Remember when introverts were all the rage?
The time was February, 2012, and Susan Cain's nonfiction book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking was dominating mainstream and business media.
Think what you will of the book, this much is clear: Its marketing campaign was effective. Quiet spent 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Its Amazon page boasts 2,440 reviews, most of which are positive. And the book spawned a movement that's still going: Just this week, Cain, through a highly publicized collaboration with Steelcase, is promoting introvert-friendly office spaces.
Here's something else Quiet accomplished: It showed that introverts, taken together, amounted to a large book-buying population--arguably a community. The popularity of Cain's message mirrors one of her book's most powerful statistics: that "at least one-third of the people we know are introverts." (And Adam Grant says it's much more than that.)
From Introverts to 'Freaks'
But Quiet is hardly the first or only book to capitalize on the group dynamics of a loner label. After all, introvert is not the sole term with which a large population of loners self-identifies: Another is "freak." Witness, for example, the popularity of the Freakonomics blog and the Freak-titled books its authors, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, have created.
Granted: You can't just stick the word "introvert" or "freak" into a book and hope it sells. You have to bring the substance and the marketing might. But what you gain with these terms--and even with a once-insulting epithet like "nerd"--is a target audience that is increasingly happy about outing itself. In the 80s, nerds were ridiculed in mainstream films. Today, they are venerated not only as nonconformists, but also as the techie taproots of entrepreneurial subversion.
All of this came to mind as I read Margaret Talbot's fascinating piece in the New Yorker about John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, a Young Adult (YA) book whose movie adaptation comes out this Friday, June 6. Talbot reveals how Green built "an ardent army of fans." In the same way Cain built a community of introverts, Green has managed to build one not merely around loyal YA readers, but also around the term "nerdfighters." Talbot describes how it began with a video Green posted on YouTube:
In February, 2007, John was stuck at the Savannah airport, and he spotted an arcade game called Aero Fighters. He initially misread the name as "Nerdfighters," and later, in a video, he started riffing: what if Nerdfighters were a real game? As he put it, "The band geek would be, like, 'I will destroy your ears with my tuba!' And the theatre guy would be, like, 'I am an expert at sword fighting!' And the English nerd would be, like, 'Hmm, I know a lot of Shakespeare quotes!'" Why did people still pick on nerds, anyway? Who did the popular guys have on their side--George W. Bush and Tom Brady? Green declared, "I raise you an Abraham Lincoln and a Franklin Delano Roosevelt and...an Isaac Newton, a William Shakespeare, a Blaise Pascal, an Albert Einstein, an Immanuel Kant, an Aristotle, a Jane Austen, a Bill Gates, a Mahatma Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela, and all four Beatles. We win."
Green's video helped create a movement of self-identifying nerdfighters. But as is usually the case with movements, what can seem like an "overnight" success (thanks to the viral power of online sharing) often has its roots in the applauseless work of the preceding years. Here are three keys to how Green built his massive fandom, which you can easily apply to your own marketing endeavors:
1. Establish your bona fides. Green's first two novels, Looking for Alaska (2005) and An Abundance of Katherines (2006), built the grassroots of his YA platform. Alaska won the Michael L. Printz Award, which the American Library Association's gives to the YA book of the year. So when he began posting videos on YouTube in late 2006, there was already the base for what would ultimately become a large following. In business terms, what Green did was the equivalent of establishing a loyal, regional customer base before launching a marketing campaign to go national.
2. Create marketing campaigns that don't seem like marketing. One reason Green's videos were so successful is because he wasn't blatantly promoting his books in them. As Talbot notes, Green began posting the videos as a fun way to communicate with his younger brother Hank, whom he only saw about once a year. The nerdfighter video is, among other things, a funny, believable (and, yes, dorky) message to Hank. At no point does Green indicate that he's an author.
3. Keep the hits coming. All of Green's online marketing success might have been for nought had his loyal fans been disappointed with The Fault in Our Stars. Instead, his longtime fans loved the book. As did legions of new ones. The book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 124 straight weeks, including 43 weeks as the top YA seller, reports Talbot.
As for the movie trailer, it's now been viewed more than 20 million times. And it's hard to watch it without tearing up. We'll learn this weekend if Green's online popularity translates to the box office. If it does, though, the trailer only deserves part of the credit. For the movie will owe much of its popularity to a fan base that's been waiting nearly a decade for this moment.