The contemporary obsession with Silicon Valley has warped public perceptions of what entrepreneurs are. It’s all tech now, apps, grand visions and glazed eyes. If you’re not trying to change the world and disrupt something, who are you?
Even real entrepreneurs, who should know better, can be affected. The temptation to don a grey T-shirt and start talking about paradigm shifts is great. How many secretly dream of starting The Next Facebook or The Next Google? Everyone uses Google. It’s even become a verb. Why wouldn’t you aim that high?
An obvious reason is that it’s just not realistic. The odds of starting a company like that are astronomically small, even if you do indeed have an earth-shattering idea. Indeed, trying to be all things for all people is a sure-fire way of losing focus.
Instead, the great majority of successful start-ups ‘itch the niche’ (or should that be ‘eesh the niche’?). Doing so gives you a far better chance of understanding your market (given that your market is no longer ‘everyone’), and it also increases your chances of developing ‘superfans’.
‘Consumers consume what they are given. They use a product as it was intended to be use. Fans act on a brand’s behalf. They perform activities that help to make the fan object more personal to them,’ explains Zoe Fraade- Banar, co-author of Superfandom: How our obsessions are changing what we buy and who we are, and co-founder of toy company Squishable.
‘Superfans are those people who are willing to go the extra mile to not only work for the fan object but try to make it better.’
You know the type. The sort who live on message boards, who have a creepy collection of some kind, who go on pilgrimages to your factory. Your instinct may be to close the blinds and call security next time you see one, but in fact it might be an idea to invite them in.
Superfans can make or break a start-up. They are evangelists and community builders, who not only buy your products but suggest improvements and encourage others to buy them. Money cannot buy that kind of marketing, and you can see their influence in the rise, revival or continued success of brands from Apple to Levis, Harley-Davidson to Starbucks.
Making a product or a brand that people love in that way is hardly easy of course. Superfans don’t just turn up outside your shop door because you want them to. If you have a great product that nails a niche, though, you’ve got a decent shot at attracting potential candidates.
The trick then is to turn these proto-fans into superfans - and that, says Fraade-Banar, requires ‘firestarters’.
‘A fandom is a minimum viable population, plus a platform, plus an emotional response. Getting the group past the need for firestarters, the people who are willing to act on behalf of the group without a minimum viable population, is the number one goal for every fledgling fangroup. Once it can start sustaining itself, fans themselves can begin taking over a lot of the group building activities - things like informal recruitment, answering questions for newcomers, making things for each other, gaining social status. Once that self-sustaining combustion has been lit you know it's working,’ she says.
The trick is observe, encourage and assist nascent behaviours, rather than trying to impose them.
Once you’ve got superfans, there are new challenges. For a start, your success and the perception of your brand now in some part depend on a group of people who are both outside your control and hyper-sensitive to hypocrisy (‘nothing goes through the internet faster than news of inauthenticity in a brand’, says Fraade-Banar). This makes you especially vulnerable to scandal, so be extra mindful of your reputation.
Beyond that, a difficult balance is required between the need to listen to your fans (‘fandom can’t just be sprinkled on something by a social media intern... fan reactions should be considered during development and testing’) with the need to maintain control of your own strategy.
‘One of the biggest dangers is actually the innate urge to give in to fan demands. Doing what they want and feeling their approval feels so good, and refusing them can explode so easily, so it’s very easy to chase fan approval to the exclusion of a broader audience,’ says Fraade-Banar.
‘Brand owners need to listen to fans and be mindful in their responses, but that's not the same as automatically giving in. Many a brand has succeeded by making business decisions that alienated their fan group, but won them a much larger one.’
It may not be easy, but if you can hit a niche and cultivate a community of superfans, then maybe you will be able to change the world – just not for everyone.
Image credit: Tulane Public Relations/Flickr