Let Your Community Plant Their Flag

Re-imaging user-generated content to be more like fan fiction

I was taking a walk a few weeks ago on one of the rare sunny days we’ve had in Boston this fall. While carefully crossing a busy intersection down in the Financial District, I started to have a ‘wouldn’t it be great if…’ conversation with myself. Not out loud of course, that would be insane, but in the way that you chew on an idea while you’re enjoying the mix of commuters, college kids, and selfie-taking tourists buzzing around you in the late afternoon.

This time I asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if a brand’s community was so excited about it that they actually wanted to participate in the story?”

I immediately drew a connection to fan fiction. In my spare time I write creatively. One of my goals is to have someone love my story so much, they want to write fan fiction about it. To me, that’s a massive accomplishment.

What if brands worked the same way?

What is fan fiction, anyway?

First, let’s establish a few things about fan fiction for the purpose of this article.

While often considered a newer, internet-of-things phenomenon, fans were sharing stories about Jane Austen (know as Janeites) long before we communicated through screens.

One of the movements that really got fan fiction off the ground was Star Trek, particularly the original series: “This series not only inspired fans, but it offered a whole infrastructure with which they could interact. There were conventions to attend and magazines where they could be published,” said writer Alice Bell.

If you think fan fiction is still a niche thing, realize that success stories include 50 Shades of Grey which started as a popular Twilight fanfic.

But back to the question — what is fan fiction, exactly? For the purpose of this article, I would define fan fiction as recursive literature that involves existing fictional characters, takes place in existing fictional worlds, and tends to circulate outside the “official” realm of publishing.

The idea that fan fiction exists outside the formal publishing industry is probably common knowledge, but let’s break down what it means to say fan fiction is recursive. “Objects that are recursive are always recursive to another object. In a textual sense, the term marks a specific, and active, relationship between texts,” says Catherine Tosenberger in her article Mature Poets Steal. She continues to say, “Recursive” refers to an action. Given the choice, I prefer the term that contains the greater assumption of agency, of action, for the activities of fans.”

Here’s where things get interesting when thinking about a parallel community for a brand. To be of the same nature as fan fiction, the content a user creates would need to have a direct and inextricable link to the brand. More importantly, it means that the user would be actively engaging with the brand’s story by creating their own.

The definition makes perfect sense when you look at why many people write fan fiction in the first place. According to my findings, the relevant motivations include loving a story world and wanting more of it, or wanting to do something different with the characters for one reason or another.

Authors can also write fan fiction to explore speculative and reflective questions about their own lives in a way that engages others. For example, others might not be interested in a decision you’re struggling with, but they love Sherlock and will respond to a story about a character struggling with the same one.

The biggest reason to participate in fan fiction is probably the primary reason a brand would want to do the same thing — it builds a unique and dedicated community around a common interest.

Why should you build a community that creates content together?

Our society has become increasingly fractured and we seek out opportunities to bond over shared interests. While we can use that time to learn, we also want to exchange experiences and connect as humans who already stand on some common ground. One of the best ways to do that is to do something together.

I would be remiss if I didn’t tie in the issue of trust that underscores our work as content creators. According to marketing truth-teller, Katie Martell, as consumers, we don’t trust the media, we don’t trust businesses and we don’t trust CEOs: “As I wrote in a recent post, buyers don’t do business with companies they’ve never heard of, and brands they do not trust.”

So, who do we trust? As it turns out, we trust each other, especially those we see as peers.

For fan fiction writers, Archive of Our Own (or AO3) provides a communal space where people can work together on the basis of common goals and tastes, without direct institutional validation.

On the other hand, when most brands go to create user generated content, they hunt down testimonials. Part of why I got into this thought experiment in the first place is that I have grown a little weary of this roundup. Yes, this content is valuable. Yes, you should have it. But if the only reason you want your customer to speak is because you want them to share how great they think YOU are, you’re a pretty egocentric friend.

To build the type of community I’m suggesting, the brand would have to give up some of its control and self-interest. It would need to focus less on what it wants from users and allow them to share what they’re actually experiencing, thinking and creating in all of its rough facets not just with the brand, but with each other.

Providing opportunities for an audience to create unfettered and undirected content might feel like a challenge to our role as content creators as it means accepting that the content might not be as polished, as on message or as neatly set up as we would make it out to be; however, the results could be hugely valuable and even critical as we move forward in a distrustful and decentralized world.

Let’s play out a test case.

Photo by Mark Cruz on Unsplash

Ok, let’s say you own an ice cream company committed to authentic, local ingredients (congratulations).

You know from talking to your customers (because you do that, because it’s important) that they all have a nostalgic, emotional connection to your brand. It’s been in their family for years, they ate it after winning soccer games when they were kids, it was a staple at their college, etc.

In an effort to help these fans connect to each other in a personal way, you start a journal space. They can now write and share stories that draw on yours.

