Engagement in the participation age has evolved. Over the past few years, new online tools and platforms have emerged which have enabled communicators to more directly convey their stories, listen to their audience, and interact in more authentic ways.
But, modern consumers are doing much more than simply engaging. They’re becoming emotionally invested in the products they use and the stories they care about, to the point of believing in a sense of ownership. They are expressing themselves through every aspect of their online activities, including how they relate to brands, celebrities, and even news. "While people may be drawn to brands that fit their identity,” writes the Journal of Consumer Research, “they are also more likely to desire a sense of ownership and freedom in how they express that identity.”
On a superficial level marketers certainly understand the need for engagement to drive traffic. Using digital tools like online polls and surveys, marketers can attract interest in a story, and keep people on the page longer. But, at a deeper level, these tools may help consumers do much more; a reader may appreciate a potential to help write the story, to be part of the story itself.
For publishers, there are opportunities to appeal to this sense of ownership by providing opportunities for consumers to participate in a story, rather than simply read it. A sense of ownership is different than identification or familiarity. Ownership gives consumers both a desire and an ability to drive the story. Lego took advantage of this desire when they recently asked online communities to spawn new ideas for Lego sets. It’s also what drives Kickstarter funders, as much as the desire to be an early adopter.
In truth, the term consumer is outdated. We don’t just consume any more; some of us engage as brand advocates. The new book, Superfandom: How Our Obsessions are Changing What We Buy and Who We Are, written by Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron M. Glazer, refers to these brand advocates as “superfans.”
Superfans don’t just buy; they promote the brand within social circles. They give unsolicited feedback on service and products on forums and social media channels. And they will also protest when Cadbury changes its original recipe.
What’s driving these superfans? Is there an emotional component to the engagement, as if to say, we have a voice in how a business operates because we’re emotionally invested in its outcome? Either way, this may be old news.
“To fan is human,” suggests Fraade-Blanar and Glazer. “It’s a very old, very human phenomenon; acting in fanlike ways is probably as ancient as culture itself.”
“The modern term fan object is what we now call these centers of emotion and activity, pieces of culture that inspire both loyalty, and, more importantly, activity.”
One thing is certain: the superfan concept now extends across platforms and niches. And why not? Why shouldn’t the desire to engage with fan objects like Kim Kardashian or LeBron James also not apply to Donald Trump and Brexit? Engagement need not be positive, after all. Obsession is a double-edged sword.
Indeed, news portals now regularly feature interactive content, such as content creator Apester’s online surveys, which often become the news themselves:
And that's what is meant by ownership, a belief in the right to engage with the story, not the engagement itself. And it may well be that expectation that’s driving technological change and not the other way around.
Into the future, we can expect online activities of all sorts to be increasingly interactive. For starters, because we want more meaningful engagement but also, and in large part, because the opinions and data generated online have value and meaning. How future interactions take shape will certainly influence beyond the results of an online survey, determining the functionality and form of the internet itself.