Impact Studio Drop #5: The Rise of Subtoks

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Welcome to Impact Studio Drop #05, your bi-weekly deep dive into the new, interesting, and occasionally unexpected ways to do cool stuff with creators.

In our 2024 predictions we highlighted the changing nature of targeting as a result of the rise of niche communities on TikTok. But 100 words wasn't enough to really get into it, so here is the extended version of The Rise of Subtoks: How TikTok Communities Are Reshaping Brand Targeting.

Brands have used demographic-based audience targeting for decades, reaching could be and should be consumers by age, gender, location, and interests. And for brands with mass appeal, these tactics may continue to be effective, but too often, demographic targeting leads to expensive wastage, meaning brands end up sacrificing meaningful impact in pursuit of reach. The new way to target? Community. And nowhere is community more fundamental than on TikTok.

While Facebook and Instagram were designed to foster ‘connections’ between known users, TikTok has been built from the ground up as a content first platform that prioritises content discovery over account discovery. The FYP algorithmically connects like minded users around shared conversations, passions or hobbies - fostering a community based on specific content and culture, not age, location or gender.

In this way, TikTok has redefined community, birthing cultures, subcultures and even sub subcultures, formed organically on the platform around millions of unique topics. TikTok said that “It doesn’t matter what your passion, lifestyle or identity is… it’s extremely likely that there is already a community for it on TikTok”. And while users can actively go looking for their community, many fall into communities by accident through the FYP. 80% of users have found “interests they didn’t know they were even interested in” on the platform, proving the massive opportunity for brands to show up in new areas of TikTok to appeal to new customers. Through discovery, connection and content, users are increasingly finding themselves participants in multiple communities with other users who may share no demographic similarities, just a shared passion for #miniatureworld, #coastalgrandma style, #kitchenhacks or one of a million other subtoks.

These communities ( #toks or #cores) have fragmented what were once large target audiences into niche, highly engaged subtoks each with their own needs and wants from content and brands. No longer can consumers be spoken to based simply on their age for example. While they may be the same generation, one Gen Z female can consider herself worlds apart from a peer who has different tastes. And it's not just demographic targeting that will fall short, but broad, interest-based targeting can lack impact and resonance on TikTok. Targeting based on an interest in Fashion for example will reach swathes of users that will never convert. Just a short scroll through the FYP unearths endless fashion subcommunities - gorpcore, corpcore, cybercore, blokecore to name just a few.

Using communities to target users who could be and should be customers of your brand is one way to leverage this fragmentation. But to truly have an impact with these communities, brands need to show up within them, in authentic ways. 76% of TikTok users say they like it when brands are a part of ‘special interest’ groups on TikTok and creators are a native conduit through which brands can speak to and engage these groups. At the core of many subtoks are creators who are leading the conversation and galvanising users into becoming active participants. Unearthing and partnering with both hero and up and coming creators gives brands direct access to engaged audiences, delivering far more specific, tailored targeting through subtoks which will ultimately lead to more impact and less wastage.

This fragmentation hasn’t alienated or siloed these audiences from one another but rather, it has created a melting pot of multi-hyphenated users who are part of multiple overlapping communities.

Creators are the perfect partners to help brands navigate and understand these communities of multi-hyphenates. Find the subcultures where your product or brand resonates, identify and partner with the creators leading the conversation, and then do additional paid targeting to get that creator in front of the richest audience. The more specific you target based on community, the more impact you’ll have. Brands that can show up in niche subtoks, speak to them in their own unique vernacular, and appeal through shared in-jokes will win big.