The direct-to-fan comms revolution

A direct consequence of lockdown was the sudden halting of anything that enabled fans to enjoy a full live experience across any sport or strand of entertainment anywhere in the world.

For fans, this was an incredible blow but not one that had an immediate effect on their livelihoods, unless they worked in an associated industry. For some athletes and the majority of creative artists, this presented a more existential challenge. Their income and ability to continue to perform was under threat.

For many, there seemed little support available to them, perhaps best characterised by the UK government’s ill-judged advertising campaign designed to encourage those in threatened industries to retrain in order to continue to earn a living through the pandemic. “Fatima’s Next Job Could Be Cyber (She Just Doesn’t Know It Yet)” was the strapline, illustrated by a young ballet dancer for whom, it seemed, the game was sadly up.

Thankfully, many creative artists and athletes the world over had pre-empted this by taking a more direct route to engaging with their fans.

After all, the ability to reach an audience is the core element that underpins performance art and sport at the highest level.

Instead of waiting out the pandemic and seeing what was left in the wreckage of their industry, they decided to take things into their own hands and go direct.

The signs that this was going to be a growing Covid-19-enforced trend were there as early as the first couple of months of the pandemic.

Patreon, the subscription service which connects creatives and provides rewards and perks to an online subscriber base, reported seeing a huge influx of creators over the first two months of the pandemic. More than 100,000 artists launched on the platform over that period alone, to take advantage of the tools it offers to help them earn a monthly income.

Whilst the majority of creators on platforms like Patreon can’t be considered household names, famous names have also sought to take the direct route to engaging with their audience during the pandemic.

Artists including Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber and Cardi B have all taken to Instagram Live to entertain fans directly in the absence of opportunities to play live and ‘in the flesh’.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this was singer Charli XCX’s release of an album that became a highly collaborative effort with her fans contributing ideas directly to the artist via a range of interactive channels.

Connecting via IG Live and Zoom conference calls, fans’ suggestions on everything from lyrics to album artwork were taken into consideration in the creation of the finished product, entitled, aptly enough, “How I’m Feeling Now”.

In many respects, it’s possible Charli XCX’s fans felt closer to her than could ever be possible at a live event under ‘normal’ non-pandemic conditions.

Now, the direct comms revolution didn’t start with Covid-19 but the unique and unprecedented conditions created by the pandemic are definitely super-charging its effects.

There are plenty more players in the market including Cameo, another ‘celebrity shout-out’ app and, Only Fans, which is, despite a burgeoning reputation for adult content, as popular with musicians and fitness professionals.

Traditional social media platforms, however, do still play a key role in enabling creative artists and sports personalities to connect with fans. The pandemic has proven that they remain key channels for sponsors to maintain connections with their target audiences through talent.

The absence of fans from grounds and the isolation that many have felt in lockdown has endowed direct contact from celebrities and athletes with significant value, not least if delivered on behalf of sponsor brands.

A global report from as early as April found that footballers were producing 15 per cent more video content than before the pandemic, representing an acknowledgement that, when there are no games to be played, there is still a job to be done when it comes to fan engagement.

The fact that a significant proportion of this content will have been delivered in partnership with sponsors also reflected a way in which commercial partners could still derive value during lockdown.

An example of this was Kia’s announcement of the renewal of its long-term relationship with Rafael Nadal. The five-year partnership renewal was launched via a global, live-streamed training session hosted on the Spanish tennis legend’s official Facebook page. The broadcast gave fans the opportunity to help him get back to being match fit, as he prepared for a return to the professional arena.

Beyond this, there are even examples of major brands creating a hybrid approach to using celebrities to reach fans during the pandemic and even seeking to establish a platform in a new passion area.

McDonald’s in the UK, with limited heritage in the music space, enlisted the help of a star-studded line-up of musical talent including Stormzy, Jess Glynne and Lewis Capaldi for an event entitled “I’m Lovin’ It Live”.

Billed as the ‘biggest free music event of the year’ the performances were live streamed on YouTube but exclusively accessible via the McDonald’s app.

So, the pandemic has seen the emergence of a trend where talent is picking-up-the-phone and broadcasting itself which, in turn, is leading sponsors and commercial partners to understand the value of going direct-to-the-consumer.

As with many of the trends we have identified during the pandemic, it is not so much that Covid-19 caused their emergence. It’s more that it has accelerated their impacts.

Key take-out:
Large scale sponsorships remain the most powerful tool to engage audiences through the things they love, but these should increasingly be brought to life through individuals. They can allow brands to reach and connect directly with fans in an authentic and credible way.

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