The era of mass niche is upon us

Editor’s note: Maxine Gurevich is SVP, cultural intelligence of Horizon Media's WHY Group. Matt Higgins is head of strategy at Blue Hour Studios, the influencer/creator marketing affiliate of Horizon Media, New York.

Spurred by prolonged periods of social isolation and widening societal division, a growing hunger for like-minded communities is booming and uniting people across identities and interests, especially among Gen Z. They’re diving into niche passions and fandoms for connection, forming subcultures that are driving broader culture and commerce.  
Unlike traditional demographics or marketing segments, subcultures are comprised of fluid, intersecting groups of people united by shared passions. One person can belong to many subcultures. And while subcultures aren’t a new idea, they’ve traditionally referenced counter cultures that are at odds with mainstream and commercialized culture. Think of the early days of punk and emo, gamers and coders.  

But in a world of rapid commercialization and an evolving social media landscape, we’ve shifted away from a singular pop culture: last year, we found that 9 in 10 Gen Zers (registration required) don’t believe that mainstream culture exists. And according to the Horizon WHY Finger on the Pulse Survey (August 2023), with 76% of Gen Zers feeling validated when they join a group that shares their passions, subcultures have taken on a new role.  

Today, subcultures epitomize communities driven by personal interests, united by shared passions and a craving for connection. It’s not counterculture or pop culture, it’s personalized culture. And subcultures are driving social conversations, trends and aesthetics like never before.   

Algorithms are fueling hyper-personalization

Algorithms have reshaped the media landscape, not only by relieving the burden of choice paralysis amid endless content options but also by connecting people with myriad like-minded communities. Our research found that nearly 9 in 10 Gen Zers rely on social media’s algorithms to help them discover unique content related to their personal interests, which is 35% more likely than adults 27+.

And as social media becomes more media focused than social, and everything else – particularly search – becomes more social, the ways we reach and influence Gen Z must shift. Clickbait headlines aside, the game is changing. A trend toward hyper-personalization means that the future of social will be more niche and fragmented. New Gen Z-focused social networks like Niche, Delli and aim to rebuild the foundation of social media by reorganizing social networks into like-minded mini-communities.  

Gen Z takes niche interests seriously, particularly the interest-based communities they discover on social media. According to the Horizon WHY Finger on the Pulse Survey, Gen Zers are self-identified super fans. Sixty-five percent of Gen Zers told us they consider themselves a super fan or really big fans of something. And when it comes to their fandom, the size of a community or an influencer’s following doesn’t matter as much as its intensity; two-thirds of Gen Z says it’s not important that the influencers they follow have a large following.  

For Gen Z, master of none is better than master of one

By connecting to like-minded communities through content and experiences that validate even their most unique passions, Gen Z champions the idea that interests define your identity. While young adults have always experimented with different personas to discover themselves, this generation is doing so more publicly and with greater flexibility, frequently shape-shifting between distinct cultural codes. They are avid explorers of diverse passions who mold and define their individuality every day.  

Our research found that on average, Gen Zers are passionate about and participate in 20 different interest-based communities or fandoms. Driving this fluidity is a desire for individuality. This group doesn’t feel the same need to conform to their peers as older generations.  

But it isn’t a lack of peer pressure they experience, it’s a reversal. Individuality, rather than conforming to what’s popular, yields social acceptance – and creates pressure to stand out. But the demands of hyper-individuality are balanced by an embrace of fluidity.  

The freedom to hop from one interest to another allows Gen Zers to discover who they are over time without feeling rejected. According to our research, Gen Z is 30% more likely than older generations to feel that having many small interests is better than having fewer, in-depth interests.

To reach Gen Z, brands must embrace subcultures

This year, our research identified 10 subcultures across categories like sports, entertainment and retail. From TALE-gaters (registration required) who use creative long-form storytelling to engage Gen Zers with sports fandom in new ways to Alternate Reality Gamers (registration required) who are tapping into multi-player puzzles and unsolved mysteries to spark collaborative investigations across channels, today’s subcultures are driving cultural movements. For marketers, it’s crucial to identify distinct subcultures that embody your positioning and align with your target audience’s values and interests.  

Gen Z’s fluid and fragmented interests will make traditional audience segmentation obsolete. Today, marketers must seize subcultures as a new way to understand this audience. Approaching Gen Z as a broad group comprised of fixed audience segments will not lead to connection.  

Embracing fluid, niche communities is the way to reach youth culture. Subcultures can act as a “cheat code” to create closer connections with passionate audiences and their personalized feeds and to build distinct creative and media activations that are relatable to diverse audiences. They can be utilized to inform communications strategy and planning, as well as the development of distinct creative, media partnerships, influencer selections and social content strategies. Subcultures are the way in and the way out.  

Research methodology

Phase one: The WHY Group analyzed over 1,000 Gen Z content pieces to spot emerging trends and subcultures. Using WHY's Cultural Intelligence library, they identified cultural drivers and confirmed them via a survey using Horizon's Finger on the Pulse (August 2023, n=1,130).

Phase two: The WHY Group undertook detailed interviews to grasp Gen Z engagement drivers. Horizon used MRI-Simmons USA 2023 research to profile subcultures as well as the WHY Group's social intelligence practice to understand media and influencer ties. In partnership with Blue Hour Studios, they developed actionable campaign strategies tailored to each subculture.