Four Kitchens

The Future of Content episode 43: Building fandoms with Jenny Stiven

47 Min. ReadDigital strategy

The Future of Content episode 43 with Jenny Stiven

Key ideas

  • Building thriving fan communities around a franchise involves actively fostering fan loyalty and maintaining relationships long after product releases.
  • Understanding fan communities and engaging beyond the digital realm are crucial for sustainable audience development, as highlighted by Jenny Stiven’s experiences with the Stargate franchise.
  • The future of franchise audience development will be shaped by technology, emphasizing the need to leverage technology for fan connection and meaningful content creation, while also considering the potential of unique worlds and the importance of digital agencies in fostering fandom infrastructure.

Our guest

In a world increasingly characterized by fandoms and fan communities, the art of cultivating a passionate, engaged audience around a franchise is both an art and a science. In this podcast episode, we delve into the intricacies of audience development with fandom expert Jenny Stiven

Stiven has a wealth of experience from working on notable franchises like Stargate, and shares invaluable insights into the dynamics of building thriving fan communities. A key takeaway from her discussion is the importance of not presuming fan loyalty, but actively fostering it. Stiven emphasizes the need to cultivate relationships with fans, not just before and during the release of a product, but also long after, to ensure sustained engagement

One of the critical aspects of audience development that Stiven explores is the art of understanding and engaging with fan communities. The creation of sustainable, engaged communities requires building meaningful relationships with fans, identifying where the audience is, and engaging beyond the digital realm. It involves being attuned to fan conversations and maintaining momentum after content creation. Her experiences with the Stargate franchise underscore the lessons she shares

The conversation also covers the aspect of canon and fan engagement in universes. Stiven points out that nurturing fanbases requires understanding the content and intellectual property before creating a fandom. The interpretation of characters can be used to create diverse fanbases, and different mediums like animation can engage fans in varied ways

The episode delves into a case study on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. It discusses how the film bridged the gap between movies, digital pieces, and animation to create something entertaining, marketable, and meaningful to fans. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the content and marketing it correctly to fans to ensure success

Looking ahead, the future of franchise audience development is set to be significantly influenced by technology. Stiven underscores the importance of leveraging technology to find and connect with fans, build relationships, and create meaningful content that keeps them engaged. She also highlights the potential of Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth series in creating a unique world and fandom that remains unexplored.

Episode transcript

Todd Nienkerk: Welcome to The Future of Content. Howdy everyone. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. Today I’m speaking with Jenny Stiven, who is a fandom expert. She works in audience development and she has a really interesting role in the content creation and entertainment space. Her job is bridging fandom with intellectual property. So this is the person that you would call if you are looking to build or expand a fan base around a franchise that you own or have created. So she works with movie studios, television studios. She works with authors. She works with comic books fandom. In this case, we mostly talk about sci-fi and fantasy and things like that, but fandom really means anything from sports to a series of books that you like, music that you like to listen to. If you’re a fan of something, you’re part of a fandom, and that’s what we talk about at length. Jenny is the founder and principal of Clio Consulting, and she’s worked with all kinds of brands. One that stuck out to me, just because it’s something that I kind of grew up with. She worked on the fandom and audience development for the X-Files in the ’90s, connecting with fans on gopher sites and usenet forums and things that were very, very cutting edge at the time and very formative to what fandom means today, but were extremely cutting edge. So this was a super, super fun conversation, and we actually wound up talking for almost a full hour after we ended the interview — just about all kinds of stuff that we both really geek out on and enjoy. So I had a really great time during this conversation, and I think that you will enjoy it as well, especially if you like to do a deep dive into the MCU and Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a personal favorite of mine. Enjoy

Todd Nienkerk: Fandom, right? What is fandom to people who don’t necessarily identify as that, or even know that that’s a thing they could identify as? How would you describe it to a fandom layperson?

Jenny Stiven: Well, the easiest way to do this is to find out what do you like. Do you like sports? Do you like books? Do you like any entertainment? Or it could be that you love doing development, and you’re a coder, and you are a fan of gaming. Any of those are fandoms. If you are dedicated to a particular subject or topic that you love, you’re a fan and you’re part of a fandom. Usually, a fandom is just a group of fans that have gathered around a topic, whatever that topic is, and it could be that you’re a — n my case, an Oakland, now Las Vegas, Raiders fan. It could be that you are a soccer fan. It could be any number of teams that you follow, or, in my case, what I do for a living, is that it’s a particular entertainment and an IP that you love, whether it’s a book, a movie, a series

Todd Nienkerk: Got it. And I think most people would associate fans with things that are sort of maybe stereotypically geeky in some way. And so, like, sci-fi, or maybe the Twilight series, or fantasy, or something like that. So I’m curious because that, for some reason, my mind immediately goes to that, also maybe because I am one of those people about a great number of things. But, as you probably can — I wore a special shirt for today’s show

Jenny Stiven: In fact, it’s my favorite. I love the shirt. The shirt’s great

Todd Nienkerk: It’s a combination of my obsession with Disney Parks and also Star Wars, which are now one in the same. I’m not complaining

Jenny Stiven: Nicely done. I love it

Todd Nienkerk: Yeah, yes, but I wonder, why do you think that there is more gravity or more pull towards things that are sort of like geeky, and what does “geeky” mean? I mean, is it, is it? Does it? Is it a prerequisite to be a fan in order to be?

Jenny Stiven: No, no, not at all. Because, if you think about it, we have NASA fans, we have science fans, and those could be considered “geeky.” I think there’s two groups of thought about this. So if you’re a sports fan, that’s a given, right? That’s been around forever. You might even say that might have been the first fandoms. It could be any kind of following that has a passion to it. So anybody who’s passionate with another group of people that are passionate are part of a fandom. We didn’t call it that until, I think, I forget who coined it, but it was, you know, early 1940s, 1950s. So it did, to a large degree, come out of sports or comics. So you’ve got these two groups of thought: that there is the non-geeky and then the geeky. And I think that the reason we have so much geeky fandom is that all of us gravitated together when we were kids because it wasn’t popular. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t considered OK. I was lucky, I had parents who were geeks and so reading and comic books and match-book cars and all of this was OK. I could combine all of my Barbies, and Hot Wheels, and comic books, and I could be whatever I wanted, but for a lot of my friends that wasn’t supported. So we all gathered together at school or in the neighborhood because it wasn’t normal. It was not accepted. Quote, unquote. So you have all of us come of age, and we start entering into positions of power. And you have people who are making decisions who were Gen X, or are Gen X. And suddenly it’s OK to be a geek and to follow these fandoms and you see this organic growth and some of the first for what I do, the first entertainment fans. Some of those first entertainment fandoms are, of course, Star Wars. But in terms of digital phantoms, it’s X-Files is one of the very first. They were on usenet groups and gopher groups super early on and Buffy, and so you have two very geeky properties who knew because their, their, their owners, their creators knew where to go online because they were online, and that’s, that’s the difference being geeky school now, because we’re the ones that are saying, “Hey, this is fun, this is cool. Let’s all do it together.”

