How super-fans are driving the entertainment business

Taylor Swift gives her fans what they really want - a personal connection

Elvis pioneered it, Peter Jackson refined it and now more entertainment folk are actively managing their relationships with the hard-core group known as the "super-fans".

Seven-time Grammy Award winner Taylor Swift may be at the top of the music industry for her talent and energy, but there is another less visible factor keeping her there. Unlike some of her peers, she wants to keep her fans close, not at arm’s length. And she’s willing to go the extra mile. Swift says she wants every day to feel like “Swiftmas” and can’t resist sending a personally hand-wrapped gift to a fan every week.

“I want to make the most of this cultural relevance or success or whatever you want to call it, because it’s not going to last,” she told the UK’s Telegraph in February.

“I have to be as good a person [as I can] while my name matters to them.”

While music stars have traditionally worked at keeping their devoted fans onside – Elvis and the Beatles regularly met with adoring fans for 10 minutes after concerts – entertainers such as Swift are taking the fan relationship to the next level, and offering a new model for fan-driven success.

A recent paper by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Engaging With The “Super-fan”: A Growing Source Of Incremental Revenue, suggests that the smartest industry players understand that maintaining success is directly correlated with top fan procurement.

“A vocal advocate who tweets positively to 100,000 followers and takes part in a brand’s product or plot development deserves – and increasingly expects – this experience as payback for their contribution to ‘earned’ media and thereby wider revenues,” states the PwC report.

The super-fans have enormous marketing clout. Also dubbed “super influencers”, they are now the top source of extra revenue for musicians as music sales decline, says Jane Huxley. She heads Pandora Australia, the internet radio service with more than two million listeners in Australia and New Zealand, and close to 300 million in the US and the rest of the world.

"The super-fans have enormous marketing clout and are now the top source of extra revenue for musicians." Jane Huxley, Pandora

“We know that the super-fan – not the casual listener – is 12 times more likely to put their hands in their pocket and pay money to an artist to attend a concert, buy their music or get the T-shirt,” says Huxley. 

Super-fans increasingly demand to be closer to the core and part of the gang, PwC says. It’s why Justin Timberlake brought together 20 of his hard-core devotees to video their own performance of a single from his album The 20/20 Experience, and why Ricky Martin asked his fans to write a song for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

It’s also why screen stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and television personalities Ellen DeGeneres and Tyra Banks have all participated in text and video-conferencing with fans via Google Hangouts. And it’s why New Line Cinema flew 150 of the world’s most Hobbit-obsessed fans to “Middle Earth” (aka New Zealand) late last year to celebrate the forthcoming release of The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies.

All understood that giving an emotional reward to the most diehard fans would ensure they stay star-struck for life, and in turn would reward the film/star/franchise in tweets, social media postings and at the cash registers.

Pioneers of reaching out

Some entertainment insiders have known this for years. Hobbit director Peter Jackson pioneered the fan-centric approach when he was developing his Lord Of The Rings film trilogy. That series has become one of the greatest box-office properties in movie history, but in the late 1990s, before its production, it was widely considered a high-risk fantasy book adaptation. Studio executives wondered whether the huge Tolkien fan base would embrace the movies.

Jane Huxley"The super-fan is 12 times more likely to put hands in their pocket and pay money."
Jane Huxley, Pandora

With New Line’s support, Jackson – himself a somewhat geeky admirer of JRR Tolkien’s books – set out to prove the industry wrong. Even before filming began, Jackson reached out to the most dedicated Tolkienites through internet forums, such as aintitcool.com and theonering.net feeding them insider information and getting them emotionally invested.

By the time the film premiered, Jackson and New Line had created its own army, a corps of super-fans that was tens of thousands strong, and committed to spreading the word. Crucially, Jackson, ever the Tolkien fan, created the Lord Of The Rings films that the super-fans wanted.

Joss Whedon is a TV producer, screenwriter, director and comic-book writer. He built his own dedicated fan base through cult TV series such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and sites such as whedonesque.com and whedonverse.net.

