Would you Spend your Last Dollar on a Fan or a Customer?

Or to put it another way: who is more valuable? First off, let me be clear: I’m not specifically talking about Facebook fans (although they may or may not be a subset of them). Instead, I mean those who show an irrational loyalty to your brand or company.

As Fenway Sports Management found out, confusing the notion of ‘fan’ and ‘customer’ can have unexpected consequences. Despite having the best interests of the Liverpool fan base at heart, applying the language of business to sports can evoke negative reactions from fans—particularly those already suspicious of corporate motives.

Earlier this month Arsenal FC explained how it believes football can be the first sports sector to ‘monetise social media’. In a piece for the Drum, their head of marketing, Charles Allen outlined how they are to overcome their biggest marketing challenge by converting fans into customers.

“You can be the biggest Arsenal fan in the world, and I’ve met many of them, who have no relationship with the club, who’ve never bought anything from the club, who have no intention of buying anything from the club, but they still declare themselves as the biggest fans,” he said.

Interestingly, a survey conducted by Momentum group found that owning team merchandise ranked lowest in the list of requirements for true fandom. Ouch. According to the report, the basic act of watching sport on TV is the most important requisite of being a true fan, followed by being current with information and actually knowing what you’re talking about.

How can you monetise fans without angering them?

While the notion of ‘monetising fans’ is of course a rational approach—in what other business would such levels of investment come without any expectations of a return—it jars fans to hear it. Fans can feel like they are an afterthought to many social sponsorship deals. They feel they are relegated to being tacked on to an activation idea rather than the key driver for the sponsors objective. Also adding to their frustration, many fans feel interactions with their teams or sports stars via social media updates are inauthentic, insincere and contrived.

This poses a problem for sporting organisations. How do they close the expectation gap between what fans want and what they are able to authentically provide in a commercially sound way?

But this confusion isn’t unique to marketers at sports organisations. Along the other end of the spectrum we have brands, and in particular those in sectors that don’t automatically inspire fanatic behaviour amongst their audiences. Of course if you’re a brand you have customers – it goes without saying. But since the launch of Facebook pages, the allure of having ‘fans’ as become a holy grail for many brands. Admittedly, many now realise that merely inspiring clicks on a certain part of the web doesn’t equal having passionate fans. There are many voices that dispel this thinking. The likes of Bryon Sharp and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute have done a lot of scientific research showing that focusing solely on fans doesn’t grow brands.

Image by Abigail Keenan at unsplash

Why Marketers Crave Fans

But there is something enticing about fanatical behaviour that brand managers are attracted to. For us marketers, our perception is that fanatical brand behaviour validates everything we create. We want people to talk about our ads, share our content, show themselves immersed in our content, create their own content inspired by us.

That’s not to say there isn’t some value in brands taking a fan/community based approach to their activities. Many brands have an authenticity gap and genuine fans can help fill that. Profiling ‘fans or advocates’ to uncover similar audiences, giving said advocates an authentic platform to create content or even fostering a community to solve problems for you are just some ways brands can start to thinking smartly about fans. But this shouldn’t come at the behest of finding actual customers. Fans are simply emotional in ways customers aren’t.

So we have a set of marketers who have fans but would love to have customers and another set of marketers who have customers but would love to have fans? Are they mutually exclusive? Of course not. Most would love to have both in the right amount. The problem comes in the expectations they put upon themselves to get both.

Brands such as Lego have done a fantastic job of getting this balance right. They have tons of customers and tons of fans—and one fuels the other. This approach is summed up perfectly by Lego’s head of community and co-creation at Lego, Peter Espersen speaking at the Festival of Marketing event in 2014.

"There's a difference between the trademark and the brand," said Espersen. "The trademark, that's like the signature. So if you copy that we'll release the hounds and chase you down. But... I'd argue that the brand exists in the mind of the consumer."

Ultimately this is what the question of fans versus customers comes down to: What are your expectations for what each of these groups can offer you, either as a brand (or trademark) and what are you willing to incentivize to get it? Marketers would do well to learn from fans about expectation setting. Set yourself too high and run the risk of spending millions only to end up in 4th place. Set yourself too low and fall into irrelevance in ever changing times. As fans often say, the struggle is real.

Eb Adeyeri's picture

Eb Adeyeri

An accomplished digital strategist and consultant, Eb provides advice to help brands and organisations navigate the social and digital landscape to achieve their business objectives. Co-author of the book, "The Social Media MBA: Your Competitive Edge in Social Strategy Development & Delivery," Eb was included in PR Week's Power Players of Social Media in 2011.