Todd Nienkerk: There are certain hallmarks of — I don’t want to confuse fandom and, like, geekdom. So maybe, maybe there are certain hallmarks of like things that are geeky, and you’ve touched on several already, but one that really stands out is this idea of it like not being particularly popular necessarily, but there seems to be — It’s not a paradox, but there’s a weird relationship now today with the idea of geekiness and geeky things being unpopular, and yet the most popular entertainment out there is very geeky. And it is a MCU, it’s Star Wars, it’s Disney. It’s —

Jenny Stiven: We found our bliss, basically, but right. But there is this dichotomy, and it’s something that I deal with with my clients and for myself when I’m doing the work every week. Because, obviously, for anything that you’re developing in this area, you have to go where your audience is. Well, your audience is not always in the most quote-unquote popular places online, so you have to dig a little deeper for it. So, even though these are very popular IPs, the fandoms are not always in the obvious places. So that dichotomy still exists, and there’s a couple of reasons. It is a naturally rebellious place to be — in a fandom. So if you love whatever you’re passionate about, and if it’s a book, a movie, a series — science geeks, NASA geeks are some of the most amazing geeks that I’ve worked with. But there’s a bit of a rebelliousness in you that you chose this IP because it spoke to you when everything else didn’t. So you’re holding on to that, and you want to be with all like-minded people. Well, you aren’t necessarily going to be in the most obvious of places because you want to protect. You want to protect this fandom. You want to protect yourself. You want to protect the conversations. So there is this constant push-you pull-you between the popularity of it and the IP and the want and the need by that fandom to protect it and to not have it become accepted by everybody. Because this was something that you and yours protected and we loved it, and in entertainment you cannot have any more dichotomous two goals than we need to make —

Todd Nienkerk: You want more of it, but you appreciate the scarcity of it, because it’s the scarcity that makes it special. So you want more, but if you do get more, it had better be the right kind of more

Jenny Stiven: Exactly, exactly. And I’ve been on the wrong side of that, where we provided more and it wasn’t the right more. But that’s okay, because you try, you keep putting it out there, you keep trying. I’ve been on the side of the fandom where I have not liked what has come out. A lot of my friends make fun of me because this is what I do for a living, and it’s because I’m lucky, and I’m a geek myself, and I’ve been a fan my whole life. But I get to do this for a living. I have to be very careful because they make fun of me. I am the easiest audience. Easiest fan audience ever. I still love my Raiders. I still love my Chelsea football club. I still adore Star Wars, and I will go see all the movies and I think they’re all — they all have something to speak for them. I am not the most discerning critical fan that there is. And so I have to work very hard on the other side of it as that fandom marketer, as I’m looking for content to not go with what I think works. I have to really listen to my audience, and it goes back to that dichotomy of “just because it’s labeled Star Wars” or “just because I worked on Star Wars and Aliens and Predators — Just because it’s labeled doesn’t mean it’s good.” It doesn’t mean it’s right and it could be great and it wasn’t what the fans wanted

Todd Nienkerk: Right. There’s a lot of this kind of content that I assume, and of course, one of the other hallmarks of geeky things is that it’s usually rooted around content in some pretty literal way, whether it’s comic books or manga or movies or TV shows or whatever, right, it’s something that it’s a story. It’s rooted in a story of some sort. One of the more interesting content experiences I’ve had recently in this space is with the Star Wars Andor series, which has become my personal favorite of all of the Star Wars stories so far, and it’s I don’t think it’s because of, but it’s worth noting that it is like the least Star Wars-y story that’s been made. And, of course, there’s no Jedi. There’s nothing supernatural, or mystical, or anything whatsoever that happens. It’s just like, everyday lives and corporate intrigue and conflict at a level where we can all identify

Jenny Stiven: And it’s not. And this is where Star Wars, I think, really did right by its IP and branched out. It’s based on the Joseph Campbell myth, the hero myth. That myth is based on a flawed hero and that good and evil are good and evil. But there’s a lot of gray in between, and when you’re making that mythic, heroic journey, you may make choices that are gray areas. That’s what Andor is — he’s the gray hero. He’s not an anti-hero, but he’s a gray hero. What I think was hard for a lot of fans, and this is where IPs and studios and owners of IP have to be very careful, there’s room for more than one type of content. There is room for more than one type of fan and the content they like in something like Star Wars. In some of the others, not as much. You have a more narrow field in your fandom, and again, that’s part of what I have to look for. Everything can’t be in fan service. So there has to be a balance. There has to be a balance of “where’s your fan, what are they looking for, and does it serve the story?” And if you have somebody, like they do at Lucasfilm, that they hired, I think they hired Pedro about 15 years ago. The original creator of the Wikipedia, and he was hired to come in, and he’s now head of creative content Well, actually, the creative story group at Lucasfilm

