3 min read

The Science of Superfans

By Paul J. Zak on Jul 28, 2020 5:13:33 PM

Superfans are thrilled by an experience and they respond in an oversized way.  The scientists at Immersion wondered if superfans just appeared randomly during an experience or if they shared commonalities.  We traced a propensity to superfandom to two personality traits: agreeableness and empathy.  These warm and friendly human beings have high "affect intensity" meaning that they experience stronger emotional responses to experiences compared to other people. 

 

Then, we wondered if we could create superfans. 

 

Most of the variation in immersion during an experience is driven by the emotional resonance it creates.  Emotionally-compelling content and experiences produce a larger signature in the brain than do the hum-drum.  This is why high immersion experiences motivate actions and are easily recalled.  The primary source of emotional resonance is a brain chemical called oxytocin that my lab has investigated for the last 20 years. The Immersion team thought oxytocin might be used to create superfans. 

 

We designed and ran an academic study with full ethics oversight and complete transparency so scholars could review and replicate our findings.  Here's what we did: 77 men and women were recruited and asked to evaluate their relationships with a dozen popular brands for computer memory sticks, reusable water bottles, and headphones.  A week later, participants came to the lab and were intranasally infused with either 40 IU of synthetic oxytocin or placebo using a double-blind protocol after having given written consent and passing a medical screening.  We exposed them to information for some of the brands they had assessed a week earlier. Using a clever set of yes or no questions, we then determined how much they would pay for the products from these companies. Finally, we asked them to write about how they felt about the brands.

 

As we had hypothesized, oxytocin created superfans by causing a surge in immersion.  Oxytocin-receiving participants said the brands they were exposed to were much better than did people who received a placebo.  Importantly, high immersion by superfans increased the amount they were willing to pay for the the products to which they were exposed.  When writing about brands, oxytocin-fueled superfans used more positive emotional terms and language about close relationships compared to their placebo brethren.  A number of control conditions showed that oxytocin participants were cognitively intact; the oxytocin had simply caused an attachment to the brands they were shown. 

 

Superfans love brands, but not because they have been drugged.  I guess that is not exactly right, they have been "drugged" by their brains' own release of oxytocin. The key take-away is not that you should spritz your store with synthetic oxytocin, which would clearly be immoral and illegal, but that advertising and customer experiences should be designed to build immersion-driven attachments. Superfans should be nurtured using loyalty programs, special offers, and customized marketing.

 

The Immersion platform identifies superfans because they give experience-creators leverage by enthusiastically sharing their passion with others, driving market impact. Why not put superfans to work for you?

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Paul J. Zak

Written by Paul J. Zak

Paul’s two decades of research have taken him from the Pentagon to Fortune 50 boardrooms to the rain forest of Papua New Guinea. All this in a quest to understand the neuroscience of human connection, human happiness, and effective teamwork.