By Sarah Santos

A kale salad, a digital marketer, and an anime character walk into a bar…

Two years ago, inspiration struck me in the form of an internet niche subculture called Manila Vegans. The eponymous Facebook Group, over 10,500 members strong, triggered a lightbulb flash, and not for the reasons you’d think. Eat-pray-love moments aside, this online community of Filipino vegetable lovers, whether they knew it or not, were onto something big in the world of digital disruption.

To understand what makes this so novel, imagine a gathering of over 10,000 people coming together over a shared love of plant food. Such an assembly poses a slew of logistical questions left and right. In the real “analog” world, how would they find each other in a sea of 7.5 billion people? What possible signs could publically signal a love of animal-free products? Where would such a gathering take place? Why would they be gathering in the first place? In a country that regularly feasts on roasted pig, who would have thought over 10,000 Manileños obsess over vegan food in the first place?

The creation of Manila Vegans answers all these questions. In short, the niche Facebook group embodies the rise of “long-tail marketing.” Long-tail market theory, coined in 2006 by WIRED’s then-editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, has to do with a shift away from generic mass products (at the head of the demand curve) to customized niche products (at the long-tail end of the curve). It’s a shift largely powered by digital, as seen in the rise of Manila Vegans. Now, the thousands of plant-powered people out there who are geographically scattered can turn to a new, unifying platform to find each other: the internet.

They simply have to search something along the lines of “vegan food in Manila” to bring up a list of hits. Whether they do this on Google, Facebook, or Instagram, each social networking site yields similar results, yet with distinctive networking qualities. For example, Facebook groups will be more community-centric, enabling Q+A discussions and text-heavy comment threats. Instagram hashtags will obviously showcase the visual side of what all this “vegan hype” actually looks like (delicious if you ask me, but I’m biased).

Marketing in the age of the crowd

Harvard Business Review recently published an article on the phenomenon of “crowdculture.” The piece analyzes the rise of a new sort of “cultural branding” as a result of social media. Crowdculture spans geographies and demographics, yet it allows brands to directly target specific consumer groups based on their unique lifestyles and personal interests.

Now, companies can leverage the magic of digital marketing and long-tail economics to reach an unprecedented specificity of target consumers. Instagram hashtags and Facebook subcultures are not just beneficial for isolated Studio Ghibli fans, YouTube makeup tutorialists, and aspiring body builders. These tags and blogs, YouTube channels and Instagram Feeds, and all the like are also new arsenals for today’s modern marketer. They allow direct and personal engagement with consumers in a way that promotes transparency, connection, and brand intimacy.

In my research interview this past summer, a Manila-based entrepreneur this summer framed the it like so: “The old system was trying to market with a sledge hammer. Now it’s like, you have a scalpel. So, it’s also really important that you know your market. Otherwise, you could be missing out, you could be doing the wrong thing.”

In other words, successful businesses must hone in on the details. While the rise of crowdculture is a blessing, it also comes with its own unique and novel set of challenges. New strategies must focus on rigorous data analytics of consumer psychographics and lifestyles. Marketing in the digital era will now revolve around quantitative information of qualitative behaviors. Marketers will need to be skilled at properly analyzing, interpreting, and inferring actionable conclusions from such data.

At the center of it all will be a deeper focus on the customer, whether she’s a working mother based in suburban Pennsylvania with a penchant for nature runs, a stay-at-home father in Ayala Alabang who spends his free time perfecting his grilled chicken recipe, a sari-sari store owner who loves buying Christmas lights for her shop, or anyone in-between and beyond.

Small entrepreneurs and big businesses of all shapes and sizes have the tools they need to simultaneously cast their net wide and deep. As the growing membership and constant posts on Manila Vegans has shown, internet communities are vibrant and dynamic centers of social activity. The question for businesses is about how to effectively tap into these thriving subcultures and offer them niche products directly relevant to their interests – a win-win for everyone involved.