Todd Nienkerk: I didn’t know that

Jenny Stiven: And he’s someone I just admire so much and I was very, very lucky to work very briefly with him and he is very creative, but it’s in service of the story, while also thinking about what the fans are looking for in that payoff. And one thing I’ll just never forget him saying is, “Look, Star Wars isn’t just one story,” and he kept saying that over and over again in a couple of our meetings. That’s really stuck with me, and that’s true for any really broad franchise. And what you lose sometimes in those conversations with studio execs, even in the marketing of something that’s already done, is it doesn’t have to be just one story. They do not have to be sticking to just one aspect of this broader franchise story. I think one of the biggest conversations and most creative conversations I ever had about Bond was wanting to explore other stories within Bond. I don’t know if they’ll ever do it, but that would have been brilliant. It doesn’t have to be just about him. It could be that you’re doing supplemental stories that explore these people who support him. I don’t know if they’ll do that, but that was an amazing idea and that came from — I think that came from Barbara Broccoli and her partner Michael at Eon. That they want to do that. How do you do that? How do you get to that and how do you still honor the original franchise? So those are the questions that the big franchises have to answer. If they are owned by somebody like Kevin Feige, Barbara Broccoli, Lucasfilm in this case, several people over there own it — then you have people, for the most part, who are genuinely committed and dedicated to the story and to the fan, which then makes our job easier. It’s when you have a franchise that’s being cranked out by a studio that doesn’t have that anchor, it doesn’t have that creative anchor, it doesn’t have people who are aware of what’s going on with fans. That’s when I get hired. Or, unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t happen, and you end up with maybe a great franchise, but every campaign is a flash in the pan. It’s just during the window of when it comes out and that’s it. There’s no relationship that’s being built. You had somebody on your show recently. It was about education, but it was so spot-on about the community, that the community is pretty much where I spend all my time. Whatever it is, I’m helping develop an IP in a franchise right now that’s a sci-fi fantasy series of books. In that case, we are developing a fandom. There are sci-fi, fantasy, existing fandoms, but we are slowly, organically pulling in people to this franchise. That community has to be nurtured. It can’t be that we spend time on those fans and we spend time out there on socials, at events, in PR, and that it’s only for a short window of the book launch. You’re betraying that community that you’ve convinced to come over and spend time with you by dropping them. Just like any relationship, you’re literally ghosting your community, your fandom, by doing that. A lot of studios, a lot of IP owners still follow the old-school windowing of campaigns, of marketing campaigns. You know how that is, but for anybody that doesn’t, marketing campaigns usually start anywhere from three months to six weeks prior to the release of a particular product. Sometimes it’s longer. In entertainment, it tends to be three to six months, because sometimes you really want to build up the teaser for it. The problem with that is that the focus is so intense during production, and post-production, and the release date that the post-release date is not treated as part of that campaign. And so that life cycle for that fan becomes very short, where they’ve got all the attention, all this content, and then all of a sudden, there is nothing. And what happens is that fan shrugs and moves on and says, “Well, I’m not going to keep going back and checking for more content on that YouTube channel. They’re not there.” That’s such a loss. And it’s something that it’s really hard for me sometimes to convince people, because it’s money, that you have to spend time. Spend the time, nurture that relationship, and once you have nurtured that relationship, don’t presume they’re just going to show up because you’ve got a really cool IP. Just because you’re — I mean, we just saw this, just this summer, with The Flash, and that one had multiple issues. But when you go back and you look at that movie, it’s not as horrifying as everybody thought it was. The problem was that it was so built up and that fandom and that relationship with that fandom was so presumed that they would come that when it dropped like a rock in its second weekend, people blamed every — I mean, the finger-pointing was insane. Okay, the story wasn’t perfect. You had obvious star issues, but the larger problem was you didn’t do anything to court that fan base other than shove an enormous amount of trailers and teasers and content. Tell them, “No, no, no, no, no, it’s fine, Miller’s fine, it’s not going to be a problem.” You didn’t pay attention to the fans and you didn’t nurture that relationship, and it dropped like a rock because of it

Todd Nienkerk: So, with what you do in franchise audience development, when you are brought in to solve a problem like that or preempt a problem like that, what are the steps you take leading up to and, it sounds like more importantly, after the release of something, to cultivate that audience and, I suppose, ideally grow it, not just sustain it to the next iteration?

Jenny Stiven: Sustaining is not the goal. I mean, sustainable and maintained audiences and relationships are certainly part of it, but it’s not your ultimate goal. Your ultimate goal is to keep growing. So the first thing I have to do is, if it’s an IP that I’ve already worked with, then I already know where that audience is. But I don’t presume to know that they’re still where I thought they were. So the first thing you have to do is you have to go look for where the audience is. Where’s your fandom hanging out? Where are they looking to get your information? And that, for me, is both online and offline. It’s not just digital. So you have to look at where they are spending their time, where are they looking for information, and, more importantly, what information and what content are they looking for. And that means I have to go and talk to fans. So I do a lot of events. I do a lot of online talking to people. I’ve developed a lot of relationships with a lot of fandoms in different IPs, whether it was for a client or just because I’m interested on my own that I spend a lot of time talking and reading what people are saying. You know, there’s a lot to be said for Reddit. You can’t go in and just talk. You have to go and read, and listen, and listen, and listen, and listen, and read some more. Because it’s just, it is a wealth of insight into what fans like, don’t like. And if you just skim it, you might get a really wrong impression based on the day. You have to look at all of the different variables that have happened. Was there a teaser that was released that day? Or was there news about the star that day? Or, you know, was there a silly article that came out from, you know, a rumor site? So you have to look at all of those variables. When you’re reading through it, look at what they’re talking about and then you need to spend more time. Like every time you think you’re going to say something, don’t. Go read some more. Spend some more time

Todd Nienkerk: What a great bit of advice just for everybody, in every situation, all of the time. Every time you want to say something, don’t. Listen and read

Jenny Stiven: Yeah, I think that’s it. That is so much of my job, and I’m a talker, so it is hard for me to not jump into conversations and I really have to work at it because I’ve got to. I have to be able to hear what they’re asking for. Or what they’re giving feedback about. If you’re saying, “Okay, this was cool, but it really wasn’t what we were looking for, and, “We liked it, but we don’t really care about that story,” that’s really important for me to see and not take it personally. You have to really kind of divide that off and not take it personally. When they don’t like something you did, it’s. That’s hard

Todd Nienkerk: So what’s an example, then, of something that when you say, like something that you did, are you involved in any way in the creation of that? I don’t want to say IP, but like that movie or that TV show, or —?

