It took nearly two years for Pogs, cardboard bottle caps reimagined as collectible game pieces in 1991, to become a nationwide fad. Three decades later, fads can happen almost overnight. Millions can go from hearing about a product to purchasing it with lightning speed. The barriers of geography and information have not merely fallen; they’ve been obliterated, giving rise to what we call “mass niche.”
Products or properties that might have built a small audience (niche) and grown over time, can now achieve global exposure (mass) in a matter of days. What were once small, disparate populations have coalesced into powerful segments linked by shared affinities in extensive online communities.
There may be some overlap between these communities, but usually not. Collectors chasing ZURU’s Rainbocorns (pictured) may not know—or care—about the Demon Slayer manga craze and Netflix series, and vice versa. They exist in distinct worlds—alternate realities, you might say.
For marketers, that means rethinking strategies and using niche tactics, emphasizing engagement and speaking directly to consumers’ individual interests, all delivered on a mass basis. Digital platforms make that possible, particularly when effectively targeted, and it has never been more important to understand your consumers, what motivates them, and what keeps them engaged with your brand.
The challenge for marketers is building authentic relationships, which can be powerful when they work. For example, Seattle-based toyco Zing launched its Stikbot poseable robots in 2015, designed for users to make stop-motion animation via a dedicated app. Also in 2015, the company created Stikbot Central, a branded YouTube channel where users could showcase their videos. Serious and casual fans flocked to it, and Zing dedicated the majority of their promotional budget to building that community. Stikbot Central became huge, with almost a million subscribers to date, but ask someone on the street if they’ve heard of it, and you’re likely to get a blank stare.
When PlayMonster launched its Break In board game in 2020—the opposite of an escape room where players work together to break into Alcatraz—it concentrated marketing on known gamers and remarketing based on levels of response to campaigns. The company pursued a niche-only strategy, not even trying to reach people outside of its game-playing target audience.
In October 2021, toymaker WowWee launched original characters into the established Twilight Daycare game on Roblox, instantly reaching an established audience. The characters were a hit, demand soared, and toys based on them are coming out this year. Data and community feedback generated by play on Roblox helped WowWee guide its hard goods development and launch strategy.
Niches are communities, and current media platforms are ideal for building them, not to mention being fluid and scalable, allowing almost real-time adjustment. TikTok, Roblox and Zigazoo all facilitate sharing among members and IP owners. Today’s consumers expect to interact directly with companies, and smart marketers are using this two-way communication to field play-centric research, refine product concepts, execute launches, and build communities.
There’s a treasure trove of data out there. Use it.
Christopher Byrne, a.k.a. The Toy Guy, is a toy expert, consultant, author and co-host of The Playground Podcast.