Why I fear the Fan thing

Full Moon by Anki Lofgren. Fan art is yet another reason I'm somewhat wary of fans.
Full Moon by Anki Lofgren. Fan art is yet another reason I’m somewhat wary of fans.

Someone has just asked whether we have any information on how engaging fans leads to better ROI. Cue the following rant from me.

Caveat — all my thinking here centres around FMCG/CPG brands. You may work in another sector, in which case please bear in mind, while it may still apply, nothing I say here has been tested for your business. Test for colour-fastness on an unobtrusive piece of your business prior to use.

There are all sorts of fairly fake numbers about fans buying more product X than index. Google around and you’ll find them.

We’ve always taken the line that fans are already either buying as much product X as they can (saturated audience = limited upside) or that they’re promiscuous shoppers seeking discounts (promiscuous discount seekers = low value audience.) There’s conflicting research that supports both POVs.

As far as I can recall, there is no quantitative research that we’ve seen that suggests that well-engaged fans lead to more sales. Any research linking fans and sales tends to demonstrate correlation only; i.e. “fans buy more.” With this evidence, we might make the (foolish) recommendation that accruing more fans will lead to more sales. But we’re not so foolish as to confuse correlation with causation. Even if we were so foolish, we might still ask about the potential size of the market, concern ourselves with decreasing returns, or do some kind of cost/benefit analysis.

Secret sauce survey research can sometimes be used to prove that “socially engaged users are more likely to buy”, but there are so many horrible flaws in this that I’d be slightly embarrassed to share them with anyone who’s research-savvy. Such reports often seem to say that “surveyed users say that they are more likely to buy from brands that they say engaged them” and even this is shaky.

The big question, of course, is “how many units does client X want to sell?” Assume a fan audience of 1m 16-44 French Women (do-able) against a potential universe of ~12m French Women 16-44 (guestimated data). How much might those 1m fans move the needle (even assuming that they aren’t saturated or discount seekers.)

Frankly, the mistake that everyone’s making is to misconstrue “Social media marketing” as “CRM”. That’s just wrong-headed. Facebook isn’t the successor to email lists; and it betrays a lack of imagination and consideration on behalf of marketing planners that they’re treating it that way.

So — for me, Fans have always been about advocacy; and that means giving them the means and motive to talk about us. Which means that there’s a big caveat to everything I just said: Content Marketing as evidenced by RedBull.

RedBull can’t afford to advertise on TV in a market dominated by Coca Cola and PepsiCo. Instead it ploughs all its money into sponsorships, content generation and digital. Their fans become the channel through which their content reaches huge new audiences.

But this is a special case. And even then, it’s about promoting their content (promoted through Facebook) and not Fan engagement.


  1. says

    In pursuing more 'fans' a brand might accidentally act more inclusive, become more customer centred and even stumble into making better products by incorporating customer feedback. Thus perpetuating an input correlation (fans=sales) with a sequential correlation (social media activity=new fans). A nice virtuous circle. But in Zen they would ask Is 'right action' without 'right understanding' still 'right action'?

  2. Nigel Shardlow says

    I had to read this twice before realising that you were (I think) tilting not against the broader claim that 'Well-engaged fans lead to more sales overall' but against the narrower claim that 'Well-engaged fans lead to more sales from well-engaged fans.'

    The sales may not come from fans themselves but, through advocacy, from the people that the fans reach with their shares, their retweets and their recommendations. Fans are valuable for the incremental reach they provide.

    The trick is not to confuse the means with the end.

  3. says

    That's an extraordinarily sound point, Nigel. I do (sort of) acknowledge that in the closing paragraphs; but perhaps the rant could have been avoided were I to have equivocated a little.

    You'll admit, I'm sure, that that's not what the questioner meant. But I may focus in that direction in future.

  4. says

    Yes; this is of course true, and you're absolutely right to raise the point.

    However, in my self-imposed role as cynical Fool, I'd point out that the most cost-efficient route for fan growth is paid advertising (both on Facebook & Twitter.) An experienced planner/buyer can estimate to within a few pennies the starting and finishing bids on cost-per-fan campaigns.

    That's (partly at least) how we've ended up with such massive fan inflation.

    In the good old days brands only ever expected to have a few dozens of "fans" globally. They were exceptional people (and often a teensy bit fruity). MySpace, Facebook, Twitter devalued the fan by apparently increasing the supply. Of course, we all know, deep down, that this isn't true…

  5. Nigel Shardlow says

    The double-take wasn't down to any lack of clarity in the writing, which is excellent as ever: rather, it was entirely down to my being embedded in a piece of model-building that aims to look at the value of social intervention, and of fans, as a whole. I'm trying to convince myself that fans have at least some value, whereas I guess you're trying to convince others that fans have less value – or a different sort of vale – than they think.

Please tell me what you think.