Fans vs. Customers: 3 Common Misconceptions

Music fans in crowd with hands in the air making a heart shape

In the entertainment and creative industries, the words fan and customer are often used interchangeably, but the two are actually quite different sets of people. While both are particularly important to building a successful career as an artist, it is easy to see just how distinctively different the behaviors of each group are.

For example:

Fans are people who:

  • Listen to your music/appreciate your art/watch your videos/read your writing
  • Follow, share, like, and engage your pages and posts on social media
  • Speak highly of your artistic work and you as an artist
  • Identify themselves to others (and sometimes also providing recommendations to others) as a fan of your brand

Customers are people who:

  • Purchase your music/art/film/written works
  • Attend your shows and live events
  • Purchase and flaunt your merchandise

The critical difference that becomes notably apparent, of course, is that while fans may provide moral support, brand affection and help spread brand awareness, it is customers who take the extra step and actually support your brand with their wallets. As most of us are well aware, you can’t have a successful career as an artist without the cash flow to pay for you to keep doing it.

So does that make customers more important than fans?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Artists and creators are presented with unique landscapes and sets of challenges that other industries don’t have to deal with because of the relationships and roles both fans and customers play in their success.

As such, here are 3 common misconceptions to keep in mind while growing your audience of fans and customers alike.

Misconception #1: Social Media is The best Metric to Measure Success

It seems today that everywhere you turn, every piece of business strategy and advice is geared towards establishing a strong social media presence. While this is undoubtedly a useful and important tool to help an artist build their following and engage their audience, it should not ever be considered a real metric to measure success.

Yes, having a massive social media presence is sure to give your ego a boost and make you feel admired. It also definitely holds some value in boosting your social proof and clout. Yet, as a standalone metric to measure success, it fails because it does not distinguish between casual or passive consumers and active consumers of your brand.

Let me demonstrate with an example.

Suppose you have started a new band, and you have created a Facebook page for your group. You and your bandmates have invited all your friends to like and share it, and a large chunk of them have done just that. After only one week and without any music actually released, you look and see that your page has over 2,000 likes already! That’s wonderful!

And then you play your first live show 2 weeks later – and nobody shows up.

Ever heard that story before? It happens all the time – because so many bands quickly forget that social media numbers don’t actually measure what they think they do (or want them to).

All we need is more likes spray painted to side of wall
If only we could support our careers on “shares”, “likes” and “follows”

The truth is that a social media “like” doesn’t always equate to one from an actual fan – one “like” or follow from a casual friend who has never actually listened to your music is worth the same as one from a superfan who buys everything you ever release.

Furthermore, people often “like” posts/articles/things without ever actually engaging with them. For example, I personally know that when I share articles from my site onto social media, often, friends will share/support them with a “like.” Yet, the metrics on my actual website tell the real tale of who actually took the time to click and read through what I’d posted (spoiler: the numbers don’t match up).

A band with 100 real fans who show up to their shows and listen to and purchase their music/merchandise is, in reality, far more successful than the band with 100,000 social media followers who can’t fill a small bar because nobody ever actually attends their shows.

Remember: a social media “like/share/follow” takes someone half a second to register and costs someone nothing – I’m not saying it is entirely worthless – but do keep that in mind when assigning it a value in the real world.

Misconception #2: Business Practices and Strategies for Traditional Industries Apply Exactly the Same Way To Creative Industries

This section should be taken with a grain of salt because learning new business practices and techniques is never a bad thing to do… but it needs to be said that the entertainment and creative industries operate a little differently than most other business sectors do.

Perhaps the sports industry is the exception, but for most businesses, their marketing focus is bent on turning customers into fans… whereas in the creative industries… that sequence is flipped.

For example, Coke spends a fortune in advertising trying to create enthusiasm and passion surrounding their brand – they don’t advertise to create awareness, and they certainly aren’t concerned with “the next thing coming.” Their main product and source of revenue has been the same soft drink since the company started. Instead, what they want is for you to consciously choose their product every time you buy a soft drink – that is, to become brand loyal (or, a fan). Coke wants to turn customers into fans.

Corporate companies spend millions of dollars every year in efforts to strengthen and maintain their brand identities. They accomplish this through a multitude of tactics and associations designed to resonate with their customers on a deeper level. For example, think of Molson-Coors using the slogan “I Am Canadian” to identify and associate their product with their customers’ senses of national identity.

