We all know what it’s like to be a fan. Have you ever bought a magazine just because your celebrity crush was on the cover? Or preordered an album before hearing it out of loyalty to your favorite band? Sometimes it’s purely sentimental, like cheering for the same team your dad cheered for every Sunday. Sometimes we’re moved by admiration, like a writer mailing a letter of appreciation to an influential author.

Every now and then, people surpass mere fandom and develop an obsessive, all-consuming love so extreme that they require a new label. I’ve coined them the “superfans.” Justin Bieber has a lot of fans, but not all of them would wait in line for three days and miss their senior prom to see him perform. You have to have a serious case of “Bieber Fever” to be that delusional—I mean, er, dedicated.

You don’t have to be a pop star to inspire superfans. Everyday products and companies also have superfans who show their allegiance by buying, tweeting, commenting, reviewing, and starting conversations online simply because they want to. You may not know it yet, but your brand has a loyal, enthusiastic following just waiting to be discovered and nurtured into screaming, fainting superfans.

The Super Value of Superfans

Superfans are highly valuable to your brand because they represent a predictable, reliable customer base that will help spread your message across all channels. Superfans deliver value in multiple forms: from engagement and loyalty, to active content generation and social influence, and of course purchase and repeat purchases.

Someone who leaves a comment on your Facebook wall may be talking about you elsewhere. When you see that person as an individual, and not a tally mark, you might dig deeper and find that they also mentioned your brand on their personal blog, Instagrammed a photo of your product, and left a review on a consumer forum. Upon closer inspection, these multichannel impressions may be contributing directly to sales. Because of the many forms of value they willingly provide, our superfans are our superheroes.

Look Beyond Buzz to Find Real Value

Most companies lack a model for how to activate their superfans and build a measurable business case around them. Even huge, household name brands stumble sometimes to take advantage of all the value their followers offer because they treat them like just that: followers. Earlier this year, Coca-Cola dropped a dramatic statement saying that “online buzz has no measurable impact on short-term sales.” People were puzzled; how can the most socially engaged brand, with millions of followers, see no benefit from social?

Coca-Cola’s initial finding reveals the pitfalls many companies run into when trying to tie social activity to business value. “Buzz” meant they were only counting the numbers of likes, tweets, and mentions in comments.

Social media strategy and measurement needs to go beyond this. Enter, the superfan. My concept of the superfan does two unique things. First, it puts the person behind the social activity front and center. Second, it incorporates social activity as only one of three key components brands must look at to assess the total lifetime value of a superfan. It also merges traditional business metrics for lifetime value, such as average order value and total spend, and how influential the person is in the circles that matter.

What About the Bottom Line?

Merely counting the number of likes, tweets, or followers is a shallow way to measure your social media impact. If you’re not engaging the individuals behind the tweets, you’re wasting a whole lot of superfan power. These numbers are only one component of a value-rich relationship that leads to deeper engagement and loyalty, more predictable purchase behavior, and critical new brand assets like user-generated content. When calculating the value of the superfan relationship, you can factor in consistent, future cash flow from purchase, contributions to social assets, and greater influence … making them a marketer’s best investment.

If you want to learn more about activating superfans to derive value and build a measurable, predictable business case around them, vote to bring my panel to SXSW 2014. Cast your vote and share the session by September 6, 2013, and gain deeper insights into the value of social.

Also, check in later this week for part 2: “Your Own League of Superfans: Three Types to Recruit.”