Jenny Stiven: Yeah, sometimes it just depends on the client. So I worked, and I worked on Stargate for 20 years. And one of the things that I was involved with was the rebirth of it in 2015. And so I got to be part of the application and we built the platform and we built the content and I was directly involved with the web series that we started, which was going to be. It was called Origins, and we were going to do an origin story for multiple characters. So we had Chris Judge lined up to do an origin story and we had everybody involved down the road. But the first one we did, we can only get the rights to the movie. We couldn’t get — ironically, at MGM — we couldn’t get the rights yet to do anything that was out of the Brown Right universe. Now we subsequently did, but the problem was that we told a really fun story, but it was a web series? It wasn’t. We’re not talking, you know, amazingly high production value. The problem was that — and this was partially on me — we presented it as “Stargate is back.” That was not accurate. Ad what that did was it set the fans up to have an expectation that we couldn’t possibly deliver on. And if we what we had done and I was excited about it, I was a Stargate fan. I had been. I had worked on it during production, during broadcast, as digital marketing, so this was a really amazing project to work on. What I would go back and do differently is I wouldn’t present it that way. I would have presented it as “we’re doing this supplemental story.” Not “Stargate is back.” “We’re doing a supplemental Stargate story and we really want you guys to come along for the ride.” That would have been a better approach because the expectation was so high we could. There was no. Unless we had all of the original cast and Brad Wright, it wasn’t going to work. Now, ironically, we got Brad Wright after that on board and so he was going to write and we were good. We have a whole bunch of things set up and then COVID happened and it went the way of the dodo bird, unfortunately. But that’s a perfect example of I was lucky enough to be part of that IP, that development, or the further development of that IP. I treasure that experience and, man, I learned a lot and I was coming off 17 years having worked on it, and I still was learning that that was not the way to approach that

Todd Nienkerk: And so, after you were involved in, in this case, the production of the content itself, what are some things that you would do after the fact to maintain and grow that momentum? Does it require that there’s something else coming, or are there things that you can do without there necessarily being?

Jenny Stiven: Yeah, that’s a great question, and that’s that’s the question, I think, at the heart for every studio, because that’s a money question, ultimately, unfortunately. So, whether you are a publisher, because I’m working with some authors now, whether you are an entertainment studio, whether you were a production company doing something on your own, or even somebody like Webtoons right, it doesn’t matter. But whatever content creator you are, it has to come down to, okay, now that we’ve done that, what’s our five-year plan? We had somebody who was working with us on starting it and then on the another project, and she was brilliant at that at the five-year plan Okay, cool, Jen, this is a great plan. Now, what’s the five-year plan? And I was right there with her, because that’s that gets back to my nurturing the relationship with the fans. You can’t just drop them off. So we developed a five-year plan. So here’s the main content that we’ve just dropped. Now we’re going to do a super-fans. It was basically an activation, so we had them send in videos, we picked super fans, and then they got to be our ambassadors at events and things like that. So we did that next. Then the next one was that we released new content by high-level writers from the show on the platform. So we had beats to do all the way. That costs money. And MGM, God love them, you know, committed three years with us and we were creating content on a regular basis. And there were, you know, two people, Karen Dixon and another, who were really amazing at creating that content. They, and here’s the big thing: They were fans themselves and new Stargate inside out, backwards, and knew the franchise. If I’m going to stop for a second, that is so important in what I do. I’m a consultant, so I have a stable of people that I hire. And I hire them based on, do you know this IP that we’ve just been hired to do? Are you a fan of it and have you spent time with it? Those are really important, and if I don’t have somebody in my stable, then I have to go find somebody. You cannot have people working on this IP for your clients that don’t know it inside out and backwards. And there’s two major reasons for that. The studios have so much going on. There’s no way that their in-house producers and brand managers can know the IP. That’s what they’re hiring us to do. When I worked at FOX, I had 120 titles. And I’m a fan and I’m a geek. I couldn’t know all my titles, and I hated that I couldn’t know them all. So that’s our job, that’s what they hire us for. So therefore, I need to make sure I’m bringing in experts in that field. The second reason is the fans expected of you. You cannot go into a digital fandom and not know what you’re talking about. We have seen over and over and over again studios and IP owners getting slapped down publicly by fans because they made a mistake. And as much as I wish James Gunn would sometimes not be out there as much publicly talking, I give him massive credit because what he does is he connects with the fans and he listens to them. He doesn’t always agree with them, he doesn’t get flustered, he doesn’t let them get to them, but he says, “Hey, this is what I’m doing. What do you think?” And that says a lot about someone who’s now in charge of an entire DCEU that he knows fandom

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Todd Nienkerk: Right. And so the consequence of not having somebody who both knows the content, knows the IP, and loves it is that it comes across as factually incorrect, and so it starts to generate that froth of like, this isn’t canon and this isn’t in character at all. So you get that whole thing. But I imagine also there’s the problem of just like, inauthenticity, and you wind up focusing on the wrong things or you sort of misunderstand what’s actually interesting about a character, or I mean, there are so many. I’m probably manufacturing this example, but to take, I don’t know, Batman, for example. There are core parts of this character that can be played in different ways, and I am by no means like a Batman expert or a Batman superfan, but it’s something that I think we can all relate to. So I bring it up as an example. The Keaton Batman is sort of like a lovable, charming playboy, but not like too much, just a little bit. And he can kind of play dumb when he needs to, but he’s also sort of like classically a hero. Yeah, so you have certain expectations then of that kind of Batman. And then you get into the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Batman. I guess credit would actually go to. Oh, I’m blanking. Miller?

Jenny Stiven: Oh, Miller. Yeah, yeah

Todd Nienkerk: Where it’s focusing on the more brooding aspects of somebody who’s fundamentally damaged and traumatized by a childhood experience and not really being raised in a stable environment and yet having all of this insane wealth to draw from and that could make somebody —

Jenny Stiven: Right

Todd Nienkerk: That could really lead them down the wrong path, and maybe did it

Jenny Stiven: That is more who he is. I mean, we have the Tim Burton that started that whole, I would say, era of that side of Batman, which was great and that’s fine. But that is — There are books that poke fun at him, or certainly the Adam West original theories. But to be fair, Miller and the other ones who did those books, that’s much more in keeping with the original Batman psychology. To your point, though, I think, is that there’s room for both of those or more

