Transformative Fans Transform Brands

So many Star Trek fans have produced video tributes to the franchise, a Wikipedia page is devoted to listing the major works, broken down by genre (drama, parodies, trailers, etc.). The fans’ work has also spawned news coverage in major media outlets.

Meanwhile, over at, fans have posted over 48,000 (and counting) stories and podcasts based on J.K. Rowling’s series. The site claims over 40 million hits each month.

Yet “marketers don’t understand fandom or fannish culture,” says Naomi Novik, chair of a newly founded nonprofit organization of fans, The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW).

In this era of eroding control over how brands, products, images, and entertainment properties are used (and reused), it should come as no surprise that a (largely female) community of fans create transformative works based on the books, movies, TV series, celebrities, and sometimes even products they love. The OTW is primarily focused on protecting fan fiction, fan videos, and other transformative works from legal snafus and commercial exploitation.

Novik herself has published stories and videos online in over 42 fandoms. She’s also the author of the best-selling Temeraire historical fantasy series and has worked on major computer game titles. This impressive professional career happens to be the accidental byproduct of her own fandom — back when she was creating for love, not money.

Play, Don’t Pay

Being paid for their labors is something most fans aren’t remotely interested in, says Novik.

“That’s something that trips people up quite a lot. Most people who are doing this are doing it in their free time, outside of work and school,” she says. “I was working for 10 years with no thought at all with trying to get paid. And then I decided to apply the skills I had learned. It’s kind of like music. You don’t expect someone to sit down at the piano and just play. This is an amateur culture of creative work. If you went to a fan who had produced some sort of video for a work that you were marketing and said, ‘We’d like to use it and pay you for it,’ that fan would likely be thrilled.”

Fannish activity around a brand can elevate awareness, spur sales, and engage new fans. Novik says a lot of these conversions occur at fan conventions and other community activities. “You get intense word of mouth, basically for free.”

Advertisers traditionally hit the big fan conventions like Creation Events, “but you don’t know the 50 small conventions being held across the country. Fans are making videos and art and zines and taking them across the country,” says Novik. “Communities that meet online start to hold small conventions themselves offline.”

The Online Effect

Cleary, the Web has extended both the reach of fandom and its accessibility. “Back in 1970, you had to type your Star Trek story on a typewriter and have it mimeographed,” recalls Novik. The Web opens fandom not only to a new audience but also younger ones (Harry Potter, remember?).

So how can marketers leverage their passion? First and foremost, says Novik, let fans know you welcome their activity. Not on the list, of course, is having legal fire off cease-and-desist letters.

One of Novik’s favorite examples of fan-fueled marketing is the TV series “Firefly.” The 2002 series box set ranks number one on Amazon.

“Part of the reason is the creator has publicly encouraged and acknowledged fan fiction. Saying ‘we welcome fan fiction’ is one of the quickest and easiest thing you can do. Provide raw materials. Sites are starting to do this a bit more by offering wallpapers, clips, and videos. But in many cases, these things aren’t usable by fans — Flash video, for example.

“Sure, there are plenty of concerns about what fans will do with brand elements on the part of copyright holders,” Novik acknowledges, “but the kind of fans who will take it and use it will find it online anyway. If you want to encourage it, provide the raw materials and let fans know.”

Who imparts the message also counts. “It’s a lot more meaningful when [writer/director] Joss Whedon says, ‘I’d like to see fan fiction for Firefly,’ than when that message comes from the senior vice president of marketing.”

Novik doesn’t see a great deal of potential for non-media or brands to harness fandom but concedes there’s potential nonetheless. She cites a community writing Mac/PC fan fiction based on the very vivid characters in Apple’s current ads. “It’s a creative universe. People think, ‘Oh, I can participate in this, I can get involved.’ When you create pieces of a story, they don’t need a whole lot. They’ll start creating their own story and creating a universe.”

On the other side of the coin are the consumer-generated product ads, such as the Doritos Super Bowl campaign. Small wonder such contests tend to be won by professionals, often those with agency jobs. You may love nibbling corn chips, but that sort of love is very different from a fannish level of inspiration and dedication. Contests also involve a time factor. Deadlines are intrinsically at odds with a labor of love.

To foster the type of fan advocacy the OTW supports, think of it as growing a garden. “You’re sort of scattering seeds and waiting to see what grows,” says Novik. “If you start weeding too aggressively, you’re potentially pulling out stuff that could flower down the line.”

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