Understanding people and communities is central to effective strategy. But, as audiences fragment into niche communities, understanding them is increasingly difficult. Charlie Elliott, Strategy Director at Billion Dollar Boy, outlines five practical steps to successfully execute a ‘niche at scale’ strategy.

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

The recent APG Skills Survey shows that the majority of UK strategists believe ‘understanding people’ is the most important planning skill. Similarly, WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 survey of global strategists found understanding emerging cultural and behaviour trends is the most important skill for strategists.

So we should be concerned that this requirement to the success of our industry is becoming increasingly difficult to tether down as communities grow, fracture and develop into ever-evolving niche groups.

Niche communities have previously been sidelined as the outsiders; the superfans and the convention attendees, whose borderline obsession with one thing seemingly made them not worth targeting for anything else. But these people are die-hard advocates for the brands they love and they will return again and again to businesses that provide them with value in terms of services, experiences and interactions that fuel their love for the specific.

These niche communities give us an inside look into culture. Although they may not align directly with your brand, they give a sneak peek into what may come in popular culture – from vocabulary, to fashion trends, to the next big rising star – and allow brands to get ahead of it and engage audiences with greater impact.

Niche is big

Quite often these communities are, in fact, far from being niche. My recent audience research for a Halloween brief led me to the community of ‘Witch Tok’ which has a much larger fan base than you might imagine – 46bn views and counting, in fact, and has even more niche sub-cultures feeding it from kitchen witches to green witches.

Multiple niche communities also share collective experiences and values, further expanding the potential for brands’ audience targeting. Strongbow, the cider brand, might not be the first brand that immediately springs to mind when discussing the indie-alt music community, but a shared culture naturally developed and Strongbow Dark Fruits is now synonymous with mosh pits and festival season.

Niche references also don’t need to be siloed to a specific group either. Pampers might appear to be a brand which is exclusively relevant to parents, but its ‘poonami’ proof pants lifted a word well-known (and experienced) by parents, and brought it into the wider cultural lexicon; their observation from non-parents at the comedy of the word ‘poonami’ makes the brand relatable and engaging, even if you have no need for nappies in your family.

With a joined-up approach, these ‘niche’ communities offer brands opportunities to drive high engagement and cost-effective conversion rates on a larger and more impactful scale – combining to deliver ‘niche at scale’. I outline five practical steps to successfully execute a ‘niche at scale’ strategy.

How to deliver ‘niche at scale’

1. Research is the foundation

First, marketers must identify and find these ‘small’ communities; for which, research is fundamental.

Rather than trying to hone in on the ideal target audience immediately, start broad. Niche communities are discovered rather than searched for. Go looking for them and you may find that they appear in unexpected ways: perhaps they use your product unconventionally or out of its usual context. You might not consider milkshakes and fries to be a classic food combination, but plenty of McDonald’s customers do! When the fast food chain discovered this ‘underground’ but popular dining habit, they capitalised on it in 2016, posting a photo of a french fry being dipped into a milkshake and asking ‘What’s your favourite flavour to dunk your fries in?’. Within a week the post had generated more than 10,000 comments from likeminded chip dunkers.

Finding these communities is tough – especially if you go looking for them on your own ‘For You Page’. Algorithms aren’t built to show you the secrets of others, so build a search that emulates your target audience. Create a burner account to get under the skin of your audiences, and when conducting social listening, dig around the lower reaching results to shine a light on ‘dark’ corners of social media otherwise unknown to you.

Niche communities require a psychographic-led approach to consumer data analysis, so ditch the demographic wide net, because realistically we will have more in common with those who share similar interests and lived experiences, than those with a similar age or gender.

2. Be patient, reach takes time

Once you’ve found your audiences, it’s tempting to simply begin targeting them and falling back on old demographic-led habits, but brands need to remember to take time.

A niche community is protective of their lived experience and can spot a disingenuous brand trying to be part of their world from a mile off. Considered communication and audience participation is needed. Work with the niche audience; don’t presume to know them. Ensure the right people are in the room who can reflect the customer’s needs, both from your side (brand or agency) and from a consumer side – perhaps through focus groups or engage with influencers who fit into your target audience before embarking on planning. This will allow you to speak in their language and also help you to identify any potential negative implications of a collaboration with the community.

3. Maintain and grow 

Once you’ve successfully managed to integrate into that community, nurture it. 

Build the audiences you’re focusing on by rewarding the communities who interact with you. In return, you can make advocates of your already loyal fans who then drive awareness for you.

And, as with all good marketing, always adapt your campaign to each platform. The same subculture might exist across multiple platforms but they will demonstrate very different behaviours and consumption habits.

4. Build and leverage long-term partnerships

Long-term partnerships and ambassador-level relationships are a great way to ensure you always have a voice that represents you in a specific community. They communicate with audiences in a much more personable way than brands can, and often straddle different audiences covering a range of interests. At BDB we work with King, the owner of Candy Crush, and only work with creators who already love Candy Crush – our research showed that fans of the game are incredibly loyal, even if they aren’t actively posting about loving the game, so we didn’t need to convert influencers, we instead work with them to convert others. 

The challenge is to do this without being seen to be hijacking a community’s niche interest for a brand’s gain. Drive to Survive is a great case study in how Netflix spotted an opportunity to make the Formula 1 community more accessible to a larger audience by sharing authentic stories that appeal to different people.

5. Respect the sanctity of community spaces

You could be tempted to simply replicate the same approach across different communities and platforms – don’t! 

If you spread yourself too thin and try to speak to multiple niche communities, your authenticity will immediately be questioned and the value of any relationship you’ve built with that group will be diluted. Instead, pick a group, or a small handful of very individual groups, and commit.

Brands can thrive in these communities if they coexist harmoniously with cultures they represent. But it’s a careful balancing act which must respect the sanctity of these community spaces. Always remember that their experience is an earnest and genuine one; they live the topics we see as opportunities. Disregarding it can result in a backlash; respecting it can build new and loyal audience relationships for years to come.