Todd Nienkerk: Right

Jenny Stiven: I mean, the Batman animated series is probably one of my favorites. I am not a Batman fan. It’s just not my thing. I’ve tried. I love the Batman animated series, and it’s probably the only thing I can get into for Batman. And it is not lost on me that I can really get into that because it’s animated, and I don’t know if that’s why that makes a difference for me, that it doesn’t feel quite so dark and heavy and it’s harder — I tend to be pretty Wonder Woman-ish in my superheroes, but Teen Titans, both Teen Titans Go, and the Teen Titans live action, I really liked it. Doom Patrol; I loved it. So I think that there are paths for all fans, and if the studios or the IP owners and the franchise owners aren’t paying attention to that or, in this case, if the studio is not listening to the DC publishers who know this, who know the book, who know those different approaches, that you’re not going to get all the fans. And sure, 65 million people showed up to watch Todd’s Batman with Robert Patton, but that’s not all of the Batman fans. And you have to be okay with that. And then you have to make sure that you’re nurturing that fanbase. One thing that I find disappointing is that there’s no in-between right now between that and his sequel. I would have loved to have seen — I mean, we’re going to get the Penguin series. But there’s so much time in between these where I think DCEU people, because it’s its own separate entity, so it’s Warner Brothers and DC people, could be doing more there. At least as a fan I can say that, and as a marketer, as a content marketer for fans, you definitely could be doing more, and I think that’s where Marvel excels. DC’s publishing has a tendency not to parallel what’s going on in its DCEU and its entertainment universe. MCU does so Marvel publishing and they went through a rough patch when they were acquired from Disney. But they got into a really good pattern now of paralleling and offering alternatives to their MCU. That’s huge

Todd Nienkerk: What’s an example of that, because that sounds like a pretty important point. When you say paralleling things, what’s a real-world example of things that have happened in parallel?

Jenny Stiven: Sure, so during the Avengers arc, they had parallel books that were being published that were supplemental —

Todd Nienkerk: Oh, different media. Okay

Jenny Stiven: — that were supplemental to that. Now, some of them were graphic novels, some of them were one-offs that were Free Comic Book Day, things like that, but then they had other arcs that referenced the cinematic universe but didn’t rely on it. That allowed fans who were maybe diehard MCU fans to say, “Oh cool, I’ve seen it, I get it, but I really want to go follow this character instead.” It is, yeah, it is. Guardians of the Galaxy is a perfect example of —

Todd Nienkerk: Yes, I was just about to bring up Guardians

Jenny Stiven: James Gunn pulled them out of obscurity

Todd Nienkerk: Frankly, yes, and that is a weird title to — and it’s become my personal favorite, and I mean, I’m actually just staring at some of those LEGO minifigs on my desk right now

Jenny Stiven: I love it

Todd Nienkerk: That is in terms of fandom and developing fandom. What really strikes me about Guardians is I, so my weird journey with the MCU was I actually ignored the whole thing all the way through, mainly because I had a chip on my shoulder about X-Men for a very long time

Jenny Stiven: As you should. I’m sorry

Todd Nienkerk: Thanks for that. I feel validated

Jenny Stiven: I worked on it and I can say as you should

Todd Nienkerk: Okay, it’s nothing personal

Jenny Stiven: Hey, I don’t take it that way. I mean, Logan and Wolverine are the only ones that I thought were decent, so —

Todd Nienkerk: Yes. Exactly. So I kind of ignored it. And then my wife was on a road trip one day and I signed up for Disney+ and I was like, “I think I ought to see what this MCU thing is about. What made me start was watching Endgame

Jenny Stiven: Oh my God, you went backwards?

Todd Nienkerk: I went backwards

Jenny Stiven: Oh, that’s interesting

Todd Nienkerk: So I was like, “Oh, how did that happen?” And then I watched Infinity War. It was like, “Oh, how did that happen?”

Jenny Stiven: That’s awesome. I think that’s really interesting

Todd Nienkerk: Yes, so I did. I did a third path, yeah. Some people do it in the order in which the films are released. Some people do it in chronological order according to the universe, which is offered in Disney+. I just did it backwards

Jenny Stiven: I love that

Todd Nienkerk: And I actually really enjoyed it because it was like, it allowed me to know, to like telegraph, where things are headed and then be delighted by where they start, knowing how they walk to it, right? So I wound up watching this week — this one week that she was out — every movie

Jenny Stiven: And did you?

Todd Nienkerk: I watched every movie. I had to watch like four or five a day, right? And when she got back, I think I had, the one that stuck out to me the most was Guardians Volume One, and I forget how she wound up watching it. I don’t know if I convinced her or she sort of stumbled into it or what, but she wound up really loving Guardians. Oh, you know what it was: She went to Disneyland and did the reskin Tower of Terror Guardians breakout

Jenny Stiven: Sure

Todd Nienkerk: Yeah, so she did that and was like I don’t know what any of this is, it seems great because everybody’s loving it, right and like the music is good and you know who’s that fuzzy guy and like, right. So she watched the movie and really loved it and is really, is really passionate about Guardians. And particularly, I mean Guardians Volume Three, in my opinion, is the best of the three

Jenny Stiven: And it’s a progression, right. VVolume Oneis your intro, and it’s more light-hearted. Volume Two, with the death, certainly has its — Okay, we’re now going to get more depth into what these characters have gone through multiple deaths. If you look at the fact that Gamora dies in Avengers, that not I hope I’m not giving that away for anybody by this time that you know, the third one it’s seeing. This is where I think James Gunn is brilliant. And wait, I do want to get back to —

Todd Nienkerk: Sure, sure, yes, go ahead

Jenny Stiven: But this is where I think, and I’m hoping that Gunn brings us to Superman, because I adore Superman, and I would love to see him do something really different. His progression, Suicide Squad, I think, is great, but it was more like he was having fun with that. If you look at the audience, there’s a method to his conceptual storytelling, to the arc. And when you step back and look at all three, which is what he’s been saying for years — he said, “This is a trilogy. I have a point. There’s a goal here. I promise you, I’m not just plucking these guys out of obscurity. There’s a story here that I think is worth telling you.” And this was his opinion, did not get the depth in the graphic novels that it should now see. I find that fascinating. So he took something from the MC publishing — I’m sorry, from the Marvel Universe publishing that he thought didn’t get the time that it should have. And he played it out. Now, to go back to what we were talking about before, then, you had supplemental pieces that were digital, that were animated, that were shorts, that we saw on Disney+, that were published graphic novels

Todd Nienkerk: The Adventures of Baby Groot and, I mean, yes. And so the parallelism of yes. So they had the trilogy of the movies, which my wife saw and really enjoyed, and we’ve watched the third one many, many times. And we had a friend over who hadn’t seen the third movie yet. So we’re like, well, we’ll have to pop, like buckle up, but you know also, you know. And so we watched that. And then it got me thinking like, “Wait, okay, I know Gamora died and I know this is new Gamora, but I kind of forget how exactly that happened.” And she and I were sitting there, our friend and I, and we were like, okay, wait, but okay, in this thing, I remember that happened. And so we wound up like putting on Endgame and trying to rewind through it to find the part where all of that stuff is explained. And I had forgotten how much in Endgame and the others, especially towards the end, the guardians show up. And I could tell that my wife was like, “Wait, there are all these other Guardian stories that I didn’t have to know in order to enjoy this trilogy, but also like explain some of the origins of all of this and like why was it —”

