FEATURE25 October 2012

Extremely close and incredibly loud

The X Factor is back on screens and with it comes hordes of screaming fans. But what makes these people tick, and how can companies harness their energy? ITV went in search of answers. Brian Tarran reports.


Perhaps you are one of the several million people that tune in to The X Factor on ITV each weekend. But do you also vote for your favourite contestant several times each episode? Do you download each week’s performance from iTunes? Tweet about it? Buy Heat magazine and read about it?

If that sounds like you, then it is probably safe to say you’re an X Factor fan – in which case, ITV is taking a keen interest in you. The broadcaster has recently completed an 18-month research project with Crowd DNA to understand how fandom works and how ITV can use that knowledge to harness the energy of fans more effectively.

“There were several things we wanted to find out,” explains Mat Watson, ITV’s head of digital planning and research. “What is it about fans that makes them want to be fans and what attracts them to become fans of a particular thing? We also wanted to understand the fan journey, how to create fans and maintain those relationships, and what to look out for to stop the relationship turning bad.”

A brief history

Fandom is a fairly modern cultural development. The earliest examples of fan behaviour as we would now know it date back to 1887, according to a 2009 article in Wired by Scott Brown. In that year fans of Sherlock Holmes set about writing their own stories for the fictional detective, embellishing the world created by Arthur Conan Doyle. The volume of fan fiction has grown since: the best selling erotic novels of the 50 Shades series are based on fan fiction stories written about the characters from the Twilight series of popular teen romance novels.

ITV shows including The X Factor, Downton Abbey and Coronation Street have been given the fan fiction treatment – but that’s just one facet of fan behaviour which the broadcaster sought to understand when it set about researching the subject.

Watson says: “Through previous work we knew that there is a core group of viewers around a lot of our programmes who really want to engage with the shows and us, but it was felt that we hadn’t ever taken a step back to understand who those fans were, why they were fans and how we can look after them and get more value out of them.

“Fans don’t necessarily have a pound sign attached to them,” Watson says. “Where the value lies for us is in helping us make better products and better programmes that have a lot more fan engagement around them.”

Who’s a fan?

Crowd DNA’s work, led by associate director Sarah Brierley, started with a literature review. This was fleshed out with some expert interviews. The result was a working definition of a fan as “someone with an active, invested interested in a fan object”, where active implies “continued voluntary exposure to the fan object” and invested implies spending “time, emotion and often money on following the fan object”.

“We spent a lot of time trying to come to a very specific definition of a fan – it’s quite tricky to pin down,” says Watson. “Is it just the behaviours you exhibit, or your emotional attitude too? What we found is that it’s a combination of both.”

The next phase of the research, an online survey of 19,000 people, was designed to put the definition to the test. In the course of the research ITV and Crowd DNA discovered that self-professed fandom is actually a decent indicator that someone is a fan, with an 85% correlation between claimed and measured fandom. But measuring against both attitudes and behaviour is important to capture all real fans: people might be more ready to admit to being a ‘fan’ of a high-end Scandinavian drama than they might of something that’s more mainstream or seemingly downmarket.

In measuring and segmenting TV fandom across a variety of programmes and channels, ITV found that, on average, 30% of a show’s viewers are classed as fans. The actual figure, depending on show or genre, varies quite widely, from 7% at the low end to 50% at the top end. Within that definition of a fan, however, the research identified three distinct and hierarchical segments.

Watson says that about two-thirds of fans would fall into a category classed as ‘enthusiasts’. “These people go beyond the broadcast to engage with a show in other ways – online, in print, etc. For them it’s about satisfying their own interest.

“The next group up the ladder are the ‘sharers’,” he says. “These people are key advocates of a show; they love talking about it and this is what drives their fandom. For shows like The Only Way Is Essex this is a really strong segment. Watching the show is only half the experience. Fans want to share the ‘oh my god’ moments they see with their friends.”