Tapped by Marvel to direct the movie version of its comic book series The Avengers and the recent sequel Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Whedon built a relationship based on a deep understanding of the fans’ mindset.

Simon Fleischmann, who founded the Whedonverse Network, says Whedon has always been available to the fans because he is just like them.

“He grew up as a self-avowed comic book and sci-fi fan. He has frequently cited the influence of X-Men on his stories, as well as the work of Frank Herbert’s Dune series,” Fleischmann says.

Whedon cultivates the true believer, but in a slightly different way. He’s shown less deference to Avenger’s fans than he has to those who appreciate his more artistic work. For his indie film In Your Eyes, Whedon did a Taylor Swift and sent presents to random purchasers who downloaded the film.

“It came totally out of the blue,” Fleischmann observes. 

Whedon’s well-targeted approach can be summed up by his comment that “I’d rather make a show 100 people need to see, than a show that 1000 people want to see.”

This mindset fits perfectly with PwC’s take on the super-fan phenomenon. The circle of ardent admirers need not be more than 100 super-influencers. They need to be more passionate than numerous.

Finding the fans

But how do you find those super-fans? Megan Brownlow, a PwC executive director who edits its Australian Entertainment & Media Outlook, says sophisticated tech and listening tools can tap into the hardest-core advocates in real time. The promoters behind famous people and entertainment products now positively segment the super-fans from the casual, slicing and dicing the audience accordingly.

"Super-fans increasingly demand to be closer to the core and part of the gang." PriceWaterHouseCoopers 

“It’s like a bank choosing its premium and not-so-premium customers,” Brownlow explains.

“Taylor Swift is not sending out Christmas presents to fly-by-night fans. She’s sending them to tried-and-true fans who are also product advocates.”

The science of the super-fan is about locating them, putting a value on their devotion and repaying some of that value in kind. Few do this better than US-based Pandora, with an algorithm developed over 15 years underlying its Music Genome Project. The algorithm identifies the heaviest users and allows advertisers and musicians to leverage the information.

Elvis PresleyOutside the entertainment industry, brands such as L’Oréal and Apple cultivate their best fans knowing they will test each product to the limit and stand in queues for its latest incarnation. But it’s not always about household names. Crowdfunding organisations such as Kickstarter and Pozible have seen the benefits as well.

Making a project’s “fans” part of the team will pay dividends. “About 15 per cent of people who pledge to a project on Pozible will go on to pledge to others,” says Pozible spokesperson, Claire Merquita.

The stars who cultivate the super-fan have realised that aloofness and estrangement from the people who effectively pay their wages is very last century. The 21st century is about offering a quid pro quo to the fans. The benefits, at first unseen, should eventually blossom. Give back to the people who buy your albums, and they’ll not only stand in line for concert tickets, but attack anyone who says a bad word about you. Just ask Justin Bieber, famous for his army of True Beliebers. Just ask Peter Jackson. And just ask Taylor Swift.

But don’t ask right now; they’re busy chatting with their fans.

Pandora’s box

Pandora Internet music streaming companies such as Pandora and Spotify are at the apex of fan-base leverage.

Pandora allows listeners to build their own “radio channels”, collating their tastes and preferences to form not just a trove of music but a wealth of information, offering advertisers – and musicians – the DNA of their entire fan base. 

It’s a “triple play” says Pandora Australia boss Jane Huxley. Pandora knows its listeners, the musicians know where to find them and the advertisers know the demographic they are selling to. If Pandora stages an event, it offers special products to special fans, knowing they’ll be present and willing.

The way that Huxley sees it, she doesn’t run a music company. “I run a data company.”

Pandora’s core web product, the Artist Marketing Platform, allows any musician “spinning in the genome” to log in to their personal dashboard. It can offer musicians incredibly useful “heat maps” – geographic breakdowns of where fans are located. Why would a musician tour Florida if their demographic there is non-existent? 

Huxley advises artists to seek out the source of their greatest fandom. Then, she says, all parties in the “triple play” stand to reap the rewards.

This article is from the July issue of INTHEBLACK

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