Jenny Stiven: And how brilliant is that writing? There are, I think, very few people in this world, in my world, entertainment world, who not only are great conceptors, great writers, great showrunners, or directors or producers, but also good at marketing their own material. So Shonda Rhimes is one. She is brilliant at writing. She’s brilliant at creating franchises that are dramas and soap operas, and yet she also is very savvy about how to market to her audiences. And she knows it’s not for everybody. There’s no way it’s going to be for everybody. Same with James Gunn. James Gunn is very smart about, “Okay, this is what I want to tell. This is how I want to tell it. This is the arc I’m going to tell. You have to guarantee me I can do this arc, otherwise this doesn’t make sense.” That’s what he’s doing with Peacemaker. That’s what he did with Guardians. Now I know he had a goal with Suicide Squad. He didn’t get to do that. That’s too bad, because I know that there was an arc he was telling. There were two or three characters he was going to focus on. So I’m not sure if that will ever happen. Probably not, but that’s so key that when he’s writing this he’s not just thinking about service to those characters in the story he’s thinking about, “How is this going to appeal to the fans? And how am I going to make sure that this fits in the broader Marvel universe? But it’s its own thing.” And that I mean, I’m a fan, I do this for a living, and my brain starts to short out at that. I’ve got whiteboards all over the place that do all my connections in IP to make sure that I’m not forgetting something when I’m making a recommendation, but especially when it comes to lore and canon. Right now I’m working, like I told you, on a sci-fi fantasy and the lore is deep. It’s like I have to keep going back to the Bible, and hey, I’ve got an author who wrote a Bible, so cool. But, I mean, I’m old school at that point where I’ve literally printed it out and I’ve got, you know, tags on the pages that I need to go back. I don’t know how James Gunn does it, but that’s where I hold that up as an example. So if you look at what he tried to do with Marvel and Disney marketing to make sure that the stories continue to be told as a bridge in between each of his movies, so the stories, the shorts, that was because he was saying, “I really want to continue to tell these stories, I don’t have the time to dedicate to this.” And Disney said, “We’re all over it, we got you covered, we got your back on this.” And he had to have approval on the story. Does it fit the character? Does it? You know, is this in keeping with my canon? But once that was done, then they could go do their thing. That’s really smart. Disney can do that really well. They could fail at it, but they can do it really well. Where they keep that bridge going, where they keep the fans engaged. I think what’s fascinating? To go back to you watching Endgame first. That’s the kind of thing that I love to hear about from a fan. How did they discover this IP? Well, have they discovered it? How did they discover it? Why did it appeal to them? A lot of times, when you ask somebody that, and I’m going to ask you that: What about Guardians? Why did it appeal so much to you?

Todd Nienkerk: Ooh, I think there were three things. One, it did such a great job of integrating music into the storytelling in a very appealing way. There’s a lot of movies, period, that do that. Scorsese was good at that in the ’80s and ’90s, and that really drove those, like Goodfellas, really drove those movies. Two, it had a sense of humor unlike anything that I had experienced in any other Marvel movie, and there is such a sense of humor to many of the titles in the comic books that felt missing in having eventually seen the whole body of work and everything since then is missing for most of it. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s just not. The vibe of those stories is to be funny and self-deprecating

Jenny Stiven: And that is one of Marvel’s key selling points as a publisher and always has been, going back to Stan Lee and Kirby. That or not, Kirby, Stan Lee, and I’m blanking on his partner. But that was always a definitive difference of how they talked about their content that there was a lightness, that life is tough enough, that we want to poke fun at this and we want to poke fun at being a superhero. That was always an underlying goal of Marvel. I mean, I don’t know about always, but going back to the ’50s and ’60s, so that’s — you’ve nailed a major point that I love that appealed to you. So that was something that they wanted to do was bring that back. That’s what James Gunn wanted to do, so he wanted to bring that back. Interesting

Todd Nienkerk: I didn’t realize that it was so embedded in that whole universe. But the third thing was it was a set of characters that I was not familiar with and, in my experience, growing up, and reading mostly Marvel comics but also a lot of Image and Dark Horse that I only sort of like ran into occasionally. Like I knew there was this like Star Lord. I know there were the Guardians, but it seemed like the Guardians were always linked to, like Thor and the Silver Surfer, and like that part of the Marvel world where it’s like gods and planet eaters and you know that kind of stuff. And it wound up not being that, and also characters I didn’t really know much about and so it was like a new thing, whereas I basically knew the Avengers and I basically knew, you know, a lot of that stuff. So it was fresh and I didn’t have — So I think, for better or worse, maybe I went into that with a very blank slate and so it was all new. It all felt completely new to me

