The Rules of Fan Engagement

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Whether you are a musician, a magician, a sports star or an actor, your fans are a part and parcel of what you do. They are your loyal cheerleaders and supporters. They are the ones that buy your music, CDs, go to your shows and they’re the ones who will treasure your autograph for the rest of their living days. These are also the people who sing your praises and spread the love and the good word. As your brand advocates, we know that their word-of-mouth marketing is the strongest of all marketing elements, and it is free of charge!

The reality too is that being a celebrity, you are giving someone, somewhere in the world a glimmer of hope. Many fans will quite literally worship the ground you walk on. They will pour their hearts out to you about all their trials and tribulations in life. They will show you a picture of their cousin’s new-born baby and even shove a college certificate in your face. What brightens up their very existence is some sort of validation from you. They see you as their new “bestie” (even though you may never have met them) and become very territorial and protective over you. God help the person who publicly shares a bit of criticism or and adverse observation on social media!

This can all become very overwhelming. You may find yourself feeling harassed and smothered and extremely uncomfortable. In extreme circumstances, you may fear for your personal safety and that of those close to you. The cynic in you may brush them off as “unhinged” or “challenged”, but the truth is that these relationships need to be managed sensitively and boundaries need to be established as soon as practically possible. You need to keep them happy, but you have to keep yourself sane too. Get it wrong and you could find yourself amidst a shit storm of note!

Reality Check. They are your fans, not your friends.

You have to ask yourself: “If I wasn’t famous, would this person be interested in being my friend?” Or, “Is this the sort of person who I would be friends - do we have any common ground?” Another question: “What do they want from me?” It is natural to receive this overwhelming love and support with open arms, but it can become very awkward when they suddenly think that you are their personal friend and confidant.

You are just trying to be the good person that you are and out of the blue, you find yourself getting involved in their drama and it is damn difficult to step away from that. The best thing that you can ever do is be gracious and remain friendly but neutral. Thank them for the gifts, refer them on to professionals for any deep advice that they may ask for and smile and nod when you see the fifty-fifth baby picture! Often, you are all they have and their bit of sunshine through their dark clouds.

I am not saying that you should never become mates with some of your fans. Sometimes you meet the most wonderful people though your journey in the entertainment business and solid friendships are forged. There is nothing wrong with that at all. What I am saying is err on the side of caution.

Reality Check. Be careful what you say.

Fans will hang on to every word you say. I mean EVERY single word. If you say you like Marmite, guaranteed, you will get parcels in the post with loads of jars of Marmite! If you express that you like Jennifer Anniston, they will make a point of watching every episode of Friends there is. If you say jump off a bridge, some may do just that! (Okay, that is a bit extreme!) Make a facetious quip or pass a judgment, their elephant-like memories will kick into action and may come back to haunt you later on. Again, if some come to you for advice, be polite and friendly, but avoid giving psychological advice – you are simply not qualified, and you wouldn’t want it on your conscience if something went horribly wrong. It is of course okay if they ask you if you can recommend a restaurant or perhaps a book or an album, that is light-hearted stuff and your friendly referral will maintain a great relationship with those people who have been there with you from the beginning on your journey.

Reality Check: Social media commands instant gratification.

Years ago, a fan would write a hand-written letter (covered in stickers and magic marker hearts) and post it off to a fan club. Months down the line, if they were lucky, they’d receive a response in the self-addressed and stamped envelope that accompanied their letter of undying love. Most often than not, there was a photocopied generic letter of response accompanied by a couple of bits of blurb about signing up to a fan club. In some instances, if you were very lucky, you got a signed photo. As much as fans clung on to the hope that their letters were read, they were often processed by an admin team, then archived (a polite way of saying binned!)

In 2021, we are in the “instant messaging” era where our lives are documented on social media and most communication is done on email, text and via instant messaging arrangements. This doesn’t give us time to breathe or digest anything and there is an expectation for an instant response. This happens in the business arena, in social set ups and, of course, in fan communication. These days, a celebrity response to a direct message or a “like” on a comment is as good as an autograph! Granted, this saves a lot of time sifting through endless letters, but you can easily become a slave to your mobile device. Responding to messages and comments is extremely important to maintaining active fan engagement. Why not relieve the pressure of being hauled over the coals for not replying immediately and use the auto-response technology available to you. This will buy you some time and relieve the pressure around the feeling that you have to reply or respond immediately. You also have a life out of work, remember that!

Reality Check: Your spouse may be enemy number one.

Many entertainers are in serious relationships and their partners are the ones behind the scenes who bare the brunt of emotions around successes, failures, opportunities and disappointments. The partners are often the celebrities most trusted people and it is with all good intentions and love that they become protective and want to intervene in any uncomfortable situations. On the flip side, I have witnessed partners becoming severely resentful towards fans and venomous comments have been extremely damaging. They have whipped the musician away from his fans as soon as the last drum roll has finished and have slagged the fans off, sometimes to their faces. There is an element of truth in the saying that “jealousy makes you nasty.”

It is a delicate situation, especially when some fans feel that they own you. As an person in the public eye and a person that needs the support from fans, you have to find a balance between being accessible to your fans, but also subtly and tastefully demonstrate that you are simply not “up for grabs” and this may break many a teenage girl’s heart!

After a gig, it is always a great gesture to do a “meet and greet” and sign autographs and take photos with your loving fans. But having a girlfriend (or boyfriend) lurking around and hanging all over you during this precious fan time can cause absolute chaos and your spouse may find themselves under attack. For your own good and the safety of your partner, the “meet and greet” time should be a no-go zone for your partner. I am not saying your partner shouldn’t go to the gig, but I am saying is that they need to understand that you are working and that you need to maintain an accessible persona and reduce any risk of awkward situations. If they insist on being with you during that time, which is highly possible and you also need to keep the peace within your home, it is advised that they portray themselves as a part of your team and do things like take cash for merch, or take the photos, or something useful.

Reality Check. Your phone number and home address are off limits.

The chances of having a harassing stalker are very slim, but sometimes you’ll get someone who may have a few issues who takes things to a new level and you could find yourself feeling very vulnerable. If they want to send you something, ask them to post it to your management office or label, or if you don’t have that luxury, get a post box and ask them to post it to that address. If they want to get hold of you for whatever reason and ask you for your number, don’t give it to them! Instead, pass on an email address or get them to direct message you on Facebook or Instagram. Again, I am not saying that all fans are loony. Some may have a booking request or a business proposal to send you, but try and keep separate channels for business and fan communication and personal communication.

Reality Check. Business engagements with fans.

Throughout your journey in the entertainment business, you will meet all sorts of people. Some may be hugely beneficial to your career and you may enter into lucrative and beneficial business arrangements. Sometimes, these people may be long-standing fans, which often makes the outcomes of any business transactions hugely successful as these people are as passionate about your career as you are. This coupled with their professional skills can only be a winning situation.

However, you may be approached by a fan who will say that they will “manage you” or they will “handle your social media” – all with good intentions. But you need to ask yourself, are they qualified for the job? Also, if they come on board, is it going to benefit you or is it going to fuel their own ego and “social capital”? If there is a fall-out, are they going to run your name through the dirt and tell the world that you treat your fans like crap?

To conclude, your fans are vital career assets in terms of both their spending power and their word-of-mouth marketing. Relationships with them need to be nurtured and you need to maintain your existing fanbase and also grow it. But you also have a moral responsibility to yourself to protect your right to privacy and live and work in an environment where you at minimal risk of being physically and emotionally harmed or have damage done to your integrity or reputation. Setting boundaries and exercising caution are the two key rules of fan engagement.

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