Fans vs. Customers: Which Do You Strive For?


Salma Jafri

While customers may buy your product, fans think of themselves as extensions of your business. Does your marketing focus on attracting customers or fans?

One of the beauties of content marketing is that it intrinsically encourages your business to attract fans versus “just” customers. What’s the difference between these words? Turns out it’s not just a difference of definitions, but also of mindset and therefore, strategy.

When you think of the word “customer,” you envision someone, cash in hand, ready to buy your product. If you take it one step further and think of a loyal customer, then it’s someone who repeatedly buys from you and perhaps even refers your business.

The word “fan” brings to mind a completely different set of imagery. Fans are often seen as die-hard followers ready to follow you to the ends of the Earth. Fans buy anything and everything from you. They rave about you to all their friends. And they defend you to critics as though they had a stake in your business. Fans often think of themselves as extensions of your business – and in fact, they believe they DO have a stake in your brand.

Scott Ginsberg of the Womma blog defines them so: “A customer is someone who comes to a store to buy a lamp and never comes back. Fans crave experiences unlike any others.”

Marketing to attract customers involves a mindset of getting people to buy your product or service. Marketing to attract fans involves a mindset of creating value, forging identity, and working toward a common goal.

Does your marketing focus on attracting fans or customers?

Word Origins of “Fan” and “Customer”

The word customer originated in the 1540s and meant “a person with whom one has dealings.”

The word fan originated much later in 1889. It meant “devotee” or “ardent admirer” and was primarily used to describe baseball enthusiasts and as a short form of fanatic.

Since first being used in a sports connotation, the word fan has now expanded to encompass many other industries. Musicians have fans. Movie stars have fans. And today, thanks to the Facebook lexicon, businesses have fans.

The Rise of Personal Brands to Celebrity Status

Today the concept of a business or businessperson as a celebrity is increasing. Thanks to Tom Peters’ seminal 1997 work called “The Brand Called You,” the concept of building a personal brand is firmly underway. As businesses continue to embrace this concept and become more “human-like” in their branding, the concept of fandom for a business will continue to grow.

Remember when Coke fans established a company Facebook page for Coke? Instead of squatting on such precious real estate, the fans worked with Coke to make the page one of the most popular Facebook pages to belong to a business.

Perhaps the most famous example of a business having loyal die-hard fans is Apple. Apple’s cult-like advertising and clear customer segmentation has encouraged a legion of followers to identify with Apple products, so much so, that it gave popularity to the term “fanboy.” Almost every instance of the term “fanboy” today is connected with people who use Apple products.

The Concept of 1,000 True Fans and How It Ties Into Content Marketing

In 2008, former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly wrote an insightful and very popular blog post called “1,000 True Fans.”

Kelly described a true fan thus:


Copyblogger goes on to further extrapolate on this concept and discusses 20 steps to inding your true fans by teaching and promoting your knowledge.

Wait a second – isn’t that what content marketing is all about, too – helping your audience find the valuable information that they are already searching for? Since content-based marketing is all about creating value (in the form of information and/or entertainment), it ties in perfectly with the concept of creating fans for your business.

Further, content marketing’s foundation rests on the KLT – Know-Like-Trust – pyramid and as we’ll see below, the way to create true fans is to implement the KLT factors.


How Can Your Business Attract More Fans And Convert Customers Into Fans?

According to blogger and social media strategist Mack Collier:


How can your company be more like a rock band in attracting fans?

1. Be Likeable

You’ve heard the adage that “people do business with people they like.” The same is true for businesses. According to Dave Kerpen, chief executive (CEO) of Likeable Local, the most important characteristic of businesses who want to be liked is to put themselves in their audience’s shoes. Kerpen suggests: “Take off your business cap and think like your customer. ‘If I were them, would I share this content or like it?’ If not, then don’t bother.”

2. Be Approachable

If fans can’t approach you, talk with you, and have a meaningful exchange with you, they’ll eventually lose interest. Apple is consistently ranked as one of the top companies for customer support primarily because they have an entire staff of employees called “Geniuses” trained to “enrich lives” by “deepening and restoring relationships.” The service approach of employees is characterized within the Apple acronym – (A)pproach, (P)robe, (P)resent, (L)isten, (E)nd.

3. Be Authentic

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Authenticity is actually a relational behavior, not a self-centered one. Meaning that to be truly authentic, you must not only be comfortable with yourself, but must also comfortably connect with others.” The way to do this is not to copy someone else’s business model but find what works for you and proudly own it.

4. Be Transparent

Buffer is a great example of a company so transparent; it publicly shares details about employee salaries, company equity, and even how employees divide their time outside of work. Their mantra “default to transparency” is by now legendary in the start-up world and is the reason why when they mess up, their fans are willing to forgive them in an instant.

5. Be Consistent

Bluehost’s consistent customer service experience keeps them positioned as one of the top shared Web hosting providers in the world. No matter how you connect with them – phone, email, live chat – their customer service is always consistent. They ask the same set of questions to get started and by being familiar and predictable in their behavior, they make the consumer feel comfortable. Consistency breeds familiarity and familiarity inspires trust.

6. Be Trusting

Brands who show their customers that they love them first tend to get back that love and trust. Zappos does this amazingly well by encouraging its customers to purchase different shoe sizes if they’re not sure of the fit, keep the one that fits, and return the rest. Even though it may seem counter-intuitive to encourage people to return merchandise, this trust-people-first-to-do-the-right-thing approach keeps them positioned as a brand with loyal fans.

7. Be Selectively Vulnerable

Showing vulnerability puts people at ease with your brand. Perfection is not necessarily seen as a trait of trustworthy people. So, to be vulnerable and show your imperfections in public takes some confidence and skill to do. To be selectively vulnerable, you don’t have to go to an extreme and share negative things about your brand but you can share stuff like challenges you’re currently overcoming or mistakes you’ve recently made and what you learned from them.

8. Be Humble

Apologizing for mistakes always has the effect of making you seem open, transparent, and real. But what if you were to humbly apologize for situations out of your control, too, such as the weather? In a 2013 study conducted by the Harvard Business School and Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, by apologizing for factors outside your control and empathizing with people, you increase your trust and likeability factor. Lady Gaga once apologized to her fans for the long queue outside Best Buy to buy her album by treating them to free pizza.

What Are the Benefits of Having Fans for Your Business?

By incorporating the above eight characteristics, brands can aim to increase their fan base and convert customers into fans. The power of fans is that they:

  • Are loyal and buy repeatedly from you so you don’t have to keep selling
  • Become advocates and brand ambassadors for your products and services without even being asked to
  • Support your business and the decisions it makes unhesitatingly
  • Refer and promote your brand constantly by their very public support