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Fans of touring companies are perfect customers – booking early and often in large groups. Sian Dudley reveals how a receiving venue like Cast in Doncaster works with visiting companies to make the most of ‘fandom’.

Photo of singer in wings of theatre
In the wings of an Opera North performance

Tom Arber

Fans exhibit all the good behaviour of great customers – they share more, buy more and engage more. Over the past year or so, Cast has been working to build the brands of our regular touring partners to use ‘fan marketing’ as a method of audience engagement.

The nature of fandom

Fans book early. Really early. We experience fan bookings as soon as a show goes on sale, and in some superfan cases, customers even contact us demanding the company to return. Apart from early booking being better for our marketing blood pressure, early booking saves on marketing resources and encourages customers to opt in to our preferred, cheaper, faster forms of communications like email and social media.

We have decided to release the grip and stop seeing our audiences as just our audiences by fully committing to data-sharing principles

Fans book every year, no matter what the show is. It becomes a ritual, part of their cultural identity, and that level of trust gives producing companies more freedom to experiment with the scope of their work. In turn, fan power enables venues to have confidence in programming riskier product.

But more than that, fans will go practically anywhere (within reason) to get their fix. When we received the world premiere of Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre, it sold out really quickly, 46% of the bookings being from people new to us. That demonstrates the confidence that Northern Ballet fans have in the work, booking in their droves for a new production, in a new theatre – and in Doncaster.

Like any great advocate, fans also convert others to join the fan club. They are passionate evangelists, helping to project your marketing messages, and then booking in larger groups. We see customers booking time and time again for their favourite writers like John Godber, and in larger than average party sizes when compared to a similar product.

What’s the downside? Fans can be difficult to cross over to other work, so it’s important to make sure programming teams maintain regular opportunities for fans to attend.

Fans also become experts, comparing the quality, style, technique, marketing and form of the work year on year, which deepens their relationship with the brand. This empowers fans to form opinions, not always positive ones, but at least they are engaged enough to form them.

Touring companies

The best touring companies follow up their shows with a well-thought out method of post-show engagement. For example, English Touring Theatre does a great job of integrating our needs into what they do with fans before, during and between visits.

Opera North is great at delivering obscure fan references, classical music in-jokes and offering a creative approach to backstage insight. In recent years its online and offline communications have captured the spirit of life behind the curtain. When we work in the arts it’s easy to forget how special the view from the wings can be, and its campaigns for Kiss Me Kate, Eight Little Greats (which tours this autumn) and its season guides feature artistic photography opening up what’s usually unseen for its fans. And for those new to opera, exclusive access is a great way to welcome them into the club – it’s almost like you’re one of the team.

Being able to tell your story is also important for engaging with fans. Phoenix Dance Theatre has fans who emotionally connect with the company’s history. Its 35-year powerful narrative is remarkable and to say “I was there” or “I've followed them from the beginning” is really special and the mark of a devoted fan. To celebrate its 35th birthday, it has been reanimating fans with a fundraising campaign and opening up the company archive to celebrate the past.

It’s important to work together to build fans and audiences. Venues can get a bad reputation for being possessive over audiences. That’s why we have decided to release the grip and stop seeing our audiences as just our audiences by fully committing to data-sharing principles, as well as sharing insights and audience development goals with our visiting companies.

Listening to fans

Fans can be your harshest critics, but armchair experts also have valuable insights. By listening to our fans, they can help influence the creation of work, and it’s really important to build that conversation into the customer relationship management. Having a close relationship with fans also allows marketers to gather information and seek out look-a-like fans or prospect fans, as well as refining marketing strategies and campaigns to connect people and the arts.

As we look ahead, we hope to harness the passion of fans to help us grow. What’s exciting is that in a digital world there are more opportunities than ever to engage and get fanatical for the passion, love and devotion people have for the arts.

Sian Dudley is Head of Marketing and Communications at Cast in Doncaster.

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Photo of Sian Dudley