Audience Building: Meeting Fans on Their Own Terms

Digital media veterans Catherine Warren and Moyra Rodger share five ways to build a loyal audience.

Moyra Rodger, CEO of Magnify Digital, remembers March 12, 2015 as a turning point.

It is on that day that Jean-Pierre Blais, Chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), not only explained several significant changes to the CRTC’s regulations, but also underlined the importance of discoverability. “What’s the use in creating the best content in the world when no one can find it and enjoy it? Discoverability is paramount,” stated Blais.

Rodger’s agency has focused on online audience building since 2008, but it’s from that moment on that she noticed a growing interest for audience building. “[Content creators] didn’t react earlier because they were still—and some still are—making a ton of money on the old model. But the problem was, those deals were harder and harder to get.”

“I could line up a panel of producers that would still disagree with me. But the one thing that I think we can all say with certainty now is that if you have an audience, you have options.”

From one-way to two-way communications

Catherine Warren, the president of FanTrust that was established more than 15 years ago, has been at the forefront of this shift toward a digital and interactive model. “[Today] you have so many choices, you don’t even know where to begin in terms of audience engagement,” says Warren. “Whereas 15 years ago, it was like: ‘Tell me about interactive audiences’. We’re in a very different landscape now.”

Audiences are more sophisticated when it comes to finding content and interacting with it, while producers and creators are more knowledgeable about fan engagement. Nevertheless, there’s room for improvement. “The theory and rationale is there, but [in terms of] the use case or the operationalization of that, there’s still a long way to go.”

Meeting fans on their own terms requires a complete mind shift, moving from one-way to two-way communications.

Placing the audience at the centre of your company

Moyra Rodger believes a first important step to increase audience engagement is to change one’s approach to producing content from ‘I want to create this story because I think it’s a great story and I think a broadcaster will buy it’ to thinking first about the audience, both locally and globally.

Once that is done, the corporate structure needs to change from a B2B (business-to-business) to a B2C (business-to-consumer) model in which the audience is at the centre of all operations. In doing so, Rodger suggests that two questions need to be answered: Do I have any of this expertise in-house? If not, am I going to acquire it?

She recommends that big companies develop their own expertise in online audience development, while small ones hire an external agency to help them. As for mid-size companies, there’s no clear-cut answer. “It all depends on where you want to bring your company, how much you believe the old model is fading and how you want to explore alternative revenue streams,” says Rodger.

But one thing she strongly recommends for all companies, whether big or small, is to learn the basics of online audience building so as to avoid common mistakes such as thinking that hiring a social coordinator is enough. “Social media is but one tool in the entire digital ecosystem. It’s like saying I can do public relations because I’m able to write a press release!”

Seeing this need for education, Rodger’s company launched the Magnify Discovery Lab in April 2017. The lab offers in-person and virtual training tailored to the needs of the Canadian and American screen-based industries (and eventually Australia in 2018). The different programs offered cover a range of topics, from learning how to better manage teams working with online tools to creating assets for social media.

Establishing trust with your fans and within your company

Putting the audience at the centre of your operations also means respecting your fans. “I think it’s really, really important to treat fans as you would treat a member of your extended team,” believes Catherine Warren.

She has observed a lot of improvement in this respect, but nevertheless points out that the TV industry has been slow to engage in a dialogue with audiences. When fans first asked why they couldn’t see a season of their favourite show on a specific channel or in Canada, they were often ignored or given a trivial response like “It’s not available in this territory.”

As a result, the dialogue shifted from professionals to consumers, as fans started to discuss among themselves and learn about the ins and outs of rights and distribution. “They’re just really knowledgeable about the way media are deployed on [different] platforms and they want to engage in those kinds of conversations. They want to be respected and brought into the loop,” says Warren.

“Audiences set the bar high. If you and your brand don’t meet their expectations, they will get that information somewhere else or they will go elsewhere,” she warns.

