Turn-Learn-Return: the path from unawareness to fandom

Creating brand love is hard. Consumers are bombarded with brand messages every day, and we are all professionals in sorting out what’s useful to us and ignore the rest. We are wired to ignore the large majority of the information being thrown our way. For example: while our eye has a field of view of almost 180 degrees, we can focus with high-resolution only on the central 2 degrees. This means, for example, that we really ‘see’ between 2 and 10% of a screen at any point in time. It can be shocking for marketers: what is ‘viewable’ is not necessarily viewed. Having real estate on a screen might not drive any lift in awareness at all. For most brands, your starting point is unawareness, and brand love is a long way uphill.

Yet, we all have a handful of brands we are attached to. Our favorite coffee chain, clothing brand, car manufacturer… We choose our favorite brands every day, often subconsciously. Brain science proves that we make choices at emotional level, and only afterwards we justify them with logical reasons. We are ‘fans’ of those brands: we listen to them, engage with them, and are the best promoters of those brands with our friends and colleagues. We market those brands on their behalf. This is why taking consumers to ‘fandom’ is nirvana for any brand.

So how do you take consumers from unawareness to fandom? Here is a construct to help you map this journey: it’s called TURN-LEARN-RETURN. I’ll refer to the framework in my previous blog post (“Intent and engagement: a framework to create better video content” – link here), but you don’t need to have read it to follow this article (I’d recommend it as a follow-on read to go deeper on this topic).

Step 1: What will make consumers TURN?

Imagine a real-life scenario where your consumer is in a busy shopping mall, with hundreds of brand messages around him at any point in time, most of them automatically filtered out by his eyes. If your brand is one of them, the key question for you is: what will make consumers turn and focus their attention on my brand? In my intent-engagement framework (previous post), this is the low-intent left half of the 2×2: people are not looking for you. In fact, they might not even be aware that you exist. Your objective here is to get their attention and make them interested in your brand message.

Content that works well at this stage is either ‘water-cooler’ type (in the ‘connection’ quadrant – low intent and low engagement) or entertaining and inspiring (in the ‘entertainment’ quadrant – low intent and high engagement). In terms of targeting in the digital space, if engagement is what you are looking for, you need to appeal to the needs and wants of consumers, hence psychographic targeting is the best option. In the digital world, you also have the luxury to know who has ‘turned’ to listen to your brand message (this will come in handy, as explained later) by using choice-based ad formats (e.g. skippable video ads, or engagement-based display ads).

Step 2: What will consumers want to LEARN about?

If you got their interest, it will manifest itself in intent. Consumers now know that you exist, and they will wonder what you are all about. This is why successful video ads drive significant uplift in search queries for the same brand: intent is most commonly reflected in search. So the key question for you as a brand is now: what will consumers want to learn about and search for? We know that education is key in the path to purchase (especially for high-engagement categories), and that consumers are real ninjas when it comes to finding information about your products before making a purchase. So you will need to know what critical information will nudge consumers to buy (or stay away) from your product.

Here is a short story about myself which I often tell to clients. I used to drink Coke, weekly if not daily. Until one day, after a discussion with a colleague about Coke ingredients, I went on YouTube and searched: “what does Coke contain?”. I found this video of Crazy Russian Hacker, where he boils Coke in a pot and shows what’s left of it once all the water evaporates. I’ve been coke-sober for about two years since that day. Now, Coca-Cola generally produces really great video ads to drive mass awareness (ads that will make people ‘turn’ – step 1 in this framework), but where was Coca-Cola when I searched for Coke’s ingredients? And if Coca-cola intentionally doesn’t create content to address that question, does it mean that they are happy with the answer I found? Now contrast this with the McDonald’s example of “Your Food, Your Questions”, where the company addresses many consumers’ tough questions in a transparent way, often with video content like this. It will give you a sense of how important it is to give the best answer to what your consumers want to learn about, especially when those answers are going to be critical to the purchase decision.

This scenario is the low-intent and low-engagement which I called ‘EDUCATION’ in my framework (previous post). Content that works well here is obviously educational, and it stems from insight into what your audience is looking for (e.g. Google search trends will give you a glimpse of that – type your brand name and look at the ‘related queries’ at the bottom of the page). It could be video content or text, on a website or on other platforms (e.g. your YouTube channel). Targeting is not required for this type of content, because people will look for you, hence discoverability of your content is more important. You can enhance discoverability by tagging the content appropriately and just giving the best answer to what people are looking for (and the search algorithm will do the rest and bubble your content up to the top of the results). If you want to be sure to be on the top of the page, obviously you can also bid on the right keywords (in this case, go broad and cover branded keywords as well as category-level ones).

Step 3: What will make consumers RETURN to your destination?

Now that you have attention and engagement from your target consumers, it’s time to turn casual viewers into subscribers. But how will this happen? Here are some techniques:

  1. Along step 1 and step 2 it’s crucial to gather insight about who is engaging with your brand message. This is why using permission-based ad formats (in step 1) is so important: you will know who is open to your brand message and has chosen to listen. In step 2, you will know who has been looking for your brand and what information she is interested in. With this wealth of insight, you will be able to target those consumers who are most valuable to you (i.e. lower in the funnel) and more likely to engage further (in marketing jargon, this is called ‘remarketing’ or ‘retargeting’)
  2. People will subscribe to your channel or follow your page if you are sharing a passion point with them. But how will you know about their passions? Simple: that’s how you picked them in the first place if you used psychographic targeting in step 1
  3. Offer opportunities to engage further and subscribe at every step. In reality, the ‘path to fandom’ is not always as linear and logical as described here. Users might decide to subscribe to your channel at any point, so offer them ample opportunities to do so, for example by adding a ‘subscribe’ or ‘follow’ button wherever you can

But is a ‘fan’ equivalent to a subscriber? The answer is no. A subscriber is certainly more than a casual viewer, but generally not yet someone who feels represented by your brand and will market it on your behalf. In fact, many channels acquire subscribers thanks to great video ads, and then bleed them slowly as they fail to engage further. In other words, a subscriber is akin to someone who has entered your ‘home’, walked around, found it interesting, and then left. So the key question here is: what will make her return regularly?

For an in-depth reading on this topic, I’d recommend to read the YouTube creators’ playbook for brands (learnings from the best YouTube creators on how to create and retain a fan base – download it for free here). For now, 3 basic tips are:

  1. Create episodic content to engage users on specific passion points. You should set the expectation that, on a periodic basis, users will find fresh content on a topic they are passionate about. Importantly, episodic content needs to be authentic to your brand message (people will share a passion with you only if you are genuine about it) and to the user’s experience (they won’t share their passions if the experience feels contrived or artificial)
  2. Segment your fan base on specific passion points. While at step 1 you might target a whole set of psycographics, in order to retain subscribers you will have to create specific sections in your channel, each one dedicated to a consumer segment. As an example, look at how American Express structured his YouTube channel (here) with different series and playlists (I love the “everyday genius” section with useful life hacks)
  3. Reward your subscribers and make them feel special. This can be as easy as replying to their comments, but there are plenty of options. For example, invite them to participate by uploading their own content, make them vote on what they would like to watch, or invite them to an event (even if a virtual one, such as a hangout on air). Having a passion involves investing some time to cultivate it, so you need to give your subscribers various options to do so. If you reward them and make them feel special, they will reward you in return by taking your brand message into their passions and become the best ambassadors for your brand


How are you turning casual viewers into subscribers and eventually into fans? Is this framework useful to you? Share your opinion, I’d love to hear it.

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