Some say that the geeks shall inherit the Earth, but I say that we already have.
Geeks have changed the world, and in doing so, have changed the perception of pop culture, fandom, and the way people interact with brands. Understanding this emergent geek culture may have an immediate and lasting impact on the way you develop your content marketing materials.
I’m a geek. I’m into classic science fiction, comics, and other niche media that was laughably out of fashion at one time. Actually, some of it still is, but I love it anyway.
The concept of “geek chic” was non-existent when I was a kid. “Geek” wasn’t a badge of honor. It was something you kept quiet, lest ye be stuffed into a locker by high school bullies.
Fandom was not organized and finding fellow fans was a covert affair. It was also gender based, making it difficult for girls to like “boy toys” and boys to embrace “girly” things. Vintage gender-based advertising guided kids to play with the toys that they were “supposed” to play with.
Geekdom has many meanings, but it is generally associated with niche culture and often clusters around comics, science fiction, fantasy, and technology. In an article in Wired titled “So What Does it Really Mean to be a Geek,” Erik Weks writes:
“One of the great reasons to identify with the word “geek” is that it gives you permission to like what you like no matter what it is. Many of us self-identify as geeks because we have been put down, excluded, and hurt by others due to our interest in “uncool” things like comic books, or board games, or computer programming.”
The majority of us conformed to the rules in public, but privately enjoyed our passions. It was easier to pretend not to like something than to endorse your passions.
The Rise of The Internet & The Loyal Geek
The Internet changed all of that because the Internet was not developed by the cool kids. It was tech geeks who pioneered digital culture.
Of course, if you have to code something, you’ll code something you enjoy. Coders recognized that their long-tail interests were perfectly suited for the Internet. Early digital culture was a way that closet geeks were able to take deep dives into the science fiction, fantasy, and comic book culture from friends all over the globe.
Long before the cool, celebrated personalities descended on the web, geeks were hosting a party online. All it took was some money, a bit of technical learning, and you could be part of a worldwide fan base that embraced your passion for minutiae.
The web made it easy for fans to evangelize brands they loved. Fans spent their own time and money to create online shrines for brands, long before brands had a digital footprint. As strange as it seems today, brands often struck an adversarial relationship with fans, as everyone tried to figure out what it meant to publish online. Many fan websites received takedown notices from brands trying to manage their intellectual property.
But passion, as many brands came to discover, could actually fuel brand marketing.
The Long Tail & Geek Brand Evangelists
In his 2004 book The Long Tail, Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson noted that “culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.”
Anderson identified long-tail culture. By naming it, he helped marketers understand how brands lived outside of the arc of the mainstream. He helped many of us to understand that we were far more likely to connect with our customer in a niche content community than in a paid advertisement on network television. That perhaps engaging with product evangelists (e.g., geeks) would net a higher ROI than broad-based awareness campaigns.
The evolution of the Internet meant that you could target your audience with a niche message in ways that were not possible in newspapers and television ads. Even enthusiast magazines could not match the deep niche interests of the Internet.
The theory of The Long Tail destroyed the concept of The Funnel. In his book “Permission Marketing,” Seth Godin observed the rise of opt-in marketing. That is, targeting customers who wanted to hear your message with content and resources. Essentially, content marketing to the geeks.
Geeks Are Everywhere & They Love Brands
It’s a good time to be a geek and here’s why: Geeks changed the perception of what’s cool. At one time, it was cool to conform. The Internet made it cool to be an individual.
Individualism ripples across all corners of culture, not just brand evangelism. Without the rise of the Internet and long-tail conversations, it is unlikely that hyper-targeted political interests would have made it to the mainstream dialogue.
The geeks inherited the virtual Earth a long time ago. In fact, here’s the best part of all: The people who thought that they were too cool for geek culture have realized that they enjoy many of the same long-tail pursuits.
Long-percolating, long-tail interests have exploded into the mainstream. It’s okay to like comics, Star Trek, and Star Wars. It’s acceptable to like My Little Pony, even if you’re a guy. You can enjoy whatever you want.
At one time, you rarely saw people wearing shirts with geek logos. Not that people didn’t like them, it’s just something that was worn for geek gatherings, not for everyday outfits. Now, it’s vastly different.
