Marketing and niche networks: Why people are taking refuge in intimate social media

People had high hopes for the internet, but the dream of interconnected and democratised communication has been shaken-up. Openness online is intertwined with cyber abuse and data privacy woes, and people have become wary of the threats brought by vast global networks. With the revelation of filter bubbles, it’s become apparent that we’re not speaking on an open world stage after all.

Now that people are turning away from the idea of a single global network, they’re deciding for themselves what corner of the internet to hole up in and it’s spawning a number of smaller, targeted networks as a result. Major platforms like Twitter are splitting off on all sides; with the platform’s contentious stance on the limits of free speech, a mild revamping of its rules saw a staunchly pro-free speech faction break off to form Gab, a site without censorship. On the other end of the spectrum, many people have abandoned Twitter for Blitter, a more protective site, where users can tweet free from racially-motivated hate speech.

Beyond the fracturing of major networks, other niche ones are popping up to cater to people’s specific needs, preferences, and ideologies such as ‘Islands’ which is an all-in-one messenger that’s limited to college students within a given institution. GirlCrew takes a page from Tinder’s book, but in the form of a network just for women to find new friends and mentors, and ‘Amino’ is an app creator with several offshoots dedicated to Arabic-speaking Muslim communities.

Staying small has its benefits – it’s a tactic that’s worked for communities like Echo, a web forum that’s held strong since the 1990s. The three-decade old platform has sustained its intimacy by keeping the number of users below 2,000. With Echo’s lasting success in stark contrast to the gradual dissolution of larger platforms, catering to niche crowds seems to have a longer hold.

But as the sprawl of cyberspace splits off into niche communities, these new spaces become just that: communities. Instead of vast and anonymous, they’re tight-knit and marked by commonalities.

And while these shared interests might make it easier for brands to cater to people’s needs, it also makes insider status – and outsider status – more pronounced.

For example, new mums congregate on Peanuts and share their fears, struggles, and anxieties. While it would be simple enough to match products and services suited to Peanuts users, the community’s mums came for solidarity and support from people like them, rather than branded expertise. In essence, smaller networks have more powerful, clearly articulated identities but companies that don’t share in these identities won’t get brownie points for obvious attempts to capitalise on an in-group. So where does that leave marketers?

For one, many of these offshoot communities have come about to protect marginalised groups. Among networks that have sprung up to support social issues, there’s space for brands to authentically further these causes, provided they do so organically and genuinely. How well this is pulled off will be decided by the in-group itself. Take Mothercare’s Body Proud Mums campaign, for example – no number of advertising industry awards speaks as loudly as the flood of real mothers on social media, cheering on a brand that champions postnatal bodies.

But beyond that, more than representing spaces in which to target people, niche networks have a lot to teach brands about communities’ evolving needs. New mums might not want to be sold to on Peanuts; people may not wanted ethnically-targeted ads on Blitter but the kinds of conversations that Peanuts and Blitter make space for are telling. How can brands help new mothers deal with anxiety? How can they help people feel comfortable speaking up online?

Approaching people in their places of refuge can feel invasive. But acknowledging why people take refuge, and from what, is invaluable learning for marketers everywhere.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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