Remember the World Wide Web? I grew up in a world where I went from doing research in the Encyclopedia Brittanicas my mom bought at the grocery store to dialing up to this thing commonly called “The Web” and typing my queries into online search engines. Google didn’t exist and you certainly couldn’t take a Facebook poll. I used to Ask Jeeves things (remember that guy?!) and comb message boards for people like me. Other teens wearing flannel and combat boots, struggling to understand the 90s, looking for answers for their Social Sciences class, and talking about My So Called Life.
But there was a whole other subset of people online who gathered in tight knit communities geeking out talking about something they were pretty into…
The X Files.
And this group of fans had yet another deeper subset of mega fans. They were, and still are, called “X-Philes” (leave it to the sci-fi nerds to make such a play on words happen).
Most scholars who study social trends agree that the X-Philes were the very first group of “niche fans” who figured out a way to find one another and hang out online. So how, exactly, did a quirky, geeky ‘90s TV show build a raging fanbase? And what can we all learn from this massive success about building our own communities?
Take it to the streets
As it turns out, X-Philes weren’t just mega-fans who watched every episode the moment it aired (this was pre-DVR, remember) and bought all the t-shirts. These fans were (and still are) the social foundation of the show and they were everywhere. They were on message boards dissecting the latest episode of the show, analyzing plot lines, and debating future character developments. They were writing fan fiction blogs that featured “spin off” stories starring their favorite characters. They shared photos from on-location shoots and gathered behind-the-scenes footage like preppers gather flour and firewood.
According to Gizmodo, “Alt.tv.xfiles, which is still an active forum, sprang into one of the first flourishing fandom hubs. It was followed by a bloom of competing groups and thousands of garish Geocities websites, from the (impeccably named) David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade to the (also impeccably named) Order of the Blessed Saint Scully the Enigmatic.”
Pro Tip #1:
Give your fans a gathering place. Having a community for your fans creates a shared mission and home base for your message. It could in the comments of your blog, in a private Facebook Group, or in your own membership site. When your community has a place to gather together, it grows stronger.
Take a moment to think about how social media influences television and movies today. We have hashtags on the screen while we watch. Real actors are up against social media stars to be cast in feature roles. We have Twitter parties for TGIT night and Facebook Groups for our favorite movies.
But this was the early 90s. For the activity seen on what was still referred to as The Web to be as high as it was, those X-Philes had to be groundbreaking fans. Their nerdy tendencies that drew them to the sci-fi show in the first place were busy at work online – a place only some treated as an everyday experience back then.
Give ‘Em The Gold
As the fan base grew, the producers and writers of The X-Files took notice of their little social army. They tracked the active fan sites and message boards and treated them like solid gold. In fact, certain details of the show were occasionally tracked more carefully amongst the fans than amongst the writing team.
Pro Tip #2:
Give your fans tons of accolades, shout outs, and public attention. Say hi to your fans on your podcast, feature them on your blog, thank them from the stage during your next speaking gig, or dedicate your next book to them. Find ways you can share love and respect with your fans as they already already doing so for you.
Fan fiction writers were given press badges to screenings and red carpet events. They were responded to directly when they had questions or concerns. The production team even went as far as to answer emails sent in by fans (and you thought your inbox was busy).
“I remember one specific instance where I was actually inspired to write an episode based on something I read on a message board,” show producer Frank Spotnitz wrote. “I read one comment noting that we hadn’t followed up on the death of Scully’s sister earlier in the year.” Spotnitz wrote the episode “Piper Maru” based on that finding. Later on, the show named a guest character after a prominent online fan named Leyla Harrison who had died.
Pro Tip #3:
Give your fans access to you. Fans tend to feel like lunatics when they’re left in isolation. Give them access to each other and to you and they’ll feel strength in their numbers. Mega-fans want access to their favorite business owners, bloggers, and designers. Create an opportunity for them to get to know you (like a workshop, a live Q&A call, your direct responses to blog comments, attention from you on Instagram, or hosting an in-person meetup, for example). Through these events, they’ll build trust with you as someone they invest their time and energy into and want to give even more.
It’s because of these fans that the network has even decided to run a mini-season over a decade later. FOX announced last fall that 6 episodes of The X-Files will be released at the end of January 2016 and the mega-fans are beside themselves. Netflix streaming of the original episodes is at an all time high right now and new X-Philes are born with every late night binge of old seasons.
Pro Tip #4
Give your fans what they want. They want to know what your day-to-day schedule looks like? Lay it out in a blog post. They want a “behind the scenes” tour of your kitchen? Start snapping photos, chef! They want an easily downloadable DIY version of your 1×1 work? Get those PDFs pulled together. Now I’m not saying you should go against what you stand for and what YOU want to do in your business. But if it’s easy enough to provide and it keeps your raving fans happy, why not give them what they’re asking for?! Come up with a middle ground that serves you both and everyone will walk away happier for it.
While social media is an everyday occurrence and some may find it hard to keep up with, the team for this mini-season is doing things just like they did 14 years ago: they’re loving their fans as hard as the fans love them. The production team for this round is just as active on the still-running message boards and reading the fansites looking for details they may have missed.
Pro Tip #5
Treat your fans like royalty with special experiences. Free training, free courses, free worksheets, free bonuses. It could be for the entire troupe or just for a select few but generosity is the gift that keeps on giving with your community.
Consistency is King
The X-Files has been off the air since 2002, but the upcoming mini-season has been a long time coming since the show has seen a whole new set of fans over the last few years. Netflix and other streaming services have helped the audience grow and have given them fuel for their fire as they wait for the reboot.
And while the new fans are joining in droves, some diehard fans never left. Many of the original websites no longer exist, but some are still incredibly active. X-Philes have switched from Geocities and Usenet to Facebook, Reddit, and Tumblr as places to gather. Mega-fans pay tribute to the show in other ways like the podcast “The X-Files Files” run by comedian Kumail Nanjiani.
Even Gillian Anderson is joining in on the fun. In a recent podcast appearance, Scully herself directly encouraged fans to tweet at Fox to bring the show back. She knew how tightly knit online fan communities are and the influence they can impart. And it seems to have worked. Looks like Scully’s keen interest in online communities on the show has rubbed off on Gillian after all these years.
Pro Tip #6:
As Yoda says, patience is a virtue. The X-Files started as a “not sure if it will succeed” geeky niche show with a small number of viewers. Like Firefly (sorry Joss Whedon). But over time the fan community grew and the show eventually tipped into the mainstream becoming a massive phenomenon. That tipping point took time to build up to and it was far from overnight. Don’t forget that it takes patience for your community to rally around you. Give them the love and attention they need and deserve and you’ll see the results come with time.
Whether you’ll be glued to your TV, setting the DVR, live Tweeting, or no where to be found for The X-Files reboot, you can be certain that an ever-growing community of X-Philes will be there, continuing to build their droves of raving loyal fans.
Illustrations throughout this post are by Matt Ragland