already customers (hence the usage of CRM). The power of social media marketing is to reach out to people who are not already fans, outside the setting of direct communication between brands and people -- instead generating conversation between people about brands. The difference is between Nike talking to me on Facebook, versus a friend and I talking to each other about Nike on Facebook. Authenticity is found in peer-to-peer communication, not just within a core group of loyal fans, but reaching out to the community at large.

Activating this strategy will unlock significant reach and generate the ROI brands are looking for to justify social media investments (re: new customers). Think about it this way. If I am a fan of Reebok on Facebook, should Nike's marketing give up on me? Or what if I'm one of the millions of Americans who just don't exercise enough to have a favorite brand  of athletic gear, at least not one that I would be a fan of -- should Under Armor not hope to reach me with its message through social media?

People are spending more time in social media all the time. This month I would recommend reading Forrester's report on social media adoption by Sean Corcoran, "The Broad Reach Of Social Technologies." Adapting best practices to leverage fans/friends/followers is a must, and should be a major component of every social media marketing plan, but managing relationships with your fans is just one component of social media. Perhaps the bigger question could be phrased, "How do I make more people fans of my brand?" -- and not just by having them click a button.

As always, drop me your thoughts on Twitter @joemarchese ( and leave a comment below to add to the conversation. How do you value "fans"?

10 comments about "The Problem With 'Fans'".
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  1. Russell Cross from Prentke Romich, August 25, 2009 at 4:11 p.m.

    The article offered in the link may indeed by worth reading but paying $499 sight-unseen for an 8-page article is a bit rich for my budget! On the other hand, at $62 per page, maybe it HAS to be good ;)

  2. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., August 25, 2009 at 4:22 p.m.

    I agree with pretty-much everything you've said above. The temptation is strong among marketers to focus on building the brand to the point where the brand becomes a product (or sometimes -the- product, as in the case of Starbucks). And yes, that can work in certain cases where it's possible to become iconic because your collective shtick is so resonant with identity. But everyone else (and iconic brands, too) need to focus on joining the dialogue about their product-category (and other related dialogues) in order to convert customers.

    Which, ironically, leads us back in the direction of conventional publications hiring objective experts to foment balanced dialogue about multiple brands, to which consumers can contribute. Conversations about coffee, after all, tend to peter out unless some hack periodically writes the 'Arabica vs. Jamaican: We Shoot-Out Ten High-Test Morning Brands' feature. (grin)

  3. Nectarios Economakis from Media Experts, August 25, 2009 at 4:23 p.m.

    I believe that your core fans, the ones that are already sold on your brand should be your priority. I don't think you are recommending to neglect them but are recommending on concentrating on non-fans first. This might be a dangerous strategy for a few reasons.
    1) Non fans are not easy to convince on social media platforms - just look at CTR's on social media sites. This might even look like spam for a few.
    2) Fostering the conversation with your current fans will spread the word to new people. If you target people on the fringe and these people become your fans - eventually your brand will be adopted by the core.

    My two cents...

  4. Al Cadena from Threshold Interactive, August 25, 2009 at 4:32 p.m.

    We're in the infancy of "what to do with Facebook fans" so the easiest thing to do is to gain them as quickly as possible. It's key to take a close look at the growth process.

    Our agency manages quickly growing brand Facebook fan pages and the most interesting thing of the growth process is the unsolicited comments the consumer makes about the brand. Growth has brought width and depth to the online conversation. As we engage with the consumer further, we're pulling away insights we didn't have before.

  5. David Jennings from eVenues, August 25, 2009 at 5:06 p.m.

    Ditto on the price; you know how many social media books I can buy for that. Forrester's obviously still trying get top dollar from corps for its words even in a recession. Crazy.

  6. Joe Marchese, August 25, 2009 at 5:58 p.m.

    for those that want a little more on forrester's findings, without spending first, Josh Bernoff has a good write-up on some of the highlights:

  7. David Shor from Prove, August 25, 2009 at 9:48 p.m.

    From a strict reach standpoint we remain attracted to "friend" relationships in social media because information published by brands to their fans/friends is more likely to be unavoidable and rich than email/SMS, etc.

    That's massively simplifying the appeal, but when it comes down to it, it's still about the numbers.

  8. Jan Van den bergh from Holaba, August 25, 2009 at 10:51 p.m.

    There’s a huge difference between someone who is
    • Just satisfied about a brand (bought once - was happy).
    • Loyal to a brand (bought often - still happy).
    • Fan of a brand (buy even more - love the brand).
    • Or a recommender of a brand (actively tells within his peer group that they should buy).

    The connection customer/brand goes from “loose” to very “strong”. From “passive” to “very active”. The starting point is the customer who manages his relation with the brand. Some call it therefore brand relationship management as opposed to the CRM which is driven by the brands.
    The power for social media is like the power of any community: a network of all sorts of people who expose themselves to eachother and chat a lot. That usually ends up in a soft conversation … but sometimes – when the fanatic recommenders become active – it turns a real brand war because these guys are selling their beliefs. And many many times they win. Marketing is war – no. Not as social as social media?

  9. Tim Tracey from, August 26, 2009 at 6:54 a.m.


    You identify several important consumer trends.

    These trends are early indicators of the emerging social economy which will recognize and incorporate social media as the most valuable advertising channel.

    The $100B US local advertising market will increasingly shift to social media.

    - - Tim

  10. Michael Senno from New York University, August 27, 2009 at 12:16 a.m.

    Fans mean different things to different brands. For some nascent brands, accumulating fans is good start. Clearly not an end game, but it helps achieve brand awareness and create a platform to deploy a marketing program. To Joe's point about managing all the communication users receive, as many blindly become a fan of everything, brands must find a way to keep the conversation going and stay relevant on a continual basis. Brands that innovate and find unique ways to have that conversation are more capable of capitalizing on social media.

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