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Build Fan Loyalty Like RuPaul And America’s Top Drag Queens

Build Fan Loyalty Like RuPaul And America’s Top Drag Queens

Jackie Huba’s work has been called “the word-of-mouth-gospel” by Forbes magazine. An expert on creating and sustaining customer loyalty, Jackie is the bestselling author of Monster Loyalty: How Lady Gaga Turns Followers into Fanatics, and is the co-author of Citizen Marketers: When People are the Message, along with Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force. Interactive and engrossing, Jackie isolates the strategies organizations can apply to engage their customers like never before. Jackie recently wrote about looking to drag queens for marketing, branding, and customer loyalty inspiration in Forbes:

RuPaul is one of the most well known drag queens in the world. His rise to fame began in the 1990s with his dance hit “Supermodel (You Better Work),” but is more recently known for his cult reality TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, where drag queens compete to be America’s next drag superstar. Starting in 2009, the show’s seven seasons, now broadcast in over 100 countries, have launched the careers of drag queens who have become overnight sensations around the world, amassing hundreds of thousands of fans on social media. Queens have gone on to top Billboard dance charts, star in their own off-Broadway shows, and be featured in advertising campaigns for mainstream brands such as American Apparel, Starbucks and Facebook.

What do smart businesses and America’s top drag queens have in common? Both want to build a loyal customer base that supports them long term.

Last week in Los Angeles, I attended RuPaul’s DragCon (the first ever drag convention in HERstory) and the taping of the Drag Race Season 7 finale episode. At these events, I witnessed queens who could school most marketers on how to connect with their best customers. The strategies drag queens use to market themselves hasn’t been studied or considered as traditional business marketing, but it should be. These queens had a great approach on how to build their loyal fan base:

Get your One Percenters to connect with each other.

In my research, I’ve found that super-fans are only a small portion the overall customer base, about 1 percent. But these One Percenters—as I call them—are the first to buy a company’s new product, give critical feedback and post praise on social media that brings in new customers. One study found that 4.7 percent of a brand’s fan base generates 100 percent of its social referrals.

RuPaul understands the importance of courting super-fans. After seven seasons of Drag Race, he decided to put on DragCon, a two-day event at the Los Angeles Convention Center that brought 14,000 of his One Percenters together to meet their favorite queens and connect with each other. RuPaul summed up his idea for DragCon best by explaining:

We have fans of the show from all over the world. The social media experience is great, but to have a place…where all of these people – who are not just drag queens, but people who dance to the beat of a different drummer – can get together and meet their brothers and sisters and create a universal community is really important to me…It’s important for them to find their tribe, which is one of the greatest journeys anyone can take.

These bonds of loyalty between One Percenters form a community of like-minded people that create a business’s social foundation.

Give them something to talk about.

Fans love to talk about the brands they love, but it’s up to the brand to keep giving fans something to talk about—especially in social media feeds which are word-of-mouth jet streams.

DragCon’s giant tradeshow floor had over 100 booths, and most vendors just set up tables to sell merchandise. But Season 7 queen Trixie Mattel, who already stands out with her giant bubblegum-pink lips and over-the-top costumes, did something different. She outfitted her booth with a giant Barbie Trixie Mattel box, playing off her name, Mattel, which drew fans’ attention. Trixie fans lined up for hours to take a photo with the iconic queen inside her big pink box, which are now all over social media. Trixie explained to me, “Drag is a small business. You can’t survive without a strong brand and a willingness to exceed. My giant Trixie box photo opportunity I created for my fans was expensive and definitely extra work, but it creates a lovemark and an experience.”

Standing out from the pack takes innovation and creativity. Create experiences for your customers that are worth posting and reposting to Instagram. And Twitter. And Facebook. And Tumblr. And SnapChat.

Give them access.

One Percenters love your brand and can’t get enough of it. They want your beta-versions, and they want to meet the people behind it all. They want access, to get as close to the brand as possible. And at DragCon, Season 7 standout queen, Katya, didn’t disappoint. She spent most of the two-day convention at her booth showcasing her signature brand of kookiness and hugging, kissing, squeezing and accepting gifts from her fans. Her line snaked around the entire convention floor with waits up to three hours. Even though she was exhausted and “didn’t eat, drink or go to [the] bathroom for 12 [hours],” Katya’s dedication to her fans was apparent, and her warmth and genuineness made every fan feel like they were her best friend.

Find ways to give your best customers access to what they crave about your brand. Not sure what that is? Ask them.

Don’t nickel and dime your best customers.

When you are finding ways to connect with your One Percenters, don’t try to monetize every moment, just reaffirm their loyalty. Every queen at a DragCon booth was selling merchandise, like t-shirts, autographed photos, posters and the like, but a number of the queens were also charging for spontaneous photos and selfies.

Drag Race Season 4 finalist, Phi Phi O’Hara, didn’t think this was right and expressed her disdain on Facebook after the first day of the event: “I mean to each their own….but I can not fathom charging fans to simply take a picture or sign autographs…..make your coin I guess….but if you want free hugs, love, kisses, autographs and all the selfies you want stop by our booth 319!!”

To really make the point, on day two Phi Phi and her booth-mate, Season 4 queen Jiggly Caliente, pinned signs to their outfits that read, “FREE SELFIES!” Some of the queens who were charging threw Phi Phi shade on social media, but she reminded them, “Some people forget the reason they are here is because of the fans.” Fans loved Phi Phi’s no-charge stance, posting comments all over her social media saying, “It’s really great to see a queen putting the fans first,” and “Thank you for remembering your fans no matter how high up the ladder you climb!”
Investing in your loyal customer or fan base through genuine connection is always smart marketing. Trying to monetize every interaction with your best customers is not.

Show your customers you really care.

When you go the extra mile to show customers how much they mean to you, they don’t soon forget. It builds even deeper levels of loyalty. After the five-hour live audience taping of the Drag Race season 7 finale episode, VIP ticket holders were promised a meet and greet photo opportunity with all fourteen queens from the season. However, only three managed to show up: Trixie Mattel, Katya and top-3 finalist Ginger Minj.

I’m sure the other the queens were exhausted after two full days of DragCon, rehearsal for the finale, and then the taping itself. But the three fan-centered queens that made it didn’t want to disappoint, so they freshened up their makeup, tightened their tucks (and Katya has one meaty tuck), and smiled through the pain in their pumps. Fans will never forget this moment, and now they have the photos to remind them which queens appreciated them.

Loyal customers build your business, but they can’t be bought, and they can’t be won with gimmicks. Under the makeup, false eyelashes, wigs, and sequin dresses, these drag queens know how to market and build a brand through real connection with their fans. They’ve created a following of One Percenters, give them something to talk about, and have no problem with full-contact access. Even the queens who don’t win RuPaul’s Drag Race go on to great careers because they carefully nurture a customer base that can’t wait to see what they do next. So what can you do to build your loyal base of One Percenters?

Jackie Huba/Forbes/June, 2015