FEATURE13 April 2022

The future of fandom

Features Leisure & Arts Media Trends UK Youth

Douglas Dunn of One Minute to Midnight and Kim Bayley of the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) discuss the deeper human meaning of fandom in the entertainment industry.


What does it mean to be a fan? Global human insights company One Minute to Midnight and ERA, the UK trade organisation for the physical and digital retail and wholesale sectors of the music, video and videogames industries, have produced insights to give members ideas for changes that will help them to connect with and inspire fans across digital platforms.

The research  was initiated to unlock the deepest fan motivations to develop insights that would act as creative fuel for ERA’s members. The insights were designed to inspire innovations that would connect with their audiences more powerfully in the future.

What was the spark or impetus to commission this research? 
ERA’s members consistently say its insight programme is one of the most valuable membership benefits. It’s one of the things that brings them together from small owner-manager businesses to large multinationals.

Appealing to and satisfying fandom is one of the core functions for ERA members, which include both digital and physical retailers and yet it’s a remarkably under-researched area. There was an opportunity to deepen the levels of understanding of what fans wanted, particularly in relation to the fandom habits of Gen Z and how their relationship with entertainment is likely to evolve.

What was the methodology? 
The project was based on a qualitative study analysing the emotional drivers of fans within their interactions with entertainment. Auto-ethnography and depth interviews were combined to deeply explore fans’ lives and their fandom. During this process we asked 18 fans to dynamically document their lives using video posts for ten days and conducted 1.5 hour depth interviews with the 12 most interesting fans.

The aim was to gain a deep and meaningful understanding of their motivations at the most human level and identify the values fandom allows them to live. One Minute to Midnight applied the lens of human values to the research which the agency turned into a values game that can be played with participants. This made the experience fun and meaningful for people to take part in and it also made it easy to see how human values drive participants’ interaction with categories and shape how they think, feel and behave.

What were the main findings?
In analysing fandom, we zeroed in on music and games to explore the differences but also areas in which they can learn from one another, focusing on the deeper, emotional connections fans have with entertainment.

At a fundamental level, music seems to have the great advantage in that it has artists for fans to focus on, but we discovered that the games industry has, despite or because of the absence of real-life identification figures, developed multiple different ways to foster fandom.

There were a number of values underpinning fandom motivations based on the real-life behaviours of highly-engaged fans. Key to participant motivations were values including achievement and the thrill of demonstrating this achievement within their personal fandom community. Benevolence was driving fans’ need to deepen their personal connections and build communities, while stimulation generated excitement and deeper engagement with the content.

These insights show that fans’ relationship with the music and games content they love, is far from passive. It’s about self-identification; it’s emotional and incredibly powerful. That provides exciting opportunities for ERA members, but there’s also an implicit warning that fans are highly suspicious of marketing or products which are generic, exploitative or lack respect.

The modern-day fan is more deeply in tune with themselves, their identity and their values, more so probably than any generation that’s come before. And in order to really identify with these fans, it’s about creating meaningful and accessible content and services that deliver against their core values. Creating services which speak to individual fans’ core values will be key to the long-term growth of the entertainment sector. 

The most interesting value which emerged from the findings was achievement. Audiences really ‘live’ achievement in their lives and through their fandom in music and gaming.

Many fans want to earn their fandom and experience the thrill of discovery and to really feel that they have earned their fan status, as it delivers a real emotional need.

The question, therefore, becomes ‘how can we help audiences really live this feeling of achievement through their fandom?’ How can we help them celebrate it more and even show it off to others? Broader research shows that people who live their lives through their values are ultimately happier. This is a meaningful way to build deeper brand connections and more authentic relationships with their audiences.

What are the longer-term ramifications? 
We can expect right across the sector that strategies will increasingly take account of the need to cater to fandom with a focus on human values.  

To create things that really matter, it’s important to take the time to understand what is really driving audiences, first as people and then explore how this impacts how they emotionally and behaviourally interact with entertainment.

In a digital age the risk is that ‘fandom’ comes too easily, so finding ways to make fans work a little more to ‘earn’ their fandom means they can experience the emotional pay-off and this ‘thrill of discovery’.

Another consistent theme was the desire to connect more deeply, meaningfully and in a more real way with fellow fans, with artists and with the stories behind the content moving forwards. 

How can brands respond to this research?  
The key decision in commissioning this study was to opt for a qualitative rather than quantitative approach. The drivers behind fandom are nuanced in a way traditional quantitative research would find difficult to capture. Meanwhile the outputs from the study are directional rather than prescriptive. It has given ERA a new way of thinking about the consumer and its members’ relationship with them.  

In such a fast-moving environment, it can be a challenge to understand and respond to fan behaviours, but by tapping into the core values identified in this research, members will reap the benefits of a far deeper and more meaningful fan engagement relationship when building strategies and services.

At the core of developing a strong relationship with a brand’s audiences, is understanding the human values which inform how they live their real lives and how these values impact their behaviour and decision making. Brands should take the time to explore their audience’s values, the values they seek within their category and through their brands, as it helps unlock how to build the most meaningful emotional connections in mutually beneficial ways that genuinely enhance people’s lives.

Douglas Dunn is co-founder at One Minute to Midnight and Kim Bayley is chief executive at the Entertainment Retailers Association.