What #AlexFromTarget and “Welcome to Night Vale” can Teach Us About Harnessing Fandom on Social Media
Anyone who was on Twitter last week probably caught sight of a One-Direction-ready Target employee named Alex checking out an adoring fan at his register. The ensuing #AlexFromTarget hashtag soared to the number one worldwide trend in a matter of hours.
But the sudden explosion of attention surrounding 16-year-old Target employee Alex Lee wasn’t a happy accident of the Twittersphere; it was supposedly a calculated marketing experiment by Breakr, a new online marketing company that focuses on building fandom (or a dedicated fan community) in order to increase marketing potential.
“An audience changes the channel when the show is over,” reads a quote by Venture Capitalist Mary Meeker on the marketing company’s beta page. “A fan base shares, comments, creates content when the show is done, magnifying the show’s reach and engagement with existing and potential new audiences."
And a fan base is exactly what Breakr managed to create with the #AlexFromTarget campaign. The individual who posted the original photo was only associated with Breakr as a follower, but the company made the image viral through strategic use of the hashtag. They tweeted the picture to prominent YouTubers, came out with a video parody, and then just sat back and watched as the press picked up the story and tweets kept coming in.
Their unconventional experiment seems to have proven that tapping into the fandom culture of social media is a recipe for instant celebrity. Lee’s twitter account @acl163 exploded practically overnight, from about 2,000 to a current 730,000. At the same time, Breakr jumped on the hashtag to promote their new client, teen musician Corbyn Besson, who saw a large follower increase from #AlexFromTarget’s largely young, female fanbase as well. Both Lee and Target have denied collaborating with Breakr, but Target at least hasn't seemed to mind embracing the attention.
It may seem like Breakr captured lightning in a bottle with their hashtag experiment, but it’s not the first time that fans on social media have blasted something to celebrity status in a matter of days. The surrealist podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” also owes much of its success to social media. In a recent article on BoingBoing, co-writer Jeffrey Cranor discussed how a popular blogging platform turned the small podcast about a fictional desert town where weird things happen into an international sensation which has even managed to top Beyonce on the iTunes charts a few times.
Unlike the calculated choices that created #AlexFromTarget, the Night Vale phenomena was completely accidental. “The jump we saw in popularity that July  was nothing like we'd seen before,” Cranor wrote. “After a few weeks, we figured out what happened: Tumblr happened.”
According to Cranor, the podcast had about 100,000 total downloads over its first 12 months and 24 episodes. When it caught the attention of socially conscious media consumers on Tumblr in July, that number exploded to 2,500,000, and tripled the month after that. Purely by coincidence, the show seemed to be exactly what many people on Tumblr were looking for: a fun, charming and spooky story that resonated with fans desperate for more diverse characters.
The purely audio format helped. Fans were inspired to create art to fill in descriptive gaps, and others wrote stories about side characters and locations the show’s first-person narrator wasn’t able to explore. Thanks to this fan-generated Tumblr publicity, Night Vale soared to national acclaim and is currently touring live performances to sold-out crowds across Europe.
So what can we learn from these two cases? In short, that attracting dedicated and engaged fans rather than pure consumers might be the key to unlocking the full potential of social media marketing.