June 24, 2021|
Is Social Media Going Narrow?
Marketers like us are pretty used to the idea of “broadcasting,” or going wide. For years, getting as many eyes (or ears) as possible on our brands has been the name of the game. It’s why we’ve used billboards, magazines, TV, radio …
Even in-store promotions and direct-mail campaigns are about getting as many eyes on our products as possible.
Social media and the Internet have followed suit with that. We talk about needing to expand our followings or get better reach. We want to drive web traffic or improve our organic posts to get the message out to more people.
Now, something interesting seems to be happening in social media land. Instead of a “bigger is better” mentality, a lot of the new social media networks are going smaller.
New Platforms Focus on Narrow
It’s been interesting to watch some of the newer platforms that are taking hold. Yes, there’s TikTok, which is a wide-reach channel. It hit its stride last year, and it shows no signs of slowing down. And of course you have the behemoths: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest.
Yet … not all new platforms are copying the “go big or go home” attitude our current social media titans have. If you look at Snapchat, for example, one of the appeals of that platform is smaller group chats. Most teens use it for that purpose. Instagram is where you post your pic to get the likes. TikTok is where your viral videos go. And Snap is where you go to talk to the people you, um, actually know and like.
Discord is another platform that caters to narrow, private communication. Yes, there are huge servers, where conversation is constant. Hundreds or thousands of people engage. Yet even these big servers have smaller subdivisions. Splinter groups can talk among themselves. And some servers or chat channels are tiny: just a handful of people.
Clubhouse is another up-and-coming platform, this one focused on audio. It’s like Houseparty (an app you can use to play virtual games with your friends), a conference call, and talk-back radio, all rolled into one. Much like Discord, audiences can be large or small. You might see a channel with a broad audience, while another has a few diehard participants. It can be as broad or as narrow as you like, in effect.
Other contenders, like Pillowfort and Dreamwidth, aren't new. What they’re doing isn’t new either: they hark back to old-school LiveJournal and Tumblr. Again, we see mixed use here. You can have an open group with a bunch of people in the community. Or you can have a small one, with just your closest pals.
Going Back to the Web’s Roots
Pillowfort and Dreamwidth are “throwbacks,” if you will, to an earlier era of the Web. LiveJournal was an early blogging platform. Users also joined communities. They could post in those communities—and those groups could be large or small. Dreamwidth has been around since the days of LiveJournal, so it’s interesting to see it experiencing a sort of renaissance.
But newer social media platforms are also tapping into this “early Web” sensibility. Snap, Discord, and Clubhouse are a contrast to the Facebooks and Instagrams of the world. On those big platforms, your clout is determined by how many followers you have. The focus is on pushing content to a wider audience to gain attention.
You still want people to come hang out with you, but there’s a huge difference with these new platforms. Discord and Clubhouse require invites to join any group. And while Snapchat is open to anyone, you have to be added to a group chat.
That's a lot different from Facebook or Twitter, where the goal is to put content out there for anyone to see. New platforms are encouraging curated communities of users who share the same interests. And everyone is an equal participant.
Yes, Facebook does have some of these capabilities; you can make a group or a group chat, for example. But Facebook’s recent updates have made their groups feature even more useless. Some users are looking elsewhere to establish communities and group discussions—including Discord.
This sense of community was a staple of the early Web: from Usenet to private chats in AIM or MSN Messenger. But when Facebook came along, things changed.
Getting Away from the Facebook Mentality
Like I said, Facebook is a kind of “broadcast” channel as this point. Same with Twitter or Instagram. You amass followers, who interact with your content and spread the message further. But many people have accused Facebook-style platforms of being nothing but numbers games. Follow-for-follow, follow-unfollow, and buying followers are common tactics to grow an audience. That, in turn, lets them game the algorithm so they get their content in front of more eyeballs.
That makes it much harder to cut through the noise for a few reasons. One, you’re always going to be drowned out by brands with bigger platforms or more money to push their ads. Two, you’re dealing with an algorithm that rewards this kind of behaviour. And three, nobody is actually connecting, because a lot of it is fake or staged.
That’s a big problem. A lot of people have checked out of the big platforms because they’re tired of not seeing the content they want. They’re tired of searching for “real relationships” on what’s become a broadcast platform. Conversations can and do happen on Facebook. But it can often feel like nobody actually cares.
And that’s where we’re seeing a move to platforms like Clubhouse or Discord. They're designed to foster community and discussion. These platforms are different from Facebook because they’re about relationships. Facebook might have started that way, but it’s definitely not anymore. Instagram is the best example of a “vapid” platform. It’s about as close to a one-way platform as you can get in the age of social media.
People—especially Gen Z—are looking for something a bit deeper. That’s likely spurring the interest in these “narrowcasting” platforms. As much as Gen Z loves TikTok, already there’s discussion of how TikTok sends “influencers” tips and notes on what’s going to go viral. That’s not helping smaller users “breakthrough” and it’s not creating community.
Where Do Brands Fit in Narrowcasting?
Now, here’s the challenge: where do brands fit into this puzzle of narrowcasting platforms? You could start a Clubhouse or a Discord server and invite your customers to be superfans. Since these platforms are locked, this could be a great place to offer exclusive content or prizes. You could use them to get real feedback from your most loyal customers. It’s a new version of the fanclub.
The challenge here is that you can’t go wide. This has to be a narrow channel, or you’ll undermine the strengths of using it. You don’t want to invite 10,000 people to your Clubhouse for an “intimate chat.” Your Discord server would end up being total chaos.
What’s more is that a lot of us don’t have the resources to sustain something like that. So it makes sense to keep these channels limited to your most loyal customers, your biggest fans.
There’s a question here for brands: is this actually useful? It’s hard to make the case for using Twitter or Facebook or anything else, let alone platforms that focus on a limited audience. You’re going to have a hard time convincing the C-suite these channels are “worth it.”
A final question is whether brands are actually welcome in these spaces. You can set up your own Clubhouse or Discord channel, but you might have a hard time getting invites to others. Part of the appeal of these channels is building relationships and talking to real people. Do people actually want brand presence here?
It makes sense to want alternatives to Facebook or Instagram, especially for smaller brands. Channels like Snapchat and Clubhouse offer the chance to connect with the people who care about your brand.
There could be real value in doing something like this, especially if you can offer your customers something in return. That said, these smaller channels can’t replace the larger, Facebook-style broadcast channels.
Before you sign up for Clubhouse or anything else, you’ll want to think about which channels serve you well. Do you really need to be on Clubhouse? Will Discord actually offer you anything? Or are you better sticking with Instagram or TikTok?
Making these decisions can be tough. It helps when we have a good sense of our brand identity—who we really are at the core of everything. So, as always, start with the why!
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I am a businessperson who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.
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