Fan communities provide loyal audience of advocates

From CBS' peanut-posting Jericho watchers to Cadbury's Wispa-holics united, it's become practically impossible for brands to ignore the power of fan communities.

From CBS' peanut-posting Jericho watchers to Cadbury's Wispa-holics united, it's become practically impossible for brands to ignore the power of fan communities.

Many companies, in fact, have found that by tapping into these fan clubs, they can generate positive word of mouth and build an incredibly dedicated network of advocates.

"The fans are not a group you can ignore," says Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm's head of fan relations. Keeping fans in the loop - both online and off - has been a priority since the release of the original Star Wars, Sansweet says. And Lucasfilm actively relies on its StarWars.com site to engage both longtime and new generations of fans.

But along with serving as a liaison to fans, he says, StarWars.com is the fans' liaison back to Lucasfilm.

"Star Wars fans have a sense of ownership," Sansweet explains. "They are an intelligent, passionate, vocal audience... [The company] can't always do what they want, but can at least explain why."

NASCAR, too, designed its Official NASCAR Members Club to provide "a sense of community and insider access," says Andrew Giangola, its director of business communications.

That means treating fans to little things, like a welcome letter from membership ambassador Richard Petty, as well as "members-only" offers, such as VIP track access and NASCAR partner discounts.

Local chapters - 1,600 have formed since the club launched in 2005 - have increased awareness of NASCAR, not only by holding race-watching parties, but also through volunteer efforts, says Giangola. Chapters have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for causes like Hurricane Katrina relief and the National Guard.

Even young fans can be powerful promoters, adds Kieran Bailey, the moderator of online fan clubs, including one for Victoria Justice from Nickelodeon's Zoey 101.

When Justice says "hi" to one of her 13-year-old community members - and calls her by name - that fan "can go into school the next day with a little bit of a self-esteem boost," Bailey says.

For celebrities, interactions like that "create such loyalty and build a strong fan base," Bailey adds. "Fans know you're human."

Key points:

PR pros can reach a huge network of brand advocates by tapping into fan communities

The most effective fan communications include a two-way dialogue

By engaging fan clubs, companies can build loyalty and have an audience to leverage when in need of support

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