To establish trust with your audience, you also need to trust your own team. Warren explains that a common mistake is not giving enough autonomy to community managers. When the latter have to go through multiple levels of approval, their initiatives can lose momentum and become irrelevant.

“By the time a community manager is allowed to put out an asset that only exists for social audiences, those fans have gone out, they’ve sourced their own imagery, they’ve created their own fan art and no one cares anymore,” says Warren. Indeed, businesses need to respond quickly to their audiences if they want to keep them focused on their brand.

Doing your homework before laying out a strategy

It’s important to gather as early as possible information and data about who and where your project’s audience is, as well as what they want and need.

It’s about being strategic with your inspiration, explains Rodger. “We pour heart and soul into these projects, so let’s put some effort into research to make sure people are going to see them once we’ve completed them.”

Thinking about data from the onset also helps to figure out how to measure a project’s success. “Then you can show the whole team ‘Here’s how we’re tracking’ and people get very excited about that,” says Warren. “Because fan-building can also fall into being overly anecdotal and people don’t always understand the value proposition.”

Rodger’s Magnify Digital has developed the ALERT framework which defines five essential elements when building a successful online plan.

The ALERT framework

Assess: You first have to understand the opportunities and obstacles for your project by reviewing your existing online footprint, analyzing the competition, and learning from best practices.

Locate: This is about finding your audience and then making sure it can find your content. Some important questions that need answering are: Where is my audience active? How does it search for content? What are similar audiences doing when they watch other shows? How do they consume media? What is their brand affinity?

Engage: Based on the information you gathered in steps one and two, you can now lay out an audience building strategy.

Respond: It’s really important to respond to your audience with the ultimate goal of turning fans into superfans.

Track: This is about choosing the right metrics, collecting data to track how things are going and possibly tweaking a campaign along the process. “Our slogan is: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it!” says Rodger.

Focusing on the basics

It can be very easy to focus on the latest technology (like virtual and augmented reality) and forget about the ‘meat and potatoes’ of fan building like efficient and timely communications. Catherine Warren points to the fact that many TV everywhere apps are still hard to navigate and often don’t provide the information that viewers are looking for.

“It’s basic things that I would say are fan alienating rather than fan building,” says Warren. “[What] you would like to know as a consumer (e.g., when the next episode or season will air), you can’t even figure that out.”

As a result, consumers leave the app and the opportunity to turn them into loyal fans is gone. “You’ve already got them hooked, they’re in there. You could be up selling their cable package, you could be cross-selling them to other shows, you could be serving them more monetizable units. Instead consumers are so frustrated that they go to YouTube or they Torrent something because they can’t figure out how to find [what they’re looking for].”

Another obstacle to effective fan engagement is how television sets, as devices, have become increasingly difficult to use. “Just try turning on someone else’s TV and finding the show you want to watch,” says Warren. “[They] are more complicated than the super computers in our phones that are replacing TVs!”

“That doesn’t help discoverability and it does not build fan engagement. If you’re a studio, a distributor or a rights holder and you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on your property or your slate and someone can’t even see it on their super expensive flat screen TV so they’re forced to watch it on a tiny phone screen, the experience you’ve created is not flowing through to the eyeballs and fans that you want to reach.” She suggests that broadcasters and producers should engage in more active conversations with TV manufacturers.

Stepping in your audience’s shoes

In the end, the best way to understand and reach your audience is to step into their shoes. A company, from the intern to the CEO, should engage with the content it produces on all devices and from the fans’ perspective. “That’s what leads to excellence,” believes Warren.

This way, building online audiences becomes a goal the whole company strives toward. Backed by loyal fans, your content is then more likely to attract the attention of potential partners, whether they be broadcasters or brands.

Gaëlle Engelberts
A former television journalist at Radio-Canada, Gaëlle Engelberts is the editorial coordinator for CMF Trends. In parallel to her research and editing work with the Canada Media Fund’s Industry and Market Trends team, she recently completed a master’s degree in communication at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) focused on new narrative forms in journalism and documentary, namely interactive webdocumentaries and serious games.
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