Building Cross-platform Fan Communities: the SwarmTribes Pilot

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"My biggest asset is not cash — it’s a large, growing, devout fanbase," Imogen Heap was quoted as saying recently. She has nigh-on 1.5 million followers of her Twitter feed at the time of writing, and is often held as an example of how engaging with your audience can keep them interested and, as a happy by-product, keep them buying (though as the article makes clear times are tough even for her).

Can such fan-engagement and community-building strategies work for bands and artists aiming to establish a fanbase, or indeed for entertainment and sports properties more generally? If so, what technology platforms and services can best support these strategies? In particular, can mobile messaging encourage greater trust and intimacy among fans, or might it seem like an intrusion on a more ‘personal’ channel?

It’s two and a half years since I first wrote about Swarmteams, the cross-platform messaging service that combines high tech with high touch. Its design is based on the way insects and other organisms self-organise with short, timely updates. And it’s two years since I announced that I was evaluating a pilot project, SwarmTribes, which aimed to adapt that service for working with music bands and fans. Both the SwarmTribes pilot and my evaluation of it were supported by funding from NESTA.

Finally I am publishing the report of that evaluation and some audio interviews. In a nutshell, the project didn’t go quite according to plan — as pilot projects are wont to do — and my challenge became one of explaining the reasons for that. I summarised the lessons in the report.

  1. Test, revise and keep communicating the proposition
  2. Keep the branding low-key until it has momentum
  3. Keep platform options open
  4. Explore multiple positions in the market
  5. Build experimentation into planning and resourcing
  6. Ease of use is critical to building momentum
  7. Prioritise exemplars where concepts are hard to explain
  8. Understanding the ecology of a new sector takes time

Or, as Nancy Baym put it, more pithily, "top-down planning of bottom-up phenomena is a trick!" The report elaborates these lessons in greater detail, together with case studies, analysis of the theory underpinning Swarmteams, and Ryan and Nancy’s review of how the research literature on fan culture maps on to the theory.

SwarmTribes Evaluation Report

The main part of the report was actually finished over a year ago, but it was held back from publication initially for commercial considerations. Then I decided it would be nice to include some edited version of the interviews as audio downloads, but — because putting these together was essentially unpaid voluntary work — it ended up delaying publication further. The advantage of this passage of time is that we’ve been able to include a Postscript by Ken Thompson in the report, outlining how the work done in the project has moved on over the past year.

I also recorded another interview with Ken, included as the fifth download below, where he makes some interesting points about the differences between fan communities in music and sports. In music, he argues, fans want to talk to the band or the artist; in sports, they want to talk to each other. Aside from hardcore fans, many music listeners change their favourite band every few months, whereas even casual sports fans frequently stay loyal to "their team" for decades. For these and other reasons, Ken is now concentrating more on developing Swarmteams with sports fans.

SwarmTribes Evaluation by David Jennings

Please listen to any or all of these interviews for a fuller picture. However, bear in mind that the audio is only lightly edited, so there’s a lot to listen to! If you’re in a hurry, you may find it more beneficial at least to skim the written report, to help identify which part(s) of the greater detail in the interviews are likely to be most interesting — these interviews are effectively appendices to the report.

Image source: Max xx

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