Jenny Stiven: And I love that. I love that. And that’s what James Gunn was doing was taking something purposeful. And that’s what he’s doing at DC, by the way, as well. He’s going after the — twofold. What he’s doing is okay. Superman, he’s our core. There are tent poles to the DC universe, not cinematic universe, to the DC universe. I’m starting with Superman. It’s who we should have started with. Batman’s important. Justice League is important. But Superman is our number one. Now, okay, once I’ve done that, I want to go over here and pluck some of these other ones out that are fascinating character studies. If you look at what James Gunn writes about, and as problematic as Joss Whedon is, what Joss Whedon wrote about, what Shonda Rhimes writes about, what David DeVernay writes about, it’s fascinating characters. What they write about I mean, Taika Wattiti. They write about fascinating people. So it may not appeal to you, it may not be your cup of tea, but if you look at the publishing universe, whether I mean Dark Horse is one of my favorite publishers, it’s filled with fascinating characters. I mean, that is a whole underlying, I think, reason for being for comic books. It’s here are these fascinating people who have these stories that at their core basically tell morality tales and whatever it is, whatever that morality tale is that they’re telling, it’s reflecting all of the angst and the conflict and everything that we have in humanity. And what I’ve always looked at marvel, and again, this is from my generation I’d have to go back, and I used to know this and I don’t. I’d have to go back and look at Marvel and DC in action and detective comics, but they established themselves pretty early on having very different approaches in their tone, in their voice, and that’s something that I do as well. So you look for what’s the tone and the voice of the IP, and what’s the tone and the voice that the fans are looking for. So those questions I just asked you, that’s what I ask a fan. Because, guess what? You happen to hit exactly the tone and voice that James Gunn was looking for, the morality tales that he wanted to tell. But that’s not always the case. And so you need to balance, “Okay, what is a fan looking for? Is it really the story that’s being told that appeals to them, or is it something else?” And you need to gather those up, all of those, that feedback and those wants of what fans are looking for, and do your best to appeal to all of them across the spectrum, and that’s tough. You can’t. You can’t make everybody happy. So that loops you back to what’s the story, what’s the creator trying to tell? You cannot convince fans that don’t want that story, so then you have to say, okay, that group of fans I’m not going to appeal to, and then you’re honest with them about it. That’s something again that these, the creators I’ve just named, are very honest about it. They are very honest with fans and say this may not be for you. The IPs that stumble are the ones that try to be everything to all people, that try to be A to Z. And you can’t, and you certainly shouldn’t, with established characters in publishing graphic novels, comic books reinvent every four years their characters at minimum. Sometimes it’s less. So don’t be afraid to say this is my take on Superman. This is my take on Guardians of the Galaxy. You may have another take as a fan. You may not want this story. I promise you someone else is going to come up with another story that fits what you want better. Sure, people who succeed are the ones that are honest like that with fans

Todd Nienkerk: Yeah, yeah. What do you think is the future for franchise audience development? I mean, there’s a lot of technology questions there

Jenny Stiven: No small question

Todd Nienkerk: Yeah, just you know, map out your career over the next 10 years. I think a lot of people would probably immediately think about, well, there’s technology and there’s these channels, and there’s, like, you know, there’s TikTok and there’s, you know, VR. And what I mean is do you think that those are really as much of a consideration. That the technology piece is really as much of a consideration as, as opposed to things that are just more human in nature, about franchises and fandoms —

Jenny Stiven: I have to say yes, because it’s my entire career is based on both of those things. I don’t think that one is more important than the other. One is the delivery vehicle. So, yes, you have to pay attention to it. You have to. Where are your fans? And since most of the work I do is digital, then I do have to pay attention to the technology and what apps are new and what platforms, because fans are the ones that find it first. They are absolutely, unequivocally the ones that will trial and error at first. They will throw up content on their own. I mean, that’s the difference between when I was a kid and now is that fans are the ones who try new platforms, try new technologies, and, in so doing, are creating new content to try on those platforms. Before creating a brand new universe, a brand new type of content. I love that. So, yes, I have to absolutely pay attention to that. However, equal to that is the content is the story that’s being told. So it’s important to remember that the story can be told in multiple ways across multiple platforms that I just keep going back to. There was really only one thing that’s more important than those two things for me, and that’s spending the time and building a relationship with the fan, because I won’t understand where they are, what they want, what they’re looking for. If I’m not spending time with them. I’ll be guessing. And then I can’t tell my clients or benefit from those conversations. I can’t have my client benefit from that. So that’s where those two things are both important, but ultimately they fail if you don’t have an audience. It doesn’t matter, you can have the most amazing technology, which we’ve seen. Amazing technologies fail because they couldn’t find their audience because of a variety of reasons or stories that are great stories, but they couldn’t find their audience. So it’s about the fandom

Todd Nienkerk: What would your advice be to somebody maybe in search of their fandom or looking to explore that? And I have an example, and I could be completely wrong about this, because there’s a science fiction author, Peter F Hamilton, that I really like. He has written a lot and yeah, at length about a lot, but has created this for those unfamiliar. This world called the Commonwealth, and it begins with this like a lot of hard sci-fi. It begins with the introduction of a key technology that then kind of changes everything. It’s the ability to open up like wormholes and that allows humanity to populate hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of planets, and they even lose track of where humanity goes in the galaxy. And so it’s not really that far in the future because this stuff moves pretty rapidly. But he’s built, I think he did, he did like two duologies and one trilogy in this universe, and there’s probably some other stuff around it that he’s done as well. I can’t seem to find anything about him or this world and there’s a very low-activity Subreddit and that’s kind of it, it seems. But it’s the people I’ve talked to who who’ve come across these books right, love them because they’re so different and they’re so rich and there’s just so much interesting stuff going on and it just kind of feels like you very sort of rarely and randomly like meet a person who knows this, and all you want to do is deconstruct it because you have no other outlet

Jenny Stiven: And you’re so excited to find that person or that exactly right, yeah, so that’s that’s one of the things that I find Right now is being the question that’s brought to me a lot, because what I’m doing has become more popular. So when I started doing this 20 years ago, it did. I spent most of my time just convincing IP owners that this was a thing

