The nerd economy: Stock is rising for people once considered social outcasts, and savvy businesses are cashing in

Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

An attendee looks over cards for sale during the Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix event Thursday, June 15, 2017, at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Magic: The Gathering is a fantasy-based trading card game which is played by over 20 million people world wide and the Las Vegas grand prix event will draw an estimated 3500 for the main event.

So-called nerd culture is expanding at warp speed. This year alone, we have seen or soon will see new “Star Wars,” “Transformers,” Marvel, “Alien” and “Planet of the Apes” movies, the revival of “Twin Peaks,” and the newest incarnation of “Star Trek.”

More important, those folks sporting plastic pointy ears and using words like “tribble” and “Ragnarok” represent a viable and largely untapped consumer niche with disposable income. That means Las Vegas businesses — if they are savvy and creative — can take advantage by marketing to them.

According to Maria Phelan, communications manager for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, this town already loves nerds, and nerds love it, as evidenced by the brisk business done at attractions such as the Marvel Avengers STATION events, including Amazing Las Vegas Comic Con, RollerCon, the Magic: The Gathering convention and the annual “Star Trek” convention; as well as year-round businesses such as Bad Owl Coffee and the Millennium Fandom Bar.

Badge of honor

“Nerds are definitely an influential consumer audience,” said Jasen Woehrle, senior vice president at The Firm Public Relations and Marketing. “The terms nerd and geek are acceptable now and a badge of honor for many, and reach a broad demographic. You can be a geek about anything from pop culture to classic cars, or movies/television shows to comic books. One nerd type doesn’t necessarily fit all.”

Woehrle sees them as an audience worth going after for businesses that are “genuinely nerd-friendly” and that have a service or product that appeals to the target audience.

“With any niche group, you should truly respect the demographic to which you are appealing,” he said. “Your marketing and outreach should be genuine, and not pandering just to make a sale.”

The Firm has marketed to the nerd faction primarily through social media via targeted promotions. A recent promotion was done for a music artist who covers well-known television, movie and video game themes and who has a national fan base.

“To maximize our outreach and bring attention to the artist’s concert in Las Vegas, in addition to boosted/sponsored social media posts, we filmed video content at a local comic book store with a large online following,” said Woehrle, who describes himself as “a proud pop-culture and horror-movie nerd.”

Engaging in a fun way with the customers of the comics shop, the video highlighted the artist, her music, her Las Vegas concert date and included a ticket giveaway. While raising awareness of the concert, it built a relationship between local businesses.

“Yes, nerds — like all super-targeted niches — are viable,” said Diana Edelman, a journalist, cultural commentator and founder of Vegans, Baby, an online resource for vegan dining and shopping options in Las Vegas. “When you market to a small, niche audience, you’re engaging a group that appreciates being marketed to. I find with a vegan audience that my engagement and support are far higher than when I actively ran a travel blog and marketed to a mass audience.”

Edelman said it was worthwhile for businesses to market to this demographic. Tie-ins and special events geared toward this slice of the demographic pie can not only improve brand awareness, she argued, but build on brand loyalty.

“I see it with the vegan community,” she said. “Even if a restaurant is not vegan, if they work to market to that audience and address their needs and desires and interests, the community supports them in return.”

Jim Niehoff, president of Escape Reality USA, agreed that nerds are a consumer niche with lots of potential.

“To me, nerds are just regular people who have very strong opinions about certain niche markets like comic books, games, movies, etc.,” he said. “From my experience as someone who is considered a nerd, these folks are happy to spend their money on quality experiences, especially if those experiences are directly related to something they are passionate about.”

Escape Reality USA operates interactive, real-life escape-game experiences created for seasoned enthusiasts and first-time players. With locations in five British cities and Dubai, the firm opened its 7,000-square-foot Las Vegas operation in early June, with seven escape rooms ranging from The Iron Kingdom and Alcatraz to Down the Rabbit Hole.

Niehoff suggested it can prove profitable for a business to actively market to nerds “for myriad reasons. Nerd culture is a huge thing right now, and is growing. They appreciate an immersive environment, and providing movie tie-ins, decor relating to movies/books/comics, and experiences that are memorable are all great selling points for this very large market.”

Niehoff said a great way to market to nerds is to hire them.

“When the nerdy references come naturally and the staff markets via word of mouth, everything feels more genuine,” he said. “On top of hiring nerds, we do our best to partner with festivals and conventions that cater to that clientele. Nerds can be very brand loyal if they feel that a company is high quality and respectful of their interests.”

The odd get even

Woehrle warned that it takes time to develop a nerd following.

“You need to understand what makes them tick, never take them for granted, and tell your story in a way that is compelling,” he said. “Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Target your messages and be consistent. That builds loyalty and business success.”

“They’ve been laughed at, picked on and put down, but now it’s time for the odd to get even,” said Branden Powers, managing partner of nerd-friendly niche spots the Golden Tiki and Evel Pie. “Their time has come.”

Powers called nerds “intelligent consumers with an obsessive passion for the truly cool and unique. My brands are cool and on the fringe, so of course nerds are attracted to them. I communicate to the anti-social through social media, which is a paradox of sorts. Our environments are warm and welcoming to them. We embrace them and they, in turn, embrace us. I would highly advise marketing to nerds. Who wants a bar filled with jocks and meatheads?”

“The geek-chic culture here at the Silverton has seen a huge growth in this area with our special events and promotions,” said Kimiko Peterson, director of advertising, public relations and social media for the casino. “Our ‘Pokemon Go’ promotion was so successful that we actually won social media awards ... from PRNews. We also had a free all-day ‘Star Wars’ movie marathon on May 4, 2016.”

This month, Silverton kicked off a pub trivia night Wednesdays at its Shady Grove Lounge. The casino’s Mermaid Lounge, which also doubles as a Pokestop, has noticed a rise in customers and sales alongside the release of “Pokemon Go.” Its Poke Draft promotion offers $2 draft beers to guests who show that they are using the “Pokemon Go” app.

“We credit our Poke Draft promotion with a 5.5 percent beer revenue increase, as well as a 10 percent increase in weekly checks during the same time period,” Peterson reported. “In conjunction, wine revenue also increased 17.2 percent during this time, while setting off lure modules from within the app at the lounge.”

By tapping into nerd culture, companies across the valley can see to it that the force is with them — which should help them live long and prosper.