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How Disney Genie Proves That Superfans Aren't Always Right What the launch of Disney's newest customer perk tells us about the opportunities (and risks) of relying on your most vocal consumers' opinions to define direction.

By Alex Gold

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

A few months ago, and with much fanfare, Walt Disney World introduced a new service called the Disney Genie. For an added fee per day, guests could get front-of-the-line access to rides and attractions. By introducing this offering, they finally joined peers like Universal and Six Flags in offering some form of a comparable, upgraded experience.

Lines and overcrowding have been the theme park vertical's Achilles heel for rmore than a century. In fact, according to a University of Central Florida study, long queue lines are one of the top customer-dissatisfaction issues facing theme-park operators today.

Disney's Genie is a significant leap, providing not just front-of-the-line access, but also personalized itineraries powered by machine learning that operates similarly to Starbucks' loyalty program.

Related: 4 Powerful Brand Secrets I Learned Working With Disney

The fact that this had not occurred years ago somewhat shocked the technology entrepreneur in me. And you would have expected Disney fans and casual theme park visitors alike to stand up and cheer. More time on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, less time waiting in Mr. Toad's Wild Line.

Well, that assumption turned out to be fundamentally wrong. Disney's most ardent fans reacted in shock, horror and uncharacteristically R-rated vitriol. An online petition, as of this writing, boasts more than 90,000 signatures to fire relatively new CEO Bob Chapek for decreasing "the quality of what is put into the parks."

You would think that, given the above reaction, Disney erred when introducing this new service. Well, the data does not prove that out at all. Early numbers suggest about 50% of guests now use the paid Disney Genie+ service. That's up from just over a third when the product was introduced merely three months ago.

Nearly every entrepreneur is told to build their product, especially their Minimum Viable Product (MVP), to target a core community of superusers or superfans. We're told to conduct customer interviews religiously, do our research and incrementally grow our product on the feedback we receive from the users that care most about what we're doing. But what if your most ardent fans and supporters, especially at a certain juncture of your business' growth trajectory, are wrong? What if their opinions do not translate at scale and, in fact, may hold back the evolution of your business? How do you account for relative quirks in opinion, yet still solicit valuable feedback when launching your product?

Disney Genie provides us with some clues on how to proceed. First, you must seek out a broad variety of opinions on your service, especially amongst your core demographic — not just the most vocal or easily accessible. Second, you must understand the underlying motivation and mindset of your superfans. Are they motivated by the utility value of your product or something else that's unrelated? And third, you must be willing to grow beyond your superfans if it's critical to the ongoing success of your business.

Seek the broadest possible sample of opinion

When Disney Genie was introduced, nearly every Disney fan blog, YouTube channel and social media influencer went into overdrive to actively criticize the service. From this sample, one would be hard-pressed not to believe that Disney Genie was a massive flop.

Yet, in reality, this small sample was not representative of Disney's entire addressable market, as attendance at the D23 fan expo — the best proxy for measuring the size of Disney's core fanbase — was pegged at about 100,000 people in 2017. This is dwarfed by yearly theme-park attendance at Walt Disney World, which in 2018 attracted 58 million people.

As with many things today, from online conspiracy theories to protest movements, social media platforms make the opinions of a small minority look like the opinions of nearly everyone. Critically, they drown out balanced analysis and place an even heavier burden on the accuracy of consumer research.

Entrepreneurs now have a more challenging task and must create a multi-tier customer research plan that accounts for biases in feedback and orientation. For example, entrepreneurs should seek to conduct A/B test surveys and questionnaires wth multiple different groups of varying sizes in order to gain the broadest possible feedback.

Understand what superfans really care about

When criticizing Disney Genie, the company's superfans reacted with extreme emotion to the change, perhaps revealing something deeper at work. Words matter. They capture motivation, reveal intent and can be used as a weapon to change hearts and minds. In this context, they reveal a deeper intent amongst many fans: fear of change and deep nostalgia. In this context, of course, nearly any change is bad.

Entrepreneurs must critically understand the intent of their superfans when evaluating comments and feedback. They must understand whether the core underlying opinion relates to the success and utility of a company's product or that of narrative perception. And if it's focused on narrative perception, entrepreneurs must seek to understand the underlying roots of it and whether they can even address the concerns at hand.

Break away when you need to grow

Even with the negative feedback, Disney still launched the Genie service. In many ways, the company balanced the opinions of superfans with the reality of a changing market, uniquely understanding the need to disrupt themselves before a competitor were to do it from the outside.

Many fast-growing companies face this unique challenge as well. The initial community of core users or customers or users may not reflect where the company's product needs to evolve in order to scale and face down the competition. Founders and entrepreneurs in this scenario have little choice; they must choose the path of innovation over stagnancy. Survival depends on it.

Nothing exemplifies this more than Apple's embrace of Microsoft products in 1997. At the announcement, then-"temporary CEO" Steve Jobs was greeted with significant audience boos. And yet Apple knew that in order to grow the company and survive, they had to embrace disruptive change, even if it would challenge their diehard fans. The key in this complicated process is to preserve the core values of the company while understanding the disruptive innovation that needs to take place to scale and succeed.

Related: How to Build a Core Community Around Your Product

The give and take of change

Entrepreneurs are frequently told to focus on building for a core group of users or superfans and rapidly scale product adoption from there. And yet what happens if the opinions of these superfans or early adopters are increasingly wrong as the business scales and needs to change? How do entrepreneurs manage and account for this in order to stay competitive? First, entrepreneurs must focus on seeking out the broadest possible opinion; not just those who make headlines. Second, entrepreneurs must critically examine the words and language used by fans to describe their opinions as they seek to understand intent. Third, entrepreneurs must be willing to break away from their core users and embrace disruptive change if it's in their company's best interest. It's not like you can sit around waiting for a genie to grant your wishe for long-lasting success.

Alex Gold

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Founder & General Partner, Harvest Venture Partners

Alex Gold is the founder and general partner of Harvest Venture Partners, an early-stage venture firm building breakthrough financial-technology businesses. Previously, Gold was the co-founder and chief marketing officer at Myia Health and Venture Partner at BCG Digital Ventures.

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