Niche communities are cultural spaces that may actually have a huge fan base. Culture Group’s Acacia Leroy tells WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo why and how marketers need to target and research these communities. 

This opinion piece is part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 report.

WARC: One of our Future of Strategy themes is “Niche is the new big”. In your experience, what do you think this means?

Acacia Leroy: It means that niche is the new normal. Communities, passion points and cultural spaces that usually would have been thought of as only appealing to a small group of people have now become mainstream. Each of these cultural spaces actually commands a big fan base. These are passionate people who are making their voices heard on social media. As a result, platforms and content production houses are taking note. 

Previously, marketers wouldn’t consider these passion points as something they can leverage to engage with people because they didn’t think the consumer base is significant enough. But that’s not really true anymore. 

What were some of the preconceived notions about being niche that may have deterred marketers in the past? 

The cultural appeal around niche topics or passion points used to be considered uncool and within the domain of nerds and geeks. One example that’s changing is the rise of anime. Japanese culture is always popular but there have always been some preconceived notions about people who love Japanese culture too much. Terms like otaku or obsessive enthusiast used to carry a negative connotation as an outcast but it's not the case anymore. In 2020, the biggest movie worldwide was an animated movie called Demon Slayer

This year alone, there have been many luxury brand collaborations with anime. In the same way that street wear was the cool kid on the block 10 years ago, now it’s about anime. 

The second preconceived notion is that because it's not cool, then it's only the domain of a small group of people, so it’s not worth targeting them or investing in a community of only 100 people because it would not yield ROI. That is also not true anymore because each niche fan base is pretty big. 

Another example is the Boys Love genre coming out of Thailand. This is a genre that marketers wouldn’t conventionally think or expect for it to be super popular or big. But actually, KinnPorsche actually topped the streaming charts in 191 territories. At its peak, it had 10 million tweets across 4 SEA markets in 30 days.

From a mindset or behavioural aspect, what do we need to unlearn to target or research these communities this way?

Firstly, it’s to become more comfortable with stepping into more types of shoes because popular culture is now more fragmented than ever. People’s passions are becoming more diverse. 

Secondly, it is to never assume that you know what is cool because this is a subjective preference. So always be curious and approach everything with an open mind.

Where should strategists start when researching communities? 

The first challenge is finding these communities. In this case, the internet algorithm is your best friend. Fans are vocal about what they love. It could be a factor of not seeing acknowledgement or validation about what they love in mainstream media, so they have to go out and create their own content. You can go to platforms such as YouTube, like Reddit, TikTok, etc. 

Afterwards, you can start identifying who the main content creators are and who are the most active commenters. Then it's really just about being scrappy and contacting them in case they would be interested in speaking to you. These content creators are actually the gateway to help you access the rest of the community. 

Are these communities found on niche platforms?

In my experience, thinking that niche communities would congregate only on niche platforms is a preconceived notion that might not always be correct. When we talk to these fans about their content consumption habits, they do use common platforms. The difference is that within these platforms, there are bubbles where they congregate, so the challenge is identifying those bubbles and finding a way to get inside. 

There are instances where people congregate only on niche platforms. For example, the Boys Love genre is not just big in Thailand but in China where they would go on platforms like the Little Red Book to chat about it. In the world of fan fiction, content creators would go to platforms like Wattpad or Webtoon. However, these people will most likely also cross-post to mainstream platforms, so it's always a safe bet to start with a mainstream platform and then follow the rabbit hole.

In your experience, how long does it take to research these communities? 

If I had all the time in the world, then the discovery process would take a week or two in order to find out what the landscape is like, who are the key players and then contacting them.

But if you don’t have the luxury of time, then you need to ensure that you are in a good place even before the brief or deadline hits. At Culture Group, we regularly track these different passion points so that we have a good sense of what is coming up. We bake this into how we behave as an agency so that when a project or a brief comes in, we don’t have to start from scratch. 

How does the process work? How do you effectively translate research into strategy and creative?

We don’t have a rigid process per se because every project and every community to research is different. But in general, you should have a good overview of the landscape and this usually involves desk research but also speaking to contacts that you already know in the industry. 

Once you have an overview of the landscape, you can have a better idea of what exactly you need to research, who you need to talk to and what questions you need to ask. And simultaneously, you can start finding the people that you do need to speak to. 

After you conduct the research, then it’s about drawing out the key takeaways, tensions and opportunities, then supplying evidence and real-life stories and examples to the client. Most of the time, clients are far removed from these communities, so illustrating to them that they are real people on the ground is important. 

One effective tactic is to collaborate and co-create with the actual communities you have researched. Don’t just treat them as research subjects but potential partners that you test with. 

Any advice on how to convince more clients to consider niche communities? 

Draw comparisons with references that clients already know. As an illustrative example, if you just talk about how popular anime is in Indonesia, then make a comparison to the World Cup and how it’s X% more popular.