Amber Hutchins, associate professor of digital and new technologies, discusses this new ground and how companies are reacting.
Amber Hutchins, Ph.D., is the Assistant Director for Digital and New Technologies Education and Associate Professor of Communication. She teaches a variety of graduate and undergraduate courses including Communication and Technology, Social Media for Strategic Communication, and Integrated Global Communication Capstone. Dr. Hutchins’ work extends beyond academia to previous positions in health care, entertainment and corporate public relations in San Diego, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. She has also served as a social media consultant for government and nonprofit organizations. Her research interests include public relations ethics, social/digital media for strategic communication, and fandom. Her co-edited book, Public Relations and Participatory Culture, explores the role of public relations in fandom and online communities.
We often think of “fans” as devotees of TV, films and sports, but fan culture is no longer the exclusive domain of entertainment media. Many fans are looking to establish and maintain authentic relationships with brands and organizations just as they would with the creators of their favorite shows. This kind of behavior is what you’d expect to see from fans of Disney, Star Trek, or the San Antonio Spurs, but maybe not the type of devotion you’d expect to see for your local utility company or salad bar restaurant.
As a result of the phenomenon, corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies have shifted communication strategies to reach and engage with what are called “brandfans” or “fanpublics.” These terms were developed by scholars to describe highly engaged users of digital media like vloggers, graphic artists and influencers who act not simply as passive consumers, but produce their own brand content.
You might think companies would welcome this as free advertising or viral marketing, but many companies have been hesitant to embrace brandfans outside of the membership of an official fan club or association controlled by the organization. Concerned about giving up control of the conversation and potential copyright issues with fan-created art or multimedia, organizations often keep their most ardent fans at arm’s length to avoid problems or controversy. But brandfans want more than to be “leveraged” for a purchase or to help the company defuse a crisis. They want to be valued, respected and embraced by the brand.
Organizations can start the conversation with brandfans by humanizing their external communication, creating opportunities for two-way conversation, and becoming active members of the fan community rather than just managers and lurkers. As virtual and augmented reality signal a new era of immersive storytelling and interactivity, brands will have even more opportunities to develop mutually beneficial relationships with fans.