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:

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 9.45.14 PM

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. Karen Diaz says:

    Thank you so much for this very fair article. I wish Ms. Saval would read the book and see for herself.

  2. MichelleMac says:

    Thank you so much Ellis Friedman.

    The point I made in the comment section to that article was exactly what you highlighted; the inherent sexism in not only pigeon-holing women as ‘housewifes’, ergo romance readers (also who cares if they read romances?), but I also posited that if the writer of Outlander had been male, we would not have gotten the flippant/glib soundbite. Perhaps if the writer had been male she might have done at least a cursory Google search and discovered that the books (and series) explores so many interesting topics outside of a love story. eg. male rape and its emotional consequences, the turbulent and intense political and social situation of a country under English rule, the rich history and practicalities of 18th century Scotland, the emotional bitter-sweetness of leaving a loved husband behind whilst having to acknowledge feelings for another man, in another century. Its pretty good stuff.

    And even more puzzling was that no mention was made of the showrunner, Ron D Moore who deserved at least a few words.

    It was a poor, lazy effort from Malina, and made worse by Variety’s silence and Malina’s subsequent tweet. But I guess we’re just fanatics who read romance novels huh?

  3. Jery says:

    Thank you for a well written, media savvy article. It seems to me that Variety is in desperate need of your services!

  4. Kelley says:

    Thank you for your article. I too am puzzled by variety’s silence and shocked at Ms. Saval’s response. Its almost as though she is intentionally trying to garner the ire of the Outlander fanbase. Not sure why that would be one’s goal, but at least there have been lots of click throughs to her article. Thanks again fire the nod to the fans and the care the production team has taken to engage the fans.

  5. Lizzrd says:

    Ahhh…a writer who UNDERSTANDS her medium and the landscape. Nicely done, and with class.

  6. Patty Stickels says:

    You were spot on and quite eloquent. If only Variety could employ better journalists like you, there would not have been a problem. Thank you so much.

  7. Donna Bogert says:

    Might it be said: Never judge a book by its cover?

  8. Lisa S says:

    Thank you so much for writing this, you got it spot on!! I know that for myself, I have been a fan since I picked the first book up when it was first published in 1991, I wasn’t even out of high school yet! I now am still not middle aged and even more of a fan now. DG has created such amazing characters that after so many years you almost feel as though they are friends rather than fiction. Thank you for standing up and putting into words what so many of us struggled with.

  9. Ellis Friedman says:

    So glad I could contribute constructively to the conversation. Thanks, Danice!

  10. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks for the comment, Toorak, and I agree with your assessment of the novels.

  11. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks for your comments, Yetivia. And as I’ve said in another comment, even if the entire fan base were all women, there would be nothing wrong with that.

  12. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks, Jenny! It helps that I am part of the audience. So glad I could fuse my professional life with a personal interest!

  13. Ellis Friedman says:

    Excellent points, Margie, their devotion to the soul of the story definitely earns Ron Moore and Starz even more brownie points with the fans. They know what’ they’re doing!

  14. Ellis Friedman says:

    Viviana, thank you for sharing! I agree that Diana is a real social media whiz; I don’t know how she does it while writing.

  15. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks so much, Karen!

  16. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks for your comments, Michelle. I agree that there’s a lot more to this whole issue regarding perception of women as readers. Maybe for another post!

  17. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks, Jery, for your comment and kind words!

  18. Ellis Friedman says:

    Kelley, thanks for your response. I think I’ve said this in a previous comment, but oftentimes an early acknowledgement makes for an easier PR clean-up.

  19. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks for your comment, Lizzrd!

  20. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks for your response, Patty!

  21. Ellis Friedman says:

    Indeed, it might. Thanks, Donna!

  22. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks for your response, Lisa. Commenters have definitely proved that the Outlander audience is completely diverse and, like the genre of the books, not pigeonhole-able. (Yes, I made up that word.)

  23. Heatherh says:

    I actually am a bored, middle aged housewife. It took some time and effort to get here, but my four kids are 15-20 and I’m enjoying the free-time I didn’t have when they were younger. I’m also not above reading the occasional bodice ripper. I read/listened to 148 books in 2013. Some people watch TV. I read.

  24. Rita Bowen says:

    BRAVO!!!!! To a very well written piece you’ve hit the nail on the head and WE Thank You

  25. Lorene Oates says:

    I appreciated your article. I thought you might find the Amazon stats about Outlander author Diana Gabaldon interesting. You are very correct about her fan base, and Starz is wise to pick up on it.

    From Amazon

    Diana Gabaldon is the New York Times bestselling author of the wildly popular Outlander novels-Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, and A Breath of Snow and Ashes (for which she won a Quill Award and the Corine International Book Prize)-and one work of nonfiction, The Outlandish Companion, as well as the bestselling series featuring Lord John Grey, a character she introduced in Voyager. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.

    Amazon Author Rankbeta
    #37 Overall (See top 100 authors)

    #1 in Kindle eBooks > Romance > Historical Romance

    #1 in Books > Romance > Historical

    #2 in Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Historical Fiction

    #2 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Historical

    #3 in Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy

    Seriously??? these are Amazon rankings….She is doing something very right to sell all these books.

