The shift towards intimate online spaces and what that means for digital marketing

Digital marketing nowadays seems pretty skewed towards the 12–34 year demographic. Apps that are used primarily by the youth, such as TikTok, have become huge magnets for advertisers, but is it going to stay that way for much longer?

The narrative that the youth are spending more and more time glued to their phones is, to put it lightly, just plain wrong. There are statistics, reports and, most convincingly, real life observations to prove it.

One of the reasons behind this levelling off and even decreasing time spent online is that us teenagers are tired of having to curate our online profiles and interactions to an insane degree.

According to a report from the Harvard Business Review by Sara Wilson, there’s been a rapid shift from public sharing apps that you can use to share things with large groups of people to private messaging channels, micro-communities and shared-interests forums. This may come as a surprise to some of you, but people like me are the embodiment of this switch.

As a 19 year old college student, I’ve never had a Facebook account, only have an Instagram page because a friend made it as a joke and am not on Twitter. Yet, my screen time in the last four days has hit a peak of over eleven hours on two occasions!

Photo credits: Me :(

What, you ask, do I find so entertaining on a device that has none of the usual social media apps? With no Reddit feed to mindlessly scroll through, what AM I doing on my phone?

Well, just Whatsapp. Simple, basic, little old Whatsapp.

Like Wilson suggests, the pull of the simplistic private messaging app has become stronger with time, to the point where I spend an average of eight hours on it everyday. Talking to friends, video calling through the night, having heated debates over text… I’m able to stay connected with my best friends even through a deadly global pandemic. Who can’t see the appeal in that?

Private messaging is just one example of the forums that Wilson sees teens gravitating towards.

Micro-communities are the second example, and they are wildly fascinating from a marketing standpoint.

A Vogue Business write-up lists Urban Outfitters, Coach and APL as some of the brands that have tried cultivating an exclusive group of dedicated consumers to bounce ideas off of and create the “fandom” atmosphere that helps companies sell more product. Several influencers are using this approach as well to strengthen their core consumer base.

The third kind of platform that teens are moving towards are spaces in which people with shared interests congregate.

Streaming apps like Twitch are a popular example of this. In the month of April alone, over 2.2 BILLION hours of content were viewed on the site, ranging from gaming streams to music and entertainment.

How do we adapt our marketing strategies to keep with the times?

It’s no secret that smaller, more intimate forums are where the online traffic is soon going to be redirected. Mark Zuckerberg, in a 2019 public Facebook post, said “as I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s platforms.” He added shortly after that “we are already seeing that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication.”

These are big claims, but we’re already seeing it happen to some extent so, from an advertising standpoint, what does that mean? How must our tactics change to keep with the times?

Well, the truth is, these digital “campfires” are great news for small businesses. Shooting off an ad to the masses is expensive and, more dishearteningly, not always effective.

When you have groups of people with specific interests congregating in limited virtual rooms, it makes your job so much easier. The thing you need to focus on is hunting out the specific niches that you think will be interested in what you have to sell and then targeting those spaces for your advertisements. You’ll be sidestepping the oversaturated general forums and reaching all the people you want to, anyway!

A key tip is to adapt your communication for the platform that you’re on. Reddit, 4chan and Tumblr all have subtly different lingos and norms. Make sure you study the forum you’re targeting before you press .

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