Kleefeld's 'Fanthropology' #8: Fandom As Big Data


By Sean Kleefeld

I was reading a piece from Ad Age recently that stated, “For CMOs, the vehicle to bring disparate consumers together is data-driven insights...” Kind of sounds like hokum, right? Business-speak with a lot marketing jargon that really doesn’t mean anything. The piece was written by IBM Director of Business Analytics Erick Brethenoux, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it sounds about as much like English as if he’d been speaking Klingon.


But what might surprise you is that Brethenoux is actually a Trekkie himself. He also recently noted elsewhere that at a recent "Star Trek" convention, he felt closer to many attendees he didn’t know than some members of his own family. He spends a good deal of his income on "Star Trek" LEGO sets and video games. Doesn’t sound like the type of person you’d expect when you hear he used to work in the insurance industry.

Which, almost ironically, is kind of the point Brethenoux goes around trying to make.

When he was working in insurance, he helped find out some information about their male customers who were under 25 and owned sports cars. Although one might expect this group to be a high risk for the insurance company, it turns out that they were in fact an extremely low risk. They were actually sports car enthusiasts and kept meticulous care of their vehicles, constantly making sure everything about their cars was in top working order. They drove carefully so as not to damage their cars. Once they created an insurance policy tailored specifically to those people, it proved very successful as customers not only seemed to become more loyal, but great advocates for the company bringing in other customers.

It was this discovery that helped lead Brethenoux to his “kin theory” for marketing. It’s the idea that people will feel a sense of brand loyalty if that brand is one that helps to establish a sense of kinship with others who share their passions. Even if the company is not necessarily the factor around which people rally, it can still used as a focal point and essentially receive a degree of brand loyalty by helping to set up a situation where like-minded people can connect.

Take, for example, a product like Mountain Dew. Some people like the soda, and check out the website for news or information or what-have-you. But it’s soda. Despite what might be implied by the commercials, nobody really gets together to talk about how much they enjoy drinking it. However, people who do enjoy Mountain Dew often tend to have other similar tastes. In sports. In music.


If you check out the home page of their site, there is in fact more content based around sports and music than beverages. That’s deliberate, of course. They know they sell soda, but they’re promoting themselves as a conduit for people who enjoy, for example, snowboarding. That those people happen to also enjoy drinking Mountain Dew is how the company is able to leverage their brand to create a community that continues to buy their products.

Now, if you think I’m getting pretty far afield from fandom, recall that many fandoms are built up around characters and universes that are owned by large corporations. Corporations that are run by people who, frequently, have no emotional connection with those same characters and universes that the fans do. If it wasn’t for the fact that they have to look at invoices and memos that say “Star Trek”, they might not even know there’s a difference between that and “Star Wars.”

With digital technology being ubiquitous, people are generating data almost continually. Cell phones and GPS units follow our movements, almost every purchase can be tracked to the item, Facebook likes and Tumblr reblogs are seemingly never-ending... All that data, when taken together, can paint a pretty accurate portrait of who you are as fan. Just watching the latest "Star Trek" trailer doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll go see the movie. But if you pair that up with airline tickets to San Diego in mid-to-late July every year and following George Takei on Twitter and the occasional order from ThinkGeek, it’s a pretty reasonable assumption that we’re looking at a "Star Trek" fan. But that’s a pretty obvious and singular example.

The problem companies have right now is that there are too few people to analyze too much data. There are too many dots to connect for most organizations, and they can’t do anything with it. Brethenoux has noted, “We talk a good game about social data. Very few actually leverage it effectively today.”

But that’s how fandom is viewed from the other side. The passion that defines us as fans is largely absent. We’re reduced to numbers and statistics. It’s easy to look at that approach as cynical and just a methodology to try to soak more money out of existing fans. And that’s probably true in many cases, but a more optimistic view might be that these companies are, for their own reasons, trying to create a venue for fans to meet and interact with one another. Provided you’re aware of where that venue is being sourced from, and what their real objectives might be, that might not be a bad way to get to know your fellow fans.