The Rise of the Audience

'The Rise of the Audience' is an explorative piece on the shift in how the industry creates, promotes and interacts with fans and audiences due to changes in digital culture.

Following our work on the E4'ers project and the release of our documentary 'Fanculture: The Evolution of Influence' Channel 4 invited Amplify to the broadcast awards to hold a screening of the film and partake in a discussion and panel session on Fanculture.

'The Rise of the Audience' is the article that Amplify's Head of Insight Bexy Cameron wrote to to accompany this event, the article explores the ideas of participatory culture and creativity for audiences, and the power and influence of fans, both of which have been facilitated and accelerated by digital culture.

The world of fans and audiences is changing, and all because of digital, or so we are led to believe. Between trans media storylines, audience participation, user generated content, influencers, fans and brand ambassadors, it certainly seems like there is a shift between the power of media, entertainment, brands and the consumer. But what does this actually mean for the future of creating, promoting and interacting with audiences and fans?

Does the fact that television viewers can now take control of their entertainment consumption, in essence becoming ‘the channel’ mean the democratization of home entertainment, or perhaps as some seem to worry, signify the end of broadcast Television as we know it?

Does the fact that fans are now part of the conversation with brands, with their own platforms, integral to the promotional machine, signify a new way of marketing? Or does it mean that marketers now have less power over their brands image than ever?

Historically for both music, television and brands there have been barriers between them and their fans and audiences. And perhaps barriers the industries were quite comfortable with.

Previously the closest fans could get to the object of their fandom was sending a self addressed envelope to a PO Box in the hope of some low level interaction, perhaps a signed letter, postcard or more than likely a badge.

Audiences were slave to channels timetables, and at best, restricted to being the canned laughter behind the scenes, or applause before commercial breaks.

Consumers were once marketed to, promoted to, and like sheep told what to buy and consume – but now the control has been handed over, the barriers have come down, enter the rise and power of the consumer.

A Different Perspective on Fans and Audiences

Henry Jenkins’ pioneering work in the early 1990s promoted the idea that fans are among the most active, creative, critically engaged, and socially connected consumers of popular culture, and that they represent the vanguard of a new relationship with mass media. Though marginal and largely invisible to the general public at the time, today, media producers and advertisers, not to mention researchers and fans, take for granted the idea that the success of a media franchise depends on fan investments and participation.

But not only are fans and audiences being accoladed for their creativity and participatory culture, more recently there has been growing interest in these entities from the industry because there is huge commercial value on harnessing and leveraging their power and influence.

The two main areas this article will explore are the ideas of participatory culture and creativity for audiences, and the power and influence of fans, both of which have been facilitated and accelerated by digital culture.

Participatory Culture

When 4 ex-employees of Paypal decided to start their own web TV channel, Youtube, it made the creation and publication of user generated and fan content inexpensive and easy, not only this, it provided an audience for that content. This is just one of many key platforms for participatory culture; Audiences are creating, re-editing and cutting their own versions of TV shows, everything from blowing up Justin Beiber in CSI episodes to BrokeBack Mountain parodies. There are fans that even go to the trouble of re-writing new and improved translations of American TV series; Italian versions of ‘How I met your Mother’ have been re-made by fans as they believe that the current versions miss out some of the finest jokes because, to use the old phrase, something really is lost in translation.

Mass Interactivity

But it’s not just through creativity and online communities that fans and audiences interact, since the dawn of the ‘Red button’ audiences (even the non internet savvy ones) can feel like they are connecting with their favourite shows. To many shows such as X-factor are mass audience participation – and new, vast revenue streams at that. Audiences of millions believe they are in control of the 12 participants journey through the Simon Cowell extravaganza, like Romans at the amphitheater, thumbing up or down the victory or demise of the contestants. While this type of engagement doesn’t rely on the digital age to exist, the ways in which the audience interacts with the contestants has definitely taken on a trans media form, from heart felt video diaries of the hopeful singers to soulfully sang cover versions from their hotel bedrooms, the show definitely doesn’t stop when the credits roll.

The Power and Influence of Fans

When considering fans; their drivers, habits, structures and communities, it is clear why these cultures are very appealing to brands and marketers. Fans are loyal consumers, they can be creative and vocal and now have increasingly more platforms on which to ‘Follow’, ’Like’ and love the object of their fandom.

Influencer marketing, involving fans and in turn brand ambassadors, is still in its pre-paradigm phase, while it has been organic even before the Ramones wore Converse at the doors of CBGBS, in the past brand and marketers were hesitant about utilizing this strategy - without the quantification of return on investment a substantial amount of faith would be needed to believe in an individual’s effect on others. Historically endorsement was a tactic solely for celebrities, whose ‘worth’, reach and influence could be measured by television appearances, column inches and album sales.

But with changes in the digital age it has become progressively easier to quantify and measure both reach & digital footprint, bringing the power and influence of the ‘average’ individual into the brand endorsement sphere.

The Rise of Fans in the Digital Age

The rise of fans and brand ambassadors in marketing schemes has come about not only because of shifts in the digital age, but a shift in perspective on advertising as a whole; research papers proclaiming peer to peer marketing as a powerful force, word of mouth (WOM) considered a strong tool, combined with popular texts such as Malcolm Gladwell’s theory on ‘The Tipping Point’. These and other factors have caused marketers to think outside of regular strategies such as ‘Above the line’ billboard, TV, or digital marketing. Intelligent marketing strategies strengths lie not in whether an individual has merely seen or heard a message - it is about relating and having a connection to it. But in a space that is so crowded with advertising noise, click through banners, Youtube stings, event and festival branding, marketers are ever on the quest for new ways to ‘cut through’ and penetrate their target audience in more meaningful and emotional ways. For example; Nike’s billboards proclaiming ‘Just Do It’ might not resonate with many young women, but their under the radar strategy of empowering women to jog in urban communities at night through running crews is a local and physical manifestation of this message.

When Brands turn to Fans

There are many reasons brands turn to fans and brand ambassadors; to generate new and genuine PR stories like Nike’s Run Dem Crew, to launch a product into a new target audience like Converse with their StarPlayer sneaker, to ensure that their current form of programming is on target like e4, and some just to ensure that they have a dialogue with their target audience. Fans have been integrated into strategies as mouthpiece, critic, and the face of brands.

So, as we are being told, digital culture is changing the landscape of fans audiences and influencers, its accelerating and facilitating creativity, involvement, interaction, and giving a voice to consumers.Does this mean there needs to be a shift in how the industry views and interacts with these entities? Should marketers, producers, or planners working in the creative industries be be afraid of creativity – or embrace it? After all imitation is the highest form of compliment. Should brands be fearful of their consumers vocalizing their opinions, or take advantage of being talked about? Should the breaking down of barriers and between audience and entertainment cause discomfort, and the fear of losing control? Or herald a new era? The digital age is bringing change, but with change, can come great opportunity.