Forget about screaming fans, today’s teens are fawning over their favourite books, films and bands as a powerful online collective. TM explores how marketers can tap into these cults world
As hormones surge and bodies change, teenagers battle their way through tumultuous times. Amid the awkwardness and uncertainty, many youngsters take solace in their favourite books, TV shows or musical acts. Some even take it a step further by branding themselves devout fans and connecting with other like-minded souls online. These fans can form powerful groups, turning into almost cult-like entities. It’s no wonder marketers want to get involved. But the tween and teen markets are fickle, and loyalty is not easily won. So what is the right balance to strike? And how are these so-called “cults” formed in the first place?
Chasing teenage thrills
Of course, hordes of over-excited teenagers aren’t new. From “Beatlemania” to silverscreen heartthrob James Dean, teen obsession has been around as long as the demographic has existed. It is no coincidence that these cults came about alongside the rise of new technology such as radio and television, says App Annie vice‑president EMEAR Olivier Bernard. “Their art could be broadcast to huge numbers of people for the first time. We are seeing the same trend now, but accelerated due to the rise of mobile,” he says.
With the advance of technology, interconnectivity between fans has also increased, adds Sense planning director Alex Smith. The only difference is the extent to which people can now revel in their favourite pastimes, and their ability to connect with others. “Basically, there are a lot more opportunities for marketers to satisfy an obsessive,” he says.
But what drives a teen to become a “cult” member? It’s in the teenage years that people start yearning to connect with one another, says Bernard. Latching onto popular music or TV shows with peers helps give teens a sense of belonging. “This has been made even easier with the rise of mobile and apps, as teens can instantly find solace from a sense of alienation,” he says.
According to 2013 Cinemology research, female teens, 88 per cent of whom are cinemagoers, value their friends’ opinions, and will act on their recommendations. “Besides feeling part of something bigger than the individual, they also get a sense they’re influencing others of a similar age or background who may become part of the ‘cult’,” says Digital Cinema Media marketing director Zoe Jones.
Books have often been at the heart of a cult, before morphing into other mediums. From the vampire Twilight franchise to survivalist novels The Hunger Games and Divergent, books initially pick up traction among teenage readers before being snapped up by the major film studios. The first of The Hunger Games books was published in 2008, before being turned into a series of films. After the release of the first Hollywood blockbuster film in 2012, The Hunger Games books occupied the top three spots on USA Today’s bestseller list for 10 weeks.
Whereas cults used to construct themselves around one specific medium, modern teens and tweens are so media savvy that a cult now requires multiple media platforms to build into something significant. “A popular book gets adapted into an even more popular film, which then feeds the audience for the source text,” says Jones. As a consequence, second films are often significantly more successful at the box office than the first. This growth in popularity is primarily built online. “Thoughts in response to the books can quickly be exchanged and people can come together to discuss the books and consequent films, without needing to be near each other geographically,” she says.
One of the drivers behind the global success of these franchises and their cult followings can be directly attributed to social media. Twitter and Facebook prove useful digital meeting places where fans can gather and share their thoughts with other like‑minded souls. Boyband One Direction is said to have one of the most engaged online fan bases, with its teen following proudly branding themselves “Directioners”. The band’s record label Syco estimated that One Direction was responsible for around 21m daily digital interactions in 2014, ranging from online searches to video views.
One Direction fans in the UK have played an important role as brand ambassadors, promoting the band on social networking platforms to other users worldwide. In 2013, YouGov revealed that 81 per cent of phone-owning teens have smartphones, providing them with opportunities to interact with others on an almost constant basis.
Social media platforms also provide an opportunity for brands to directly engage with fans. After the US TV show Pretty Little Liars first aired in 2011, ABC Family executives noticed that viewers posted pictures of how their lives related to the show, and decided to launch a contest with a set visit as its prize. Over 753,500 fans posted on the Facebook app, generating 2.32m views and 4,975 submissions.
A certain degree of interaction between the creator of the source material and its audience is required for the cult to gain momentum: “Social media enables artists to have a powerful direct relationship with fans internationally, something that wasn’t possible with traditional media,” says Jones. The ability to provide regular updates has also allowed fans to develop a closer bond with their idols than before, adds Bernard. “A fan can access droves of content within seconds, rather than waiting a week for a magazine, stoking the cult-like mentality.”
When it comes to managing fans, brands are now focused on building communities, says Kameleon director Danny Weitzkorn. “Teenagers are brought into a digital world in which everyone is going along the same journey,” he says. “These trends have enabled brands to develop definitive identities and sell a lifestyle for teenagers to buy into.”
Merchandising is a failsafe way to make some serious money from diehard fans. Take One Direction, where nothing is out of bounds for the merchandise machine – from dolls and personalised necklaces to toothpaste. Figures from Business Insider estimated the boys made around £50m in 2013 from their merchandising sales alone.
Brands that want to get a slice of the merchandise pie should ensure that their messaging provides something of aspirational or emotional value to the audience and is carefully placed. “It’s important marketers tell the right story, in the right environment and to the right audience,” says Jones. “Central to this is knowing your audience, as this enables marketers to tailor their messages to a particular segment.”
Content, however, is only as good as its reach, adds Weitzkorn. “Balancing content optimisation and strategically placed media spend is vital for lesser-known brands to increase share of voice, get videos seen and ultimately shared.”
Sense’s Smith believes that phenomena that gain the most momentum are those that are “breakable”. They split into different media parts and allow fans to use and comment on them in various ways. “If people can create their own content associated with it, then you get a ‘deep’ subject that fans can really sink their teeth into,” he says. Eventually these movements break down into further sub categories and take on a life of their own.
These are wider trends that marketers can’t necessarily control. For example, Marie Claire reported that when the second Twilight film came out in 2009, cosmetic companies saw a 200 per cent rise in customers snapping up pale foundation powders and liquids.
Another area of co-created content seeing enormous growth is fan fiction. One Direction has various websites dedicated to fan-produced narratives about the boys’ adventures, featuring hundreds of thousands of short stories. These dedicated websites mean fan followings get even bigger, says Jones. “Fan-fiction is important to the growth of cults, as fans feel like they’re able to have a say in how stories develop.”
Video platform YouTube is also awash with cult-related content. Tutorials are particularly popular among teens – typing in “The Hunger Games makeup tutorial” results in over 105,000 videos.
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