Analysis

Startup files: Fave builds community with BTS and Taylor Swift superfans


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If you’re building a platform based around superfans, launching with Taylor Swift’s ‘Swifties’ community is a bold statement of intent. As is following that up with the famous BTS Army.

This is what US-based startup Fave has done since its launch in April 2021, while also raising funding from companies including Hybe, Sony Music and Warner Music, and taking part in the Techstars Music accelerator.

The company’s founder and CEO is former Googler Jacquelle Amankonah Horton, whose time at the tech giant included five years working on creator tools and community features for YouTube. That, plus her experiences as a young Eminem superfan, has informed what Fave is doing now.

What problem is Fave solving and how does it work?

“10 years ago when I started working at YouTube, these creators started becoming the new obsession: people that your parents had absolutely zero idea about. Not even a little bit!” she says, remembering going to events and seeing fans overwhelmed by the emotions they felt for their favourite YouTubers.

“I would ask fans: what is it about these people that you love? And they would say a couple of things. One was ‘they get me’, that through their work, they obviously felt this connection,” says Horton.

“But also ‘I was able to meet my best friends because of this person’, which showed that strength, not just of creator to fan, but of fan to fan, where you feel often just as connected with the fellow people in the room as you do with the artist themselves.”

At YouTube, Horton and her team were building products that were mainly focused on the creator-to-fan bond. She saw a “huge white space in allowing the people in the audience receiving the content to connect with each other”, and thus Fave was born.

It is far from the first company trying to build tools for superfan communities. Backplane, which created the Little Monsters site for Lady Gaga in 2021, was one. Mobile games firm Glu Mobile was another: it worked with Taylor Swift on her official The Swift Life app in 2017.

Horton is well aware of these and other superfan platforms, taking “huge inspiration” from Little Monsters, while also talking to Lady Gaga’s former manager Troy Carter to understand what worked well and not so well with that and similar models.

“Through these platforms or celebrity apps, the promise to fans was always that the artist would be deeply involved, and also that everything was about putting out content for you to consume, or activities to do,” she says.

“When artists couldn’t reasonably uphold those promises, if they would be there for two or three weeks, or show up every few months, be there for a few minutes then leave, fans would get bored and think: this isn’t the thing.”

This is a problem Fave is hoping to swerve. “Our strategy is to focus on the fans and fandom and build it from the ground up. We don’t sell the app as ‘your favourite artist is going to be here with you hanging out every day’. It’s just not realistic. This is where you go to hang out with your friends.”

Fans are thus at the core of the Fave app’s features, from tools to create videos and slideshows, to challenges, direct and group messaging, and a gamified system of points, fan status, and redeemable virtual and physical rewards.

Jacquelle Amankonah Horton of Fave

What has Fave learned so far?

The first fandom Fave focused on was the Swifties, which Horton says was a logical move, given that the company’s pre-launch research had involved talking to many of them.

“These larger, mobilising and self-sustaining fandoms? We saw a lot of opportunity there: to start with these ones who know how to move, and go with themselves,” she says. The Swifties have provided some valuable feedback already.

“People loved that it was just the stans. It converted into people actually posting more frequently, and if you didn’t post frequently – or at all – on other social networks, you would here,” says Horton.

“They felt that they could post more vulnerable content, like themselves trying on the outfit before a show – or a virtual show in these cases, for which they would still get dressed up! – versus the final look. That stuff resonated more with their fellow fans than just the very nice, polished look that you would post on Instagram.”

Fave’s Swifties community has become a place where people would post and discuss how they first discovered Swift and fell in love with their music, and how they felt about specific songs and lyrics.

“People would say ‘if I had posted that on Facebook or Twitter, my teachers would see it, my schoolfriends, my co-workers. And they would judge me! They would make me feel weird’. That quality of content happens because it’s a super-serving of the people who are in your same space.”

Horton says that Fave also quickly evolved from its original product that “indexed heavily on creative, TikTok-style video, and that’s your voice to the world”, after learning that a lot of people wanted lighter ways to engage.

How will Fave make money – for itself, artists… and fans?

It’s early days for Fave, and it will be testing out different ways of making money. One where Horton has high hopes relates to sales of merch, with a twist.

“Our marketplace, which is coming out, allows not just for future creators to sell things to fans, but for fans to sell things to other fans. Which allows for this creativity that is inspired by the person that you love to be able to make its way to other fans,” says Horton.

She admits she wasn’t sure what kind of demand there would be for fan-made merch, but when talking to the early Fave community found that many of them actively preferred things made by fellow fans.

