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Nov 12, 2010 | Comments

“In today’s fanboy culture, kids are obsessively supporting products. They aren’t “fighting the man”, they “are the man”. In short, Fanboys are a force to be reckoned with [via Mark Cuban].

I’m a fanboy. But not of typical brands like Apple or Xbox, but of new startups, like Mint, Dropbox, and Mailchimp. Same can be said for a few of my friends, who are fanboy(girls) of sites like Polyvore, Svpply, Hype Machine, Gilt Groupe, Groupon, Grooveshark (p.s. all of these sites are awesome and worthy of their fanboyism).

I’ve been thinking about how these young companies created their first generation of fanboys. What were the right ingredients? Was it intentional?

In short, if you’re starting a new company, how do you encourage fanboy culture? In this post, I will outline three helpful ingredients to create fanboys: asymmetric support, insider knowledge, and evangelism.

The awesomeness of fanboys

Think about the way your friends speak passionately about music, movies, food, and comic books. When transplanted to brands, the product is an extreme form of brand loyalty. Exhibit 1:

Fanboys are a brand’s strongest supporter while also its most vocal critic. But the benefits are substantial. They’re a word-of-mouth machine, relentlessly promoting brands and criticizing competitors. Need product feedback? Fanboys are game for co-creation and as well equipped as any employee on the brand’s vision. Finally, fanboys are physical manifestations of the brand. As best told by PC World, fanboys bring the brand to life in ways unimaginable to marketers.

Making fanboy magic

If fanboys are so great, how do get them? [1]

I’m one for ignoring any solution that contains “creating a community,” “fostering a relationship,” and “build an emotional connection,” all assumed bullshit for the purpose of fanboys. While relevant for a discussion on loyalty or branding, my experience (specifically examining startups), suggests that fanboyism begins with a killer product, later proceeded by the bells and whistles of intentional branding.

What makes a fanboy? For the purpose of writing a more meaningful, less masturbatory post, I break it down into three things: asymmetric support, insider knowledge, and evangelism.

Asymmetric Support: this is how the fanboy feels. To quote Techcrunch,

“The term fanboy doesn’t just mean you love something — it’s that you love something and are unfair against its competitors because of that love.”

How you get it: First, fanboyism typically involves high-involvement purchases (not necessarily high-cost). The time investment, research, and difficult decisions create the foundation for emotional attachment with a dose of endowment effect. Commoditized stuff (like apples, nails, water heaters, and gum) just don’t stir-up the competitive fanboy juices. Next, fanboys are looking for a militant relationship:

“We all want to take a stand, we all want a conflict, we all want to be fighting for the right side of something.” [Crunch Gear]

Fanboys want to point to an enemy. Mint vs. Inuit. Google vs. Yahoo. Tumblr vs. Blogger. Marketers can subtly baking this rivalry into product positioning and messaging (e.g., our product pwns X). This idea of superiority cannot be underestimated,

“As always, my only requirement for being a fanboy of a product is that it has to (in my mind) be the best.” Techcrunch

Fanboys are publicly validating a brand, so they’ll stick with ones worth defending. No one recommends second best, so product superiority must be bullet-proof (at least to the fanboy).

Insider Knowledge: the elder fanboys, those of the comic-book/fantasy lineage, proudly cherished their deep knowledge of fictional universes [see Gamepro]. This passion still exists today in modern fanboyism, but replace “fictional universe” with product specs, strategy, and marketing. For example, Xbox fanboys know the console inside-out–its specs, its advantages, game portfolio, and long-term strategy. This wealth of esoteric (possibly insider) information is the stuff that makes a fanboy.

How you get it: this is an easy win–one can imagine a fanboy’s desire for a stream of content supplied by insider access, blogs, and customer feedback. It’s a big step for many old-world companies, but I see startups behaving with such transparency and access all the time.

Evangelism: we’ve all heard unprovoked statements like, “Dude. You have to check this out right now.” This is the evangelist in every fanboy, the unintentional selling machine who recites a company’s positioning and benefits with passion. GamePro attributes part of this evangelism to fanboys’ desire for a company to stay in business. If this is true, their motivation is oddly transparent: fanboys love the product and it solves their problems. They want to see the company succeed and fulfill its long-term vision.

How you get it: fanboy evangelism is a competition for status. It’s similar to College Humor’s explanation for why anyone shares content,

“This all has to do with identity creation: What does passing this video on say about me?”

For fanboy evangelism, the endorsement is a source of identity creation [2]. What does an endorsement of Dropbox or Mint say about the fanboy (e.g., I am tech-forward, I am an Internet geek)? Think about the signal sent by a fanboy recommendation of the product (i.e., just as any marketer would for viral content). And if the marketer is good, the signal will be epically strong with the right story. Can the fanboy easily articulate the product positioning and points of differentiation? No one wants to look stupid, and preaching a company’s confusing proof points doesn’t get the fanboy any respect.

There you have it: three ingredients for conceiving a beautiful fanboy. I might be missing a few, so let me know what needs to be added to the fanboy recipe list.

[1] Folks like Mark Cuban claim you can’t intentionally create fanboys, “All marketers dream of having a fanboy base for their products. What is more textbook wonderful than passionate customers? But like trying to create a video that takes off and becomes viral via Word of Mouth, fanboys happen in spite of marketers, not because of them.” This is a great point. Marketers cannot force a video to become viral, but they can surely influence it. Understanding why people share is critical for creating the right viral content. The “skeptic” argument is ripe for another blog post.

[2] I disagree that branding is a source of identity creation for fanboys. Fanboyism begins with a product. While powerful brands (e.g., Apple) play a large role in identity creation, its consequence has more to do with brand loyalty rather than a driver of fanboyism.

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  • Stephanlenting

    It's not the product, it's why you make the product. Which of course still means the product has to be great. It has to fit in a certain lifestyle. It has to be made for you, feel like it's special. Like you're part of something bigger. Apple is very clear about why they make products. So are others. But not a lot of them. True fanboyism can withstand economic downturns and competing products or services that are better. I highly doubt all these start-ups really have such a large loyal fanbase. It's interesting to see how they will hold when the tough times come.

  • I love this.

    I'm a copywriter and the graphic designer I work most closely with is a fellow supernerd (Star Wars, Mac, etc.). It's so important to know what it feels like to be constantly enthused by something.

    When we get that same tingle of joy from an idea we have when we're dorking out on something, we know we're onto something.

  • Hey Chad–glad you liked the post!

    Not sure if you've seen this write-up by Patton Oswald, but it provides some great analysis on supernerds and dorking out.

  • Nice post!

    I never really thought about the reasons behind the fanboyism. But it is indeed very powerful to have these people doing the promoting for you!

  • Thanks man. Glad you liked it.

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