GUEST POST: Fan Convention Organizers Use Data to Get Behind the Mask and Delight Their Attendees



By Rob Salkowitz
Image Source: R. Salkowitz

Has your town or city been overtaken by costumed heroes and villains? If so, chances are a fan convention is in town. These extravagant festivals celebrating comics, gaming, manga/anime and pop culture have gone from being “nerd niche” to “peak geek:” the most popular events in the burgeoning “experience economy” and drivers of more than $4 billion in economic activity in North America alone.

As an author, educator, and consultant on the business of pop culture, I work with leaders in the ticketing and events industry to provide better experiences for fans, exhibitors and other stakeholders at these unique festivals. One important thing I’ve learned is that as a convention grows to 40, 50, 100,000 attendees or more (some of the largest cons host 150k fans over a weekend), a crowd that you once could define by simple stereotypes and demographic assumptions becomes much more complex.

The tribes of Comic-Con.

This is certainly the case with fandom. The fans who make the pilgrimage to mega-events like San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic-Con or PAX represent a wide array of interests and backgrounds. Some are there to meet their favorite artists or try out the newest video game; some want to check out movie previews and hear from celebrity guests; some want to shop in the giant exhibit halls featuring every manner of collectible you can imagine. Within these interest segments, there are fanboys and geek girls; moms and dads; locals; visitors from out of town or overseas; and many other meaningful distinctions that shade their identities.

For the past 9 months, I’ve been using Affinio as an important part of my consulting practice, both in engagements with my clients and in reports on the convention business that I publish in my column on Forbes.com or ICv2, the trade publication of the fan, hobby and gaming industry.

Over the summer, I compared the Twitter followings of the two largest fan gatherings in North America - San Diego Comic-Con and NYCC - to discover similarities and differences. The results were illuminating. New York draws multiple well-defined fandoms who like what they like (comics, games, movies and TV, wrestling, etc.) but don’t cross over much. It’s a gathering of tribes, where everyone finds something that interests them. SDCC, on the other hand, draws fans with intense interests in multiple types of content and media. They come to experience sensory overload and discover new objects of fandom.

This kind of insight explains the important differences in events that appear superficially to be in competition, but actually serve slightly different audiences and roles in the ecosystem. The tool becomes even more powerful when applied to individual events.

Discovering hidden insights.

Over the winter, I had a client ask me to analyze the following of their event - a large regional fan convention that draws about 60,000 attendees - to help identify unique and unusual guests who might appeal to their audience, as well as prospective partners and sponsors.

I used Affinio to break down the followers into ten major tribes, ranging from “geek dads” and “Whovians” (devotees of the BBC’s Doctor Who) to “political nerds.” I discovered that large numbers of fans across the different segments shared interests in figures like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, voice actress Susan Bennett (if you use an iOS device, you’ve heard her voice), music composer Sean Beeson, and a cosplayer with a gigantic but largely invisible social following, none of whom would be especially obvious people to invite to this sort of event. I was also able to validate several guests that the con was already considering inviting (each in the $100K range for appearance fees), allowing them to conclude negotiations with confidence that they would be popular and relevant to their attendees.

Digging deeper into the data, I was able to identify the best media outlets - both mainstream and geek-specific - for the event to promote itself, and a half-dozen major brands with high affinity with the audience so that the event’s sales team could target promotional pitches for sponsorships. In an environment where there may be 4-6 major conventions around the country drawing 50K or more on any given weekend, having this kind of insight represents a competitive advantage.

New tools for an evolving industry.

The fan convention industry is evolving rapidly. Big companies are moving in and acquiring independently-run shows, consolidating them into national and international branded events. Major brands like Disney, Warner Bros and Hasbro are contemplating mounting their own fan events. Entrepreneurs are spinning up new fan-oriented programs that mash-up nerd culture (comics, gaming, media, etc.) with food festivals, music concerts, maker fairs and more. Every new media property or franchise is a potential springboard for a live event, from the Walker Stalker cons (celebrating The Walking Dead) to the “Hearties Reunion” for fans of Hallmark’s historical romance series “When Calls the Heart.”

Understanding who these fans are, what activates them, and what resonates with them can be the difference between drawing a huge crowd and falling flat.

Understanding who these fans are, what activates them, and what resonates with them can be the difference between drawing a huge crowd and falling flat. As a consultant, I’m glad I have the tools to arm my clients with those insights. As a fan myself, I’m glad the tools are out there, because it means that nerds like me will have an even better experience at the events we love.