An artist is in precisely the opposite situation. An artist, through their creative work, usually already resonates on a deeper level of meaning with their audience right from the beginning (that connection is how people become fans). Therefore, an artist spends most of their time and money promoting spreading awareness of who they are and engaging their audience to hopefully translate that existing connection into a sale.

They are also always under pressure to create new things (music, videos, etc.) because they cannot rely on their product (one song/book/video, etc.) to continuously re-sell to their same consumer base. The only way to generate new sales from the same clients requires them to release entirely new products regularly, all with the hope that their passionate and enthusiastic followers open their wallets each time as they switch between being fans and customers.

Let’s look at the sport industry for further demonstration:

A passionate sports fan might follow his/her favorite team on TV, he/she might have a tattoo of the team’s logo, and you might find him/her every Friday night arguing passionately with anyone who will listen to him/her why his/her team is the greatest thing to ever grace the earth – he/she’s a super fan, right?

Sports fans in Philadelphia Eagles gear crowd the streets waving flags celebrating their Super Bowl LII win

Yes – except for if that person doesn’t ever to the games, purchase merchandise, or pay for a sports package that allows him/her to follow his/her team on TV – that person is not really worth any more to the team they cheer for so passionately than someone who doesn’t care about sports all.

The goal of the sports league and team is then to take this person’s passionate fandom and turn it into a sale.

In most other industries, customers purchase products all the time but frequently switch brands due to factors like pricing, immediate needs, or convenience. In creative industries like the music industry, diehard fans turned into customers will shell out almost infinite amounts of money to get exactly what it is they want. If you don’t believe me, look at concert ticket prices for any massively popular artist.

The point is, the focus for a lot of traditional business advice is on how to turn customers into fans. However, that work is already done for you in a creative field. There’s a good chance anyone following your work is already a fan (which is super valuable), so instead, your focus should be on turning those fans into bigger fans and actual customers.

That brings me to my next point.

Misconception #3: Fans and Customers Should Be Treated Separately

At the beginning of this article, I very quickly demonstrated the differences between fans and customers. After reading, you may have found it very apparent that only one of those groupings is going to support you with their wallet. Perhaps also, you decided that you should prioritize your efforts to focus on one group over the other.

Yes, but also no.

Yes, it’s impossible to have a successful career supported without paying customers, but the truth is… you want your audience to be people who are both fans AND customers at the same time.

Hip hop artist in a crowd full of hands singing with mic and giving high fives

While it’s human nature to infinitely group and classify everything and everyone based on differences, in the case of building a successful career as a creative, there is no reason to separate fans from customers in your marketing efforts.

Looking at fans, there is value in having a passionate audience who speak highly of your work, share it with others, and become an ambassador to your product. In an ideal world, all of these people would be your biggest supporters with their wallets too. That doesn’t always happen – but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them either.

You never know where the tipping point is for a fan to make the next jump up in their commitment of fandom, which might be a purchase of tickets to your show or your latest album (or single, in today’s case)… and even if they don’t, maybe from their recommendation, someone else becomes a fan who does.

The music industry not overly long ago went through a severe piracy outbreak (hello, Napster) because the music business as a whole started ignoring fanbases and treated music fans as cash cattle. When the fans collectively had had enough, they stopped supporting the industry’s greedy behavior. Don’t make the same mistake: fans don’t exist for you to suck their wallets dry, but they will support you when you generate value for them at an exchange.

Fandom is always a starting point for building a successful career, and while not all fans will purchase your products or artistic creations, that doesn’t mean they never will. Ultimately, that decision is their choice to make; how they interact with your art is entirely up to them; and so you can only create it, put it out to the world and stand by what you’ve done.

The takeaway here is simple:

Treat both your fans and customers the same way; with dignity, and your chances of having a successful career that will last you go up significantly.

Fans vs. Customers

Now that you’ve seen a few misconceptions regarding the differences of fans and customers, and how to acquire them, perhaps you’re now wondering how to turn a fan into a customer?

In my next post on the subject, I’ll be covering just that.

Until then, make sure you sign up to follow The Creative Wealth Project, so you never miss a post or a new featured artist!

Never stop learning and never stop creating.

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One thought on “Fans vs. Customers: 3 Common Misconceptions

  1. […] So, rather than tell you how you are going to turn your fans into customers… I am going to tell you what has worked and does work for other people… but it is up to YOU to take from, improvise, and implement these strategies in a way that works for you and your audience. (Side note: if you missed Fans vs. Customers: 3 Common Misconceptions, I highly recommend you check it out here). […]

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