Connecting With Customers in the Age of Acceleration
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Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? The grassroots effort to raise funds for research on ALS quickly went viral in 2014, when what seemed like all of your Facebook friends (and countless celebrities) posted hypershareable video clips of themselves pouring buckets of ice water over their heads. It resulted in a groundswell of local and network TV coverage and a global audience donating $220 million to the cause.
Moments like that feel almost quaint now.
Sure, social media challenges still capture eyeballs, but now they’re more likely to take the form of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it TikTok trends. Today, cultural mindshare moments are far likelier to ignite on smaller, private, and more intimate platforms like Roblox, Reddit forums, and Discord than in the public squares of traditional social ones like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. In the past year alone, hip-hop artist Lil Nas X gave a concert on gaming platform Roblox that garnered 36 million visits and has so far sold close to eight figures’ worth of merchandise; the Reddit forum r/wallstreetbets fueled the GameStop stock frenzy; and a Discord server helped turn the Bored Ape Yacht Club from a relatively obscure community centered on nonfungible tokens to one now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
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All three of these platforms are what I call digital campfires, a term I coined in early 2020 in Harvard Business Review to describe the smaller, often more private and interactive online communities and platforms that are trending with modern audiences. These types of platforms are especially popular among younger people — and a growing number of the creators they follow, according to a recent study. Data has repeatedly shown that younger audiences are indeed retreating from larger, more established social platforms. In the past two years, Roblox, Discord, Twitch, Fortnite, and Snapchat, along with more niche destinations like Co-Star (an AI-powered astrology platform), DePop (a fashion resale platform recently bought by Etsy), and Geneva (a small-group chat platform) have exploded in popularity, especially among Gen Z audiences. These younger consumers consistently tell researchers that they love the platforms because they’re more private, less judgmental spaces than traditional social media sites. Users feel that they can express themselves more freely and build authentic connections and friendships based on shared beliefs and interests.