Creating a Fanbase: What "Star Wars" Can Teach Businesses About Customer Loyalty

A long time ago (30 years ago this weekend, to be exact), in a galaxy not very far away (our very own, if you want to know the truth), a little movie called Return of the Jedi opened in theaters across America. It was the conclusion of the first Star Wars trilogy and, as such, was one of the most highly anticipated films – actually, events — that I can remember. It promised to answer all of the fans’ questions, particularly after the huge cliffhanger from the previous installment, The Empire Strikes Back (“Luke, I am your father!”). The demand for the film was so pent up that lines formed around city blocks just to get in on opening day.

The release of Return of the Jedi on May 25, 1983, was more than just a movie premiere. It was somewhat of a cultural milestone, a gathering where likeminded people could congregate to take part in an experience that meant something to them.

It’s very difficult to achieve this type of attention for anything these days, even outside of big movie premieres (perhaps especially outside of big movie premieres, which are a dime a dozen). Does the latest edition of The Fast & The Furious provoke an enduring sense of community in legions of Vin Diesel or hot rod fans? Unlikely.

Fortunately, businesses have it somewhat easier. They have many tools at their disposal that can help them build and foster a sense of community among their customers. It starts with providing exceptional products, of course (after all, there’s a reason why the first three Star Wars films are referred to as “the classic trilogy”), but it extends to how those products are extolled to and within the customer community, which is often a company’s best resource for promotion.

The terms “fanboy” and “fangirl” (“fanperson”?) were created to describe an individual who is so zealous about a particular company or product that they can’t see the benefits of competing companies or solutions. That guy dressed as Darth Vader in the picture above (I’m assuming it’s a guy – I don’t know of any self-respecting woman who would do that)?  Definite Star Wars fanboy.  And while that term is often used in a derogatory fashion, there’s still something comforting in knowing that there are people so invested in a particular property that they’re willing to go to certain lengths to support it.

Many companies have customers, but only a small number have fanpeople who are so into a company that they’re willing to publicize it on their own or actively participate in initiatives – for free, no less! — that will make the company better. Apple, of course, is well known for their customers’ fervent loyalty, which creates a halo effect around them that encourages others to try out Apple products. But that’s far from the only example. Actually, it may not even be the best example of a successful customer community.

Other organizations have worked very hard to develop communities that not only work hard to tell others about their products, but shape the company’s business.  Take SolarWinds, an Austin-based IT software provider. Recently, the company announced that members of its user community, thwack, had crowdsourced a number of ideas for new features, helping influence the implementation of certain product features. In this case, the passion of the thwack community actually had a direct bearing on the company’s products.

Other organizations also have very passionate fanpeople working for them.  Companies as diverse as Red HatAmazonDunkin’ Donuts and others have legions of loyal customers that, if not willing to actually develop something for them, are at least more than willing to espouse their benefits to others. And, much like any self-respecting Star Warsfan would never admit that Star Trek is the better franchise, they usually won’t stray very far from the organizations they like to purchase from.

Building this type of customer loyalty – this fanbase – is not easy.  In fact, it takes years of consistent effort. And while it goes without saying that it involves great product development, marketing communications plays a critical role as well, because it is there that great rapport with customers is can be born and cultivated.

There are a number of ways to do this, and they all stem from building a connection with the company, a sense that each customer is extremely important:

Use social media as a customer service tool.  Too many organizations use social media strictly as a way of marketing the company. While it’s absolutely correct to use these channels for promotion, it’s not enough. Networks such as Facebook and Twitter should also be a means through which organizations can right wrongs, answer questions, and fix problems. In short, they should serve as an extension of a company’s customer service efforts. Don’t just use these channels to start a conversation, use them as a forum to help customers. It’s a great way to turn them into fans.

Hangout online.  Google Hangouts are a great way to interact with your customers. They provide an opportunity for you to interact directly with the people who care most about your company through live streams and conversations. Not everyone has the budget or time to attend a user conference, but it’s easy to sign into Google and join a Hangout. It’s also far more personal.

Hold office hours. Twitter is one of the best real-time communication tools the world has ever seen. Use it as such. Set up a specified time when your executives can field questions live via Twitter.  During this time, have these executives answer as many questions as they can – they shouldn’t shy away from the tough ones (actually, they should focus especially on the tough ones and embrace them as an opportunity for positive communications).

Host a webinar. Traditional press conferences have, by and large, gone the way of the dinosaurs. They’ve been replaced by online conferences and webinars that can be more inclusive and speak not only to the media but also to the people who actually buy products and are invested in a particular business. These can be short – an hour, let’s say – or last half a day. The trick is to make them both highly informative and interactive, and complement them with liveblogs, Twitter feeds, and more.

There’s a common theme among all of these topics: not the power of the Force, but the power of listening. Marketers are prone to telling customers what they want them to hear, but, in order to build that deep connection, they must also listen to what customers are trying to say. Ultimately, this is the key to turning a customer into a fanperson – letting them become invested in your business by hearing what they have to say.

Of course, organizations are free to try the “Dark Side” approach, if they like, which is what Nutella did when the brand’s parent company, Ferrero, tried to shut down the fan-created World Nutella Day. For the uninitiated, World Nutella Day is an annual event, held on February 5, to celebrate the wonders of the delicious spread. For reasons unbeknownst to man, Ferrero issued a cease and desist to the organizer of World Nutella Day, effectively leading them to cancel the event.  Not surprisingly, fans went into an uproar, taking to the Web to decry what they felt was a ridiculous move by a corporation that was, in the end, shooting itself in the foot by not allowing its said fans to promote the brand. That cease and desist has since been lifted, and the world will, once again, be able to celebrate Nutella again next year.

By and large, though, most companies understand that the direct way to a customer’s heart is through direct, honest communication and a show of respect.  In fact, companies that are successful in doing this have some of the most loyal fanbases in the world. And those fans typically don’t keep their love for certain organizations to themselves; they like to talk about it among their peers and friends and congregate with others who have similar interests. They talk up companies on online forums, through social media channels, at trade shows and conferences, and with their associates. They promote brands, all without being on the payroll.

There’s a reason why J.J. Abrams is making a new Star Wars movie, more than 30 years after the first one premiered. It’s because people like me continue to feel passionate about them. As a result, we tell our children who Luke Skywalker is and we get them playing Angry Birds Star Wars. In other words, we pass the torch onto others, and get them invested just as we are. That’s what being a fan is, and why creating fans can help your company thrive for years.

Let’s talk.