“It seems more exclusive. And also they like supporting small businesses, be it ‘my friend’ or this person with a small shop or store,” she says, before stressing that Fave’s marketplace will be run as a partnership with artists, rather than creating any bootleg headaches for them.

“It’s about us aligning incentives. Actually having our platform give a piece of the revenue to the artist so that they can monetise all this helps align all the incentives.”

Fave is also hoping that some fans will become platform-native influencers through this and other features. “For fans to really make a career out of multiple avenues within Fave, growing a following, and becoming a seller where they can turn their work into actual art,” says Horton.

“I often like to imagine a near-term future where fans actually have a seat at the table on the artist team. Where instead of them just becoming the audience, they are part of the team. Your superfan who’s telling you ‘Hey, there’s this rumour about when you’re album’s gonna drop, let’s leverage that. Or ‘there’s this inside joke for the fandom, and if you do this move at a concert…’ The kind of things artist teams might not even realise!”

Meanwhile, Fave sees value for artists and industry partners not just in the cut of merch sales, but also from the data and insights they can glean from these fandoms.

“The qualitative, hard-hitting things they don’t get on Spotify. It’s not just a user ID, it’s: Catherine and Jimmy and Michael are your biggest buyers right now, and they’re purchasing this kind of thing…”

Fave

How many fandoms will Fave be supporting, and how soon?

It started with the Swifties, and is now following up with the BTS Army, at a moment where in the wake of English-language smash ‘Butter’, BTS are riding higher than ever in the global music industry.

Hybe – formerly Big Hit Entertainment – is both the company that BTS are signed to, and an investor in Fave, so it was a natural second fandom to explore.

Hybe has plenty of experience running online communities in South Korea, where its Weverse platform has become an increasingly important part of its business both strategically, and in terms of revenues. Horton talks about her excitement to be working with and learning from the company, while also pointing out that Hybe is not simply expecting Fave to copy Weverse’s playbook.

“They think we can extend what they have done, rather than just duplicate it in the west. This is a new add-on,” she says. Fave is also working hard to ensure that it builds tools for and with the BTS Army, which already has a well-earned reputation for mobilising on other social networks.

“My thought initially was: maybe they’re good! Maybe they don’t need a [new] platform,” admits Horton. “But as much as they’ve already done as a fandom using Twitter DMs, for example, they see that they can further impact their power and connection and depth together with fans around the globe.”

In BTS’s case, the launch will include “cupsleeve” events in the US where fans will meet up; a virtual dance class to learn the moves to some of their hits; watch parties and birthday celebrations (for members of BTS). The launch will also see the rollout of Fave’s ‘Fan Marketplace’, for the BTS Army to sell their own accessories and merchandise based on the group.

Fave has planned a calendar of events, starting with ‘Army Log’ yesterday (18 August) for fans to talk about their history in the fandom; a one-year anniversary celebration of the track ‘Dynamite’ on 21 August; an ‘Eat Army’ cookery-focused day on 23 August; and a karaoke night on 27 August.

How does Fave plan to keep its communities positive?

2021 has seen a lot of debate about toxic behaviour on social networks: racism, misogyny and more. This could present an opportunity for startups like Fave, if they can provide positive alternatives in the communities that they build. However, it’s also a challenge: how DO they keep those communities positive?

“We spend a lot of time thinking about safety and trust,” says Horton. “Bullying and all of these things happen on other social platforms, but it also happens in fandoms. Fandom wars! We once thought that we could have fandom-versus-fandom challenges, but people warned us that could get tricky. ‘Oh, those two fandoms hate each other!’.”

Horton says that Fave is working hard on ways to keep toxicity out of its communities, and also that those ways go beyond simply blocking users and flagging content.

“How do we make it feel so that if you are abusing another person on the platform, you literally look less relevant, because your voice doesn’t carry as much weight as somebody who’s exuding positivity and uplifting comments?” she says.

“Human intervention is of course there, but how do we allow for technology and AI to help in these cases, so that the burden isn’t always just on the fans? If you’re writing something and we can detect it’s something that probably shouldn’t be said, we can warn you or ask for validation. Are you sure you want to go there?”

“Sometimes as a platform, you shouldn’t get involved: you let it self-police. But having another place where somebody could feel insecure, like they’ve got into a conflict, is not my intent when building Fave. No doubt we’ll have difficult moments, but I am taking a stance to actively create this positive place.”

Stuart Dredge

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