Turning Communities Into Loyal Customers (and Into Gold), Harry Potter-Style


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In the Dark Ages, a legend grew up around the so-called Philosopher’s Stone. Ancient alchemists believed that, by touching this stone to base metal, gold could be created. It was also thought that the stone was a means of revitalizing health and the human spirit.

Little known or discussed over the centuries, the Philosopher’s Stone has once again become famous through J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter children’s book series. So, in this modern era, the Philosopher’s Stone has helped create gold (for J.K. Rowling and the publishers and marketers working with her) and a sense of belonging and community among Harry Potter’s legions of faithful readers.

What’s been going on with the Harry Potter phenomenon over the past decade-and-a-half can be considered a prime example, as well as a metaphor, for what is possible with both on-line and off-line customer community building.

First, there are the Harry Potter books themselves. The interest and involvement is not limited to children. Parents, and teachers as well, have joined those enthralled by the fantasies of Hogwarts Wizardry School, Quidditch Teams, Golden Snitches, and such.

Warner Brothers, in addition to offering Harry Potter gifts on its site, has produced several highly successful movies, showing Harry’s adventures as he grew up (and ultimately married best friend Ron Weasley’s sister, and had children). Warner Has added Harry Potter sections to its theme parks. The Potter enthusiasm extends well beyond the books, parks, TV shows, and movies to an endless array of merchandise: toys, games, costumes, keychains, mugs, stationery, party kits (balloons, candles, hats, invitations, table covers, confetti, banners, cups, treat cups – and even thank you notes), Christmas tree ornaments, and on and on. Fritz, an on-line gift and collectibles site, carrying famous brand names like Hummel, Lenox, Swarovski,, Waterford and Lladro, has close to thirty different Harry Potter collectible items.

More impressive than the physical evidence of Harry Potter merchandising and marketing is the way fans have been formed, or formed themselves, into communities of interest and involvement regarding their fantasy hero and his escapist world. There are official Potter community fan sites, sponsored by companies like Warner and Scholastic. These sites feature discussion groups, trivia, and contests, plus the obligatory merchandise. Scholastic’s site has discussion guides for teachers, and there are also links and content for parents.

But, there are also many ‘unofficial’ fan sites, in countries as varied as the United States, Turkey, Denmark, Poland, France, Russia, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, Ireland, and Hungary. This is where, perhaps more than anyplace else, the Harry Potter community of interest is most active.

The unofficial German site, founded by two girls in Berlin, is especially noteworthy. Its objective is simple: To increase the fun with Harry Potter books. It offers an encyclopedia, on-line games, a forum for discussion, and cards to friends. Visitors become fan club members by passing an entrance exam based on their knowledge of book content. For several years after its introduction, the site received over one million annual page visits.

Truth be told, there has been some resistance to Harry Potter books because of the sorcery and witchcraft elements they contain; and this has had the effect of mobilizing fans, book trade associations, and special interest organizations. The books have been challenged in over a dozen states, according to the American Library Association; and there were close to 500 efforts to remove the books from library shelves and school classrooms over the past several years. One site, ‘Muggles for Harry Potter’ (for the uninitiated, a ‘muggle’ in the Potter books is a non-magical person with a tendency to be unaware that he or she lives in a world of witches and wizards, such as Harry and friends) rallies support for non-censorship. Again, this only helps to build the sense of community for devoted Potter-ites.

With all this community activity around the Harry Potter books, it’s very clear that it has had a profound, and positive, commercial impact, both on-line and off-line. What is the implication and the lessons of this success, and the communities largely responsible for it, for both consumer and business-to-business product/service marketers? The Internet has, for the foreseeable future, become the world’s biggest marketplace. It offers buyers scale, distribution efficiencies, more efficient communication, and enhanced access to competitive offerings. At the same time, costs and inconveniences of switching suppliers are dramatically lower. Companies, which in the off-line world and carrying forward to the virtual world, have focused on individual customers or customer segments, must also focus on the collective, i.e. the customer community, to be successful.

Customers, generally speaking, can have both transactional encounters, which are short-term, or relationships, which are longer-lasting, closer and firmer, with their suppliers. Customers are social as well as individualistic and emotional beings. Abraham Maslow codified this in his Hierarchy of Values when he identified higher-order needs such as Esteem, Cognition, Aesthetic, Self-Actualization, and Transcendence as human goals. Most companies, particularly on the Internet, have devoted much of their energy to only increasing transactions by appealing to more essential customer needs. Just as communities of interest can bring people together who interact, or relate, based on one or more shared values and interests (age, hobbies, etc.), so these communities can also be leveraged to facilitate buying and selling. In other words, community-building is an essential element in loyalty building. It represents a pillar of customer experience management.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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