    Diana is a solid writer with an outstanding presence in the literary community. She writes for the reader and we love her for it. Do yourself a favor and read Outlander, you might get hooked, just as the rest of us have.

    Lorene Oates, not a housewife, but respectin’ all my Outlander sisters who are. 🙂

  26. Ravin' Maven says:

    Beautiful! Brava! If only Variety hired intelligent, well-spoken, fair-minded writers such as you. Thank you for giving voice to our frustration.

  27. Why, thank you, Ellis! What a lovely, perceptive article–MUCH appreciated!

    –Diana Gabaldon

  28. Karen Henry says:

    Very well said! Thanks for posting this.


  29. Gina McElhaney says:

    I agree. My first thought when I read the article in Variety was that she was fishing for a huge response, and looking publicity for herself and Variety. It felt like a case of “squeaky wheel gets the grease”. It worked in a way. However, you have drawn a great comparison as to how the Author, Starz, actors, etc. have included the fans from the beginning. Making the fans feel embraced over a mutual love and respected. Not dummed down or belittled for their passion. Thank you for your insightful view.

  30. Beth Wesson says:

    I am so relieved to find I was not the only reader offended by Saval’s…what to call it…hmmmm…crap? I don’t want to feed her “popularity” by continuing to comment on her failings. So, I’ll just comment on your apparent smarts! Thank you for defending OUR beloved books and recognizing Starz continuous respect for their fan base.

  31. Beth Wesson says:

    And…by the way, I just subscribed to this site!

  32. Tina Bowling says:

    Thank you, Ellis Friedman! Well said!

  33. Jennifer C. says:

    Thank you for a positive response to such derogatory comments by another journalist. Excellent read and well put.

  34. Elaine says:

    Ellis, thanks for this piece. I agree with nearly everything Viviana (and the others) wrote in her comment. I don’t read romance books and have never re-read a book series (including listens on Audible) a book series before. Diana’s stories are like a adjunct family to me by now. There is something truly unique about the Outlander story and, as everyone says, it all starts with Diana. Starz and Ron Moore are just being extremely smart about taking this phenomenon and running with it.

  35. Jenny Jones says:

    Thank you Ellis for your brilliant article and being courteous in acknowledging our replies – we appreciate that!

  36. Diana says:

    Well said! Thank you.

  37. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thank you, Diana!

  38. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thank you, Jenny!

  39. Ellis Friedman says:

    Elaine, thanks for your comment!

  40. Ellis Friedman says:

    Jennifer, thanks very much!

  41. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thank you, Tina!

  42. Ellis Friedman says:

    Beth, thanks for your comments (and the subscription, though [unfortunately] I don’t get to write about Outlander often).

  43. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks very much, Gina. It’s just another lesson that including and respecting fans can have an incredible impact.

  44. Ellis Friedman says:

    Karen, Thank you!

  45. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thank you so much, Diana! As you can tell from the massive responses to this post and the Variety article, you and your books are very much appreciated.

  46. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks, Ravin’ Maven!

  47. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks for the stats, Lorene! They certainly are interesting, and as you say, indicate the strength of the books.

  48. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks so much, Rita!

  49. Ellis Friedman says:

    Thanks for the comment, Heather. And I’ve said this before, but being a bored, middle-aged housewife does not make your/one’s opinions any less valid, and doesn’t make the books “frivolous” because you and other women (of any age or status) like them.

  50. Trish says:

    Ellis, THANK you. I have avoided responding to the V piece, and the Tweet, but I must just say thanks to you. I am under no illusions that Ron, Terry, Cait, Sam or Diana are involving themselves in social media because they want to be our friends. It is part of the job and they are all very good at it. Generous to boot, with their time and they make us feel welcome and a part of the production. But they don’t know me from Adam, and walking up to them one day (oh, dream come true!) and introducing myself, I have no delusions of them knowing who the heck @rteest42 is.

    There is great power in SM; you always hear about how a misunderstanding turns into a volcano because one person can’t read the intent of the other. It’s going on now between factions of my personal family because they insist on personalizing generalities for no reason.

    The writer of the V piece might think she’s clever, witty and capable of quippy zingers; she may not have put more thought into her article than how to crank out X number of inches of copy in an hour. I can forgive her that. Memes, sound-bite one liners, she’s nailed.

    Where she really lost it, was her response to the inevitable backlash. “Sorry” is always a great one, but not the one she chose. Instead of a mea culpa, she chose to trivialize Salman Rushdie’s life, not by elevating our complaints to his, but by belittling his travails to ours. Not funny. Quippy? yes. One liner? yes. Cool? Not by a long shot. Not responsible journalism. Op-Ed, yeah, OK, but you would have to have read the books first. That wasn’t an Op-Ed piece. If she is looking for work as a screenwriter, or for a skanky stand up comedian, writing in 140 characters and getting a cheap laugh, she’s all over it.

    While some of us may be housewives and some of us may be bored and some of us may be middle aged, some of us are also of the male persuasion and some of us are physicians, professors, nurses, and any other thing a human can be. And all of us are capable of reading 1300 page books with big words and understanding them.

    We realize and totally appreciate the gift of access that we have been given because of SM and we know HOW to use it.
    Looking forward to ONLY GOOD THINGS! #piff to the rest of it.

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