Outlander and the Power of the Fan Base

January 14th, 2014
flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer

flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer

The digital age has given fan bases and brand advocates the tools to unite with unprecedented speed and volume, something Variety no doubt learned this weekend when one of their writers incited a fan firestorm.

The Television Critics Association winter press tour began last week, and naturally, television critics were covering it in force, one of them being Malina Saval, associate features editor at Variety. In her article, “12 Cable Shows That TCA Convinced Us to Watch,” Saval mentioned Starz’s upcoming series Outlander. Here’s how she described it:

“This new series is based on the internationally bestselling novels by Diana Gabaldon that bored middle-age housewives have been going absolutely bananas over. It’s set in the 1700′s, involves time travel and sexy period-piece costumes, and its Harlequin Romance-esque plot is sure to fuel breathy playground chatter for the next year. “

A few months back, we noted how successful Starz’s viral campaign became even before the shooting began. That success was – and still is – due in large part to a vast and very dedicated fan base. A few people in that fan base saw Saval’s article, posted it to online fan groups, and some of the fans mobilized. Variety’s articles usually get comments in the single digits, but Saval’s article has nearly 500 comments at the time of posting, every single one of which refutes Saval’s characterization of Outlander and its fan base.

I’m a fan of the books (and, if it matters, neither middle-aged nor housewife). But I don’t have to be to see that Saval’s comments were incorrect (the books are not genre romance novels, and ergo cannot be Harlequin) and, more importantly, misogynist; Saval not only implied that female tastes are inherently “frivolous,”* but that by virtue of the series being popular with women, it’s not to be taken seriously. This synopsis also did nothing to endear the many men who enjoy the series.

My first instinct was to think that Saval had inadvertently caused the flurry of comments with a flippant two-sentence synopsis. But let’s also acknowledge that journalists are in a tough spot: in a contracting profession with heavy emphasis on digital presence, there’s pressure to get high traffic and rankings. So it’s conceivable that, in trying to garner page views with a segment that is not Variety’s primary audience, Saval, knowing the strength of the Outlander fan base, phrased her synopsis as she did in a bid to reap comments and page views. Machiavellian? Yes. Effective? Very.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the whole situation was the 48 hours of silence from Variety and Saval. Engagement – with your fans, your readers, even with your badvocates – is one of the top credos of modern-day PR, and the comments went unacknowledged until yesterday afternoon, when Saval tweeted:

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If Saval’s comments weren’t intentionally provocative, her response certainly was. Comparing fans’ responses to a fatwa isn’t engagement – it’s on the verge of trolling, and is a pretty great example of how not to respond if you actually want to engage. And while PR bandies the word “engage” around a lot, we need to recognize that it goes far beyond making a melodramatic comparison to political persecution; it’s about reaching out to those who have had a negative response and acknowledging their experience. Community is about the conversation; it’s what makes the comment sections important in online media.

If the tone of her initial synopsis wasn’t intentional, Saval unwittingly turned herself into a classic example of one of the tenets of PR: don’t underestimate the power of a fan base. It doesn’t matter if it’s your base or someone else’s fan base, because there will be backlash.

That’s why engaging your fan base is so incredibly vital: Your fans and advocates are crucial to your success. One of the reasons the Outlander television series has almost every fan on board is because the main cast, writers, producers, author, and even the costume designer continually engage with fans on Twitter. They make the fans a part of the brand they already love, and respect them for who they are. When you nurture your audience like that, they come to your defense in force; when you ignore them, they’re left with a bitter taste and negative feelings.

*Quotation marks connoting not that Saval said such tastes are frivolous, but that “chick lit” and romance novels get the (undeserved) reputation of being frivolous

160 Responses to “Outlander and the Power of the Fan Base”

  1. Ellis Friedman says:

    Trish, thanks so much for your comments. Great points about social media!

  2. Debbie Shawver says:

    Well said! Thank you, Ellis!

  3. Barbara Vick says:

    I have never understood how anyone who has NOT read the material has the unmitigated gall to make snarky comments about it and about those who have read it. I am female, I have in the past been an R.N., police officer, counsellor, mother of three, newspaper columnist, fiction writer, artist, animal trainer and veterinarian surgical assistant, AND for a few years, a housewife. Back when they still measured smarts in the antiquated terms of I.Q., mine was logged in last at 164. I do not mention my idiosincratic resume which is a little like a multifunction, human Swiss Army knife (though I prefer to think of myself as a new Rennaisance woman) for bragging purposes, but to point out that I have NEVER allowed myself to be bored in my entire life. I adore Gabaldon’s work, she is one of the brightest writers in the current fermament. I am not especially interested in the romantic portions of the stories, I tend to speed read through those, to get back to what I consider fascinating, the incredibly accurate historical descriptions, the character development and the imaginative stories of cross-cultural immigrations in Europe and the U.S. Gabaldon is one smart cookie and you can’t be just a “bored housewife” and keep up with her and understand the complexities and nuance in her stories. The person who tirivialized the threat against Rushdie and then accuses Gabaldon’s fans of being like terrorists because they took offense at her obnoxious and ignornant comments is appalling to me. I realize it’s all a numbers game, and she’s getting her numbers, but I hope the people at Vainty recognise that it’s nearly all NEGATIVE responses which does NOT bode well for how the magazine is perceived overall with a HUGE fan base of those who love Gabaldon’s works.

  4. Mandi says:

    Diana Gabaldon’s fans span across age groups, countries, and yes, even gender. We are readers, lovers of words, addicted to her characters that she so perfectly weaves into our hearts, and we will defend her from any attack. She engages and listens, and even replies to her fans, but most importantly, she appreciates us. Saval is right about one thing and one thing only, “Do not cross an Outlander fan.” We are faithful and loyal, and we will raise our clan against any attack. Certainly Diana Gabaldon did not lose any fans due to this article, but have no doubt, Variety most definitely lost some, and more than a few.

  5. Ellis Friedman says:

    Mandi, thanks for your comment!

  6. Ellis Friedman says:

    Barbara, thanks for your comment!

  7. Ellis Friedman says:

    Debbie, thank you for your comment!

  8. Kimberly Jenkins says:

    Thank you for your well written article. I felt Ms Saval either was looking for attention or was just lazy about any research of her subject. I’m not sure what inflamed me more, the “middle-aged” (what is wrong with that, especially as the books have been around long enough for some of us to become that while reading them), the “housewife” comment (since I am not one, but I completely respect the women that are as I myself would find that a very hard and I’m sure rewarding job), or the “Harlequin” comment (and insult the wit, humor, history and work that has gone into the numerous books). Thanks again!

  9. ccook says:

    Ms. Saval would probably need a dictionary to understand an Outlander book. She should read them before insulting millions of readers. (I am guessing she is not a reader…)

  10. Bree says:

    Thank you for this article. Saval should be ashamed of her initial slander and banned from writing for public consumption for her twitter response. People that interact with the world as she chooses to make me incredibly sad and angry for so many reasons. Reading your words helps to give me hope that there are enough people left in the human race capable of thoughtful and intelligent interaction to prevent our species from sliding into a new dark age.

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