How might these stories go? Maybe they share how a certain flavor of ice cream was there for them in a hard time, or maybe they talk about the people they your eat ice cream with. Maybe they craft stories that are entirely fictional, and maybe someone writes an ode to mourn the loss of a favorite flavor. It’s really up to them.

Additionally, you give users the opportunity to comment and watch them engage in dialogue.

Maybe your users even go so far as to reference your organization, your team or your beliefs. They share the value you’ve added to their lives.

Why might this be beneficial to a brand? First and foremost, the scenario outlined above would help you to understand where your audience is most excited or intrigued, how they interact with you by choice, and what might be happening in their lives, real or imagined. In short, it allows you to get to know your users as people

It would also allow your users to forge a peer community which would only increase their loyalty to your brand over the long term because we already know that in today’s world, they trust each other first.

(For a real life example, take a look at The Leaf Rakers Society.)

What are the potential challenges?

As with most things in life, there are potential downsides to building a semi-anonymous, autonomous brand-fan community. The first is that you don’t have total control over what’s happening. I respond to this challenge by saying that since the dawn of social media, blogging and mobile phones, you haven’t had control for a while.

The second challenge deals with the recursive nature of the content being generated. If you are successful in fostering such a strong sense of story within your company that the user generated content ties into your culture, activities, and actions beyond your product or service, the community could become exclusive only to those who know enough to catch the references.

This is also a potential downside of fan fiction — you arguably need a great deal of advanced knowledge to read it effectively and that makes the community less inclusive. “Everything to do with the fact that fanfiction is often so deeply embedded within a specific community that it is practically incomprehensible to those who don’t share exactly the same set of references,” shared Tosenberger.

In the case of fan fiction, this insider knowledge only serves to strengthen the community and the finesse with which you can pile on the references provides deep satisfaction.

For brands, while no group of people should be intentionally pushed out of your fan community, it is expected that it will draw the most enthusiastic sort. And that’s OK. Just make sure you leave openings for those who still want to participate in other ways to do so.

The remaining challenge is of course the negative nellies who want to use your community to vent. While you should not eliminate criticism or other less-than-glowing content that references your brand as that could ding the sense of transparency and autonomy, you will likely need to put some guidelines in place to ensure negative spamming and hateful content gets removed.

I like this idea. Now what?

So the way to end a “what if” thought experiment is to pragmatically outline how it could come about.

Should you want to create something like this for your brand, the first step would be to determine what space or format you will give your users to create content and build their community. Is it suited to who they are as people and to the manner(s) in which that they tend to communicate? Does it allow for true dialogue and interaction? Is there room for measures of privacy?

“Invest in consumer research to determine your target audience’s most engaged form of media,” said Alysia Gradney of Vision Source.

Bottom line: if it isn’t natural for them to participate, they won’t.

You then have to think about how the story of your brand, inclusive of the values you hold, the content you create, the actions you take, and the work that you do, builds a framework in which your community might want to participate. This comes down largely to being genuinely interested in all of the ways you provide value to that community, and to how authentic and transparent you are.

You will also have to set your goal. What do you plan to do with this content? Will you allow it to have a life of its own? Are you planning to steal snippets and share them elsewhere? Will you collect users’ contact details and send them solicitations?

I would strongly recommend you make this community about loyalty not about sales in every way possible. If you do plan to share anything as the brand, I would make sure that you communicate your intent up front. For example, AO3 requires you to acknowledge the realities of their platform before you can continue.

Recruiting a moderator from the community may prove beneficial to both maintain the community and make it clear that this space is for them, not you.

Lastly, and most critically, remember that this isn’t about reviews. Your brand must realize that there’s more to user generated content than reviews of your product and short snippets of how awesome you are.

Creating this community is about giving your audience a place where they can share their stories and their lives in a way that matters to them — it isn’t about what you want from them.

If you’re not sure you can bite off a whole community, consider opening up your existing content channels to submissions. You may find that some of your more enthusiastic users want to share their stories or perspectives voluntarily.

While I do not expect this type of approach to work for every brand, it is time to get more imaginative and less prescriptive about how we share our story with our audience.

Please note the difference in my use of the word share: it’s not share as in to tell, it’s share as in to enjoy with others, and to have in common.

People have a great deal of agency in today’s digital world and are looking for a place to rally with like-minded peers around the things in their life that make it better, that challenge them, that cause them to see the world in a different way. Much like a good book or well-written character.

Fan fiction enables people to speak for themselves and to engage with the narratives given to them. They are not solely consuming, they are building on and informing the world around them.

Brands should be seeking ways to give people the space to plant their flag, gather, and contribute. After all, your users are the main characters in your story.


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Builder. Founder. Communicator. I write on purpose-driven business, as well as brand, story + leadership. Founder @ MatterLogic, MatterPulse, and Matter 7.

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