With Gen Z all about the group chat now, here’s how marketers are adapting

This article is part of a series exploring trends in marketing, media and media buying for 2024. More from the series →

Brands have always wanted to be where culture is happening. But increasingly, especially amongst Gen Zers, culture seems to be cultivating in ad-free, closed-off group chats and more private online communities, like Discord or the fediverse. If brands want to continue to be part of those cultural moments, agency execs say they’ll have to either find ways to access these communities or build communities of their own. 

“The fact that Gen Zers are drawn to group chats and [direct messages] signifies just how important two-way communication is to them,” Lori Martin, vp, group creative director at Innocean, said in an email. “And as this user base of consumers continues to grow in influence, marketers should keep that one-to-one mentality going in their ads and organic presence.”

At this point, calling it social media may be a misnomer as social media has become less social and more media, inundated with ads, curated influencer posts and political divisiveness. In response, users to these platforms are reportedly flocking to private group chats and closed-off digital communities. The phenomenon was documented this year from the likes of Elle magazine, the Skimm and Business Insider.

In 2024, social media users may be less willing to comment on a post in public and more likely to send that post to friends for private discussion. Given these are closed and semi-private communities, the shift can’t exactly be quantified. But, research from audience insights company GWI reveals that time spent on social has reached a ceiling, with global daily time spent on social decreasing globally.

Only in the U.S. has it seen a slight uptick from two hours and twelve minutes per day in Q1 of 2022 to two hours and thirteen minutes in Q1 of this year. Meanwhile, the number of WhatsApp mobile users continues to climb, hitting two billion monthly active users worldwide in February of 2022 before reaching 2.78 billion this June, according to Statista.

It’s not just that chatter is happening in the DMs. Marketers are dealing with the degradation of universal water cooler moments, forcing marketers to adapt and find niche communities as culture fragments. That said, finding ways into communities will only become more important next year.

It’s all given rise to what’s been dubbed the cozy web, or private spaces online people have retreated to over the years, where advertisers can’t spend their way into people’s attention. And advertisers are having to find new ways to engage.

“For the brands that either want to create closed communities or engage in the ones that exist, the implication there is just knowing that this takes a big commitment to do well,” said Liz Cole, chief social officer at VML agency (formerly VMLY&R). “Marketers need to ask themselves: Are they ready to make that investment and how will they know if it’s worth it?”

Some brands, like Wendy’s and investment startup Otis, saw the writing on the wall years ago, launching presences on Discord in 2021 to organically interact with people in discussion groups, offering exclusive product drops and more. Meanwhile, Geletka+, an independent agency, is taking a more influencer-style approach to closed communities in Web3, according to John Geletka, founder and chief experience officer at the agency.

The agency takes social media ad dollars and puts that client ad spend toward influencer-style marketing strategy to actively participate as brand ambassadors in closed communities. (He did not disclose specific figures around ad spend.) However, Geletka said, the community managers make themselves known, disclose they’re representing the brand and join the community to listen and learn. 

What’s old is new … again

“I feel like it’s 2001 again,” he said. “We’re building little private networks all over again and forums. It’s the expanding and contracting of the end of the pendulum of the industry and a lot of ways, just new mediums.”

The shift in how people communicate hasn’t significantly impacted client ad spend, Geletka said, at least not yet. Clients in the Web3 space have been willing to experiment, prepared to shell out up to 20% of their ad spend for community ambassadors. Others, however, see it as a risk with unknown KPIs given there’s no tracking and measurement capabilities in group chats and private messaging. 

These discussions — at least conversations around marketing and advertising in closed groups — are in the early stages, agency executives say. And ad spending hasn’t shifted yet. Those shifts in user behavior could cut into social spending eventually, but that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, according to Greg Wolny, chief activation officer of Code3.

“It would certainly cut into it, but I don’t know that it would render it obsolete,” he said referring to social ad spend. “Because essentially, this is a consumer or an audience that is just at a different point in the purchase journey.”

However, it is on the 2024 radar and could put agencies in the position to beef up test budgets to experiment with what getting in front of private communities looks like, Wolny added. 

For marketers and advertisers, the shift in how people communicate online is reminiscent of the early 2000s, Facebook’s push toward communities and Facebook Groups. Back then, brands like Peloton and Instant Pot started Facebook Groups with community managers leading conversations and drumming up user engagement that could be tracked and measured. 

“Everything old is new again,” said Cole.

Building brand-friendly spaces

But perhaps the solution is not infiltrating closed spaces, according to some agency execs. Perhaps the solution is either building your own brand-friendly communities or leveraging the ad-supported online communities that already exist.

“Nobody wants an ad in their conversation with their friends or their family,” said Boris Litvinov, president of media at ad agency Left Off Madison. Meaning, there’s less concern about getting into closed off communities, which are ad-free and without tracking, measurement and metric capabilities, and more emphasis on leveraging ad-supported communities like Fortnite, Roblox and the metaverse.

It makes less sense to try to follow closed and semi-private conversations, where brands aren’t expected, and perhaps not welcome. Instead, it makes more sense to tap into communities that are already happening, where conversations are more public with tech integrations allowing for consumer data collection, and the brand can insert itself more naturally, per Litvinov.

“There is this future-proofed idea that we don’t necessarily need to grab them in messaging apps. We grab them in communities,” he said.

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