Todd Nienkerk: So now, they should pay attention to usenet and go for it

Jenny Stiven: That you know. Listen to your fans. Don’t presume you know, I used to compare it constantly to their focus groups, the test groups that they do that in essence, all you’re doing is going to fandoms of these IPs when you’re doing these in-person focus groups. Well, hey, here’s something that can exponentially it, literally exponentially grow that focus group and you’re ignoring it. Yeah, okay, so now we’re at a place where, for the most part, I’m not having to convince IP owners that this is a thing. So then you get to fans who are saying, “Well, how come this thing that I love doesn’t have a developed fandom or worse, developed digital content, developed world building for it?” The problem is that there’s not a lot of me and there’s not a lot of digital agencies that do this, and so there’s not a lot of people that can dedicate themselves to growing those fans. Not yet. There are more and more digital agencies that are hopping on this bandwagon, which is huge. That’s great, because that means you know, my, my stable that I talked to you about earlier used to be like three people, you know. Now I’ve got 20, 30 people that I can choose from, again going back to dedicating people who know the IP. But it takes time to grow that infrastructure around. Fandom and authors are the hardest to cook because, while studios are bidding on IP Far more often now, sometimes books don’t even make it to publishing before they’ve already been bought for that story to be adapted. Which is a whole thing. There are as I mean, I’m an avid reader. You’re, obviously, an avid reader. How many authors are we fans of, where you barely can find anything about them? There are certain genres that are better at it. Romance authors are better at it because they had to be. They had to be able to do it. Nobody gave them the time of day. Nobody cared about them. It was literally dismissed as an entire genre for decades as not pertinent, even though it was making those publishers millions of dollars a year. And so romance authors were the ones who actually dedicated themselves to digital fandom. One of the first. The other are sci-fi authors and fantasy authors. But now that digital, I’m sorry, now that sci-fi fantasy is a bigger industry in and of itself, some of the authors get lost in the stampede for the next Game of Thrones, for the next, whatever it is. You know if it’s periphery or foundation on Apple, whatever it is. There are some amazing authors with massive books and IP that they’ve written that are getting ignored. And they individually don’t have the wherewithal to leverage themselves into the spotlight, any spotlight. It’s really interesting that you brought that up, because entertainment — film, movies, and series, and graphic art and novels have been my focus for 20 some-odd years, 25 years. Only recently have I started picking up authors, and it was due to COVID. I lost six contracts in 2020 from entertainment studios, and so I had to go looking for other work, and I’m a huge reader. So I thought, “Oh okay, well, I’ll go check out what these authors are doing,” and I discovered this entire world that in sci-fi, fantasy, geek, all mystery thrillers, this entire world of fandom who, on their own, are doing it. So I was just at the festival of books in San Diego. What was I telling you? All there is there is, I hate to say it, but you have to do this yourself for a while, until the infrastructure gets bigger and there’s more people who could offer help to you. Authors don’t make enough money because they’re not picked up by the publishers, and the publishers aren’t going to handle that kind of digital marketing like the studios do. So there’s this huge gap between your individual, independent, self-published authors and the publishers. And they might have a literary agent. They might not, but most of them right now are smaller publishing houses or independent authors and they can’t afford — How do they do it? They don’t even know where to start

Todd Nienkerk: An interesting example of that, maybe, or I don’t think it’s a counter example, but Hugh Howley and the, well it used to be called. Now it’s called Silo on TV, but it was The Wool, was the name of the original series self-published. Amazon e-book, right? Started as a short. Had been doing this a while, just publishing all kinds of shorts to see what —

Jenny Stiven: Long time, yes

Todd Nienkerk: That was actually like self-promoting and talking with people, and I didn’t pay a lot of attention to what was going on there, so I don’t know how substantive it was or whatever, but it did strike me as like, this is a different kind of author, and it —

Jenny Stiven: That’s the perfect example. Julia Quinn, who wrote the Bridgerton series. She engaged with her audience digitally, starting 20 years ago. And she was a very young author 20, 25 years ago. And so she didn’t care. She’s like, “You know what? I’m gonna go online, I’m gonna create a Facebook group.” And that’s what she did, or I guess Facebook group would have been 15 years ago, but she had a use for that group, you know. So that’s how she developed her fandom. She had the time and the energy. The same for Silo. He had the time and the energy and he was interested in it himself. So he wanted to talk to his fans, he wanted to spend that time. Not every author is going to either have the time or they may not be that type of personality. So that’s where the infrastructure is shifting and publishing in general. So you’ve got a whole shift that I’ve noticed over the past three years. Well, I think it’s a great shift that I’ve noticed over the past three years. Well, no, I would say, going back to Harry Potter, a whole shift in publishing. Okay, we have to pay attention to our fandom. We have to dedicate money to that. Then, for independent authors, self-published authors, it’s a struggle because they’re self-published. So they usually have full-time jobs. So how do you spend time on that? And you sure don’t have the money. I mean, I would love to be able to help, but they don’t have the money to hire me or someone else. So the advice that I’ve been giving authors in general is just don’t over-commit. Don’t start a Facebook group if you can’t at least weekly commit to talking to your fans. If the minimum is that you have a Threads account and you’re talking about your characters, cool, do that. Do something that’s an outlet for you and then the rest will naturally find its way. If you like TikTok, cool. Book TikTok is unbelievably huge, mainly because of COVID. And there are silos for each individual genre that are just blowing numbers out of the water on TikTok. Instagram, you know, Bookram is huge. It’s not as big as TikTok. And each author that I advise, if they can’t afford me, I just tell them to find what you like to do. If all you can do is post something on Instagram once a week, then do that. Cool. That’s more than literally hundreds of thousands of other authors are doing. You know, if that’s the best you can do and that’s what you want to do, do what you want to do. Every author that I’ve met has a radically different personality, because that’s the whole, that’s their whole thing. They’re a creator, they’re artistic, they’re they’re creating something, and so some are super outgoing. Some are super introspective. You have to find what works for you until you can afford to find somebody to handle this for you. And I think Hamilton’s a perfect example of amazing sci-fi, and yet there’s nobody championing me that those books and it’ll happen. Someone’s like you, I mean, you know, my recommendation to you would be in your amazing free time that you have, you know, on your blog. You know, yeah, you talk about wanting sometimes to talk about personal things on your blog. You could just say look guys, this is completely off topic, but I just have to let everybody know. You know, once a month, I’m gonna give you a recommendation of something I’m a huge geek about

Todd Nienkerk: I got thoughts about the Commonwealth saga. I’ve been storing them up for 15 years and I know where to put them

Jenny Stiven: Yeah, and you know, and like you said, you talked about on your last podcast about that it takes you time to write, you’re a writer. But that’s something that you like to do and you love those books, so write about them

Todd Nienkerk: I think that’s that’s good advice to anybody and I think that that’s a perfect place to end it. Jenny, this has been super fun. Thank you so so much for your time. If people want to hire you or learn more about you and what you do and what you’re interested in, how can they find you?

Jenny Stiven: The best place to find me, to hire me, is through LinkedIn. It’s just Jenny Stiven at LinkedIn. I pay a lot of attention to the DMs. I answer everybody the other way. Right now, I really hope everybody can go check out is one of my clients is SG Blaise — B-L-A-I-S-E. She’s the sci-fi fantasy author that I am championing right now, and she’s SGBlaiseOfficial on pretty much all social channels and websites. She’s got three books. She’s an award winner, and she’s got a fourth book coming out in December

Todd Nienkerk: Awesome. Thank you so much again for your time. This has been great

Jenny Stiven: Thank you. I love to talk to a fellow geek, and one in marketing, too!

Todd Nienkerk: I mean, that’s amazing, I love it right, yeah, and I, I don’t get to, I don’t get to do this all the time at work. So no, I think that’s a fantastic conversation. I appreciate it

Jenny Stiven: Well, thank you very much.