Sitting atop the fan tree are what ITV and Crowd DNA refer to as ‘devotees’. “They love the show; they have followed it for a long time,” says Watson. “It’s quite unlikely that they will be a fan of much else because if they had more time they’d probably just devote it to their one favourite programme.”

Devotees – the kind of people you would find writing fan fiction – might be considered eccentric by the rest of the viewer base. “But these are the people that really love the content we’re making,” says Watson. “They need to be listened to. They might not always be right, but arguably they know the show better than we do.”

Canaries in the coalmine

Young or old, rich or poor – it seems that people of all walks of life fall into one of ITV’s three categories of fandom. The actual fan profile is dependent, of course, on the type of audience a show attracts, so in applying what they learned about fans to the wider business, Watson and Crowd DNA created an “insight pack” containing a toolkit for figuring out what to do with the segments in various shows.

“One of the things we have developed here at ITV is a needs-based model looking at how and why people get engaged with certain programmes away from the linear broadcast, and what’s driving that behaviour – whether it’s buying a magazine or looking at websites. This really helps identify the [communications] opportunities for us,” says Watson. “Tactically, we’re looking at identifying the big opportunities for creating, converting and engaging with fans – helping us direct communications strategies.

Traditionally ITV tends not to promote a programme more than three weeks before broadcast. “That’s the most efficient period for your marketing spend,” Watson says. However, if your aim is to create and maintain relationships with fans, it might require a different approach to the timing, volume and type of communications activity.

“You need to be thinking about this from the day the press release goes out the door,” he says, “because there will be people out there talking about the programme somewhere. You need to be asking yourself: What are you doing about those conversations? Likewise, after a show has finished, what are you doing to maintain those fans? Fan relationships are like the most intimate relationships between individuals. No one knows you better than an ex-lover, and a fan turned bad is perhaps the worst thing to have – because they know where to stick the knife.” (See box.)

Fan Fail

There’s no worse enemy for a company or a brand to have than a former fan. Here are three who saw love turn to hate.

Wimbledon FC

Football grounds are sacred places, so when the owners of Wimbledon decided to move to a new ground 56 miles away fans reacted by switching allegiance to a newly formed local team, AFC Wimbledon.

Star Wars

If you loved the original Star Wars trilogy, chances are you hated the prequels – especially Jar Jar Binks from Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Such was the fan-rage that Mike Nichols, a film editor, recut the movie removing Jar Jar almost entirely.

Mass Effect 3

Fans of Bioware’s sci-fi role-playing series were enraged at what they saw as a disappointing end to the series. Social media campaigns to “retake” Mass Effect 3 led to the release of an extended cut to answer criticisms.

Devotees in particular are what Watson calls “the canaries in the coalmine” for shows that risk alienating their fanbase. “The enthusiasts stop going to the websites and buying the magazines, the sharers stop discussing it with their friends,” he says. “But it’s the devotees who will come to you and tell you what you’re doing wrong.”

A sense of appreciation

Alongside supporting their own programmes, Watson and the team at ITV are also applying the research to help ITV figure out “how we re-engage the ITV brand with the public”. “We’re also working with
our commercial teams,” he says, “because we’ve been able to show how TV can help create fans for our sponsors and advertisers.

“Fandom often starts with TV,” Watson says. “That’s the first time most people encounter a fan object, and the more engaged that someone is with a programme, the more open and enthusiastic they are about the sponsors and advertisers. There is a sense of appreciation that without them, the programmes they love


12 years ago

Great stuff! I've found fandom a really useful lens to look at consumer brands in general, too. Star Wars is obviously not a failed brand, tho - it's doing better than ever, very big with kids. I wonder if - from a branding perspective - the rotten prequels were needed to kill off the old fandom so the brand wasn't forever tied to three films made 40 years ago?

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12 years ago

You might have a point there, Tom. Deliberate or not, though, it's still painful for us older Star Wars fans. I'm going to give Machete Order a go over the Christmas break to see if it helps ease the hurt: http://static.nomachetejuggling.com/machete_order.html

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12 years ago

That's the smart thinking we could all bneeift from.

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