The emergence of geek culture paved the way for big-budget superhero movies. Those superhero movies reminded people that they actually enjoyed good stories, especially the stories that made for great movies. The evolution of bigger and better superhero, gaming, fantasy, scifi, and other geek-culture movies and TV shows has literally changed mainstream casual fashion. It’s okay to wear an un-ironic Spider-Man, Star Wars, or Nintendo shirt.
Geek culture is immune from sneering elitism. Indeed, fat Batman doesn’t care what you think.
“Get a Life” Today
Being an elitist who scoffs at geek culture is hardly in fashion. In a legendary Saturday Night Live sketch, geek icon William Shatner told fans of the Star Trek show to “get a life.” At the time, it was validation that being a geek meant that you were socially inept.
(At the time, Shatner said that he felt this way about the Star Trek fan base. Later, he embraced his fans and now markets directly to them.)
It’s funny today, but also a bit disturbing. Those of us who grew up geeks during the 80s and 90s felt stung by the “get a life” phrase. That one video enabled the Biffs of the world to bully the Marty McFlys of the world.
Meanwhile, the geeks were busy coding the first generation of the Internet that would serve as a counterpunch to this painful geek shaming.
During this time, celebrities and other purveyors of cool culture expressed their own passions online. It became acceptable for big-name personalities to endorse their geeky passions.
At the height of his popularity, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neill revealed his passion for Superman. It was one of several important moments in geek history. It opened the floodgates for other celebrities to discuss their passions. Despite their status of pop culture legends, they were also fans. One of the most visible athletes on the planet made it cool to like Superman. Geek chic had arrived.
Geeks hosted online parties that were fun and inclusive; even the unpopular kids were invited. As it turns out, being inclusive is a pretty good strategy, especially when you invite people who’ve been excluded.
What Geek Evangelists Mean for Content Marketers
Have you identified your brand geeks? Are you digging around the web to see if there are social accounts, fan pages, and hashtags for your brand?
There may be people who are brand geeks evangelizing your product. Do you know where they are and how to find them? Are you retweeting them or liking their posts? This may be something to consider in your content strategy plan.
Brand-geek culture is everywhere and getting stronger. This is important and will continue to get more important to you as a content marketer. The connection to your fans will be the growth point for your brands, particularly as broad-based interruption marketing becomes less effective.
We talk a lot about creating marketing content for the user journey. Typically this is focused on brand discovery and customer acquisition. Are you considering the content strategy for people who are already your customers?
Are you making content that will be shared passionately by your geek evangelists? Your personas and user journeys need to include content that targets the evangelists, not just the new acquisitions. Enable your geeks to co-own the brand story. Give them a way to share their passions.
It’s amazing how few brands have leveraged passionate long-tail communities. If you have a brand in a category, you might not even realize that there is a collector community that cares about it. With a little bit of time and research, you can find verticals within verticals that are worthy of your attention.
Furthermore, these geeks are a great resource for research and message development. You can lurk and collect information, but you can also work with your fan community to solicit input. Marketing content should start with research, and your geeks are a valuable source of insights.
According to an essay titled “What It Means to be a Geek” on The Mary Sue, being a geek means caring about the details.
“Details. All of these [geek-culture] things are chock-full of tiny little details, just waiting for a curious mind to patiently examine them.”
— Becky Chambers on The Mary Sue.
A Content Strategy for Working with Your Brand Geeks
As a content marketer, you may be able to connect strategically with your geeks. Leverage their vernacular to develop better content, understand how to measure it, and nurture their evangelism. The geeks will help you with acquisition, retention, and market research because they are already there.
Listen to your audience. Try to understand why they’ve built website shrines to your brand. Embrace your evangelists and join their party. Content strategists may find that they can leverage the passion of long-tail interests that they couldn’t access previously.
Have you asked your brand geeks anything recently?
One More Thing on Being a Geek
We all love something and sometimes it’s not the “cool” thing. At one time, it could be difficult to share your passions, but it is becoming dramatically easier to embrace your inner geek for brands.
In a now-famous YouTube clip, actor and self-professed geek Wil Wheaton explains that being a geek “gets easier” as you get older. It’s true, but it’s also true that the Internet has made it easier to find your geek tribe.
There is something beautiful and magical about that raw, shaky video clip because Wheaton isn’t just talking to that little girl who’s trying to find her place in the world.
He’s talking to all of us because we are all geeks of something.
Special thanks to my pal Joe Kalinowski for this input and inspiration on this post.