During my early professional years, a major studio retained me to police counterfeit merchandise featuring IP from its mega-hit space themed film and television series. Research showed that most of illicit merchandise, much of it hand-made, was created, and traded, by fans of the property, often at conventions where stars of the show made appearances and hobnobbed with them. This caused quite a challenge – much of the fan merchandise being traded and sold fell below the studio’s quality standards, and a number of authorized licensees of the property claimed that some of these fan products violated their exclusive license rights. The dilemma should be obvious – on the one hand, fan fanaticism and devotion were deemed important to the ongoing success of the property, so the last thing the brand owners wanted to do was to become aggressive in a legal way against that loving base, but on the other hand there were some very unhappy (and possibly litigious) licensees and a flood of inferior quality merchandise being bought, sold and bartered. Fortunately, the legal and branding teams, over time, with the assistance of fans and licensees, were able to finesse a satisfactory result

Fan use of the internet to show support for their favorite brands initially presented the same kinds of dilemmas faced by my studio client. During the 1990’s and into the 2000’s, many brands really didn’t know what to do about fan sites. The marketeers of course loved that fans were expressing their adoration and devotion on a global network that filled computer screens, but were not pleased when fans starting expressing their unhappiness with new products or corporate behavior. Nor were they happy with fan sites that had multiple misspellings, incorrect facts or just looked bad. And the in-house lawyers were very concerned. Trademark owners are legally bound to stop unauthorized uses of their trademarks (more about this complex area in another post), and fan sites were not authorized. Not to mention that some consumers might mistakenly believe that some of these fan sites were not fan sites but actual brand sites, which creates a host of legal and business headaches – especially if the fan site was poorly done. Various approaches were used to navigate through this mess, and by the mid 2000’s some best practices had emerged.

The appearance and rapid growth of social platforms like Instagram® and Pinterest® and fan use of content such as photographic images and videos to display their feelings, coupled with the importance of being “liked” on Facebook® (still the most important social media platform for brands – to be discussed in another post), has put a whole new face on the way brands view fans. One seismic change is that brand owners have moved 180° from trying to control and restrict fans to giving them incentives to show the love and doing their best to provide interactivity that matches fan expectations. There are many reasons for this shift; one of the more important being the recognition by brands that they can’t control fans, that fans now have the power to make or break new products or brands in hyper-driven ways, and that putting hurdles in the way of expressing their fan-ness was, and is, a very bad strategy.

The challenge for brands in maintaining fan interest these days is much tougher than merely keeping them engaged and happy in a world where fickleness and limited attention span are dominant behaviors. Brands are learning that merely building a place for fans to come home to and keeping the lights on for them is not enough. A recent poll by Hubspot of 569 consumers indicates that fans expect brands to be available for engagement on at least 3 if not more of the major platforms (Facebook® and Twitter® for sure, and depending on the gender and age demographics of the consumer, one or more of Instagram®, Pinterest®, LinkedIn®, YouTube® and Google+). Despite these expectations, however, the poll also showed that while 64% of the respondents expect a brand to be on Twitter®, only 31% actually follow their favorite brands on that platform. This finding more or less held true for each of the platforms – reality of use was far less than the expectation of being there. There’s lots of other good insights and data in the poll, called, “The Social Lifecycle: Consumer Insights to Improve Your Business” ((http://www.slideshare.net/HubSpot/the-social-lifecycle-consumer-insights-to-improve-your-business) with significant teachings of these results being: (1) brands should focus on the right platforms for their consumer demographics (2) content for each platform should contour to the platform and not be serial repetition, and (3) ensure that consumers are greeted with passion and a persona with which they can resonate.

And with all of this while we’re still not sure what the financial ROI is for a brand’s investment in social media, we certainly know what the risks are in not pleasing fans who use social.