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The Saturation of Subculture: How Alternative Media Has Lost Its Edge
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The Saturation of Subculture: How Alternative Media Has Lost Its Edge
I'm genuinely thankful every time I get a new listener for the Success Story Podcast. To get to me, they had to turn down hundreds of other valuable shows that also deserve to be heard or watched.
There are now over five million podcasts across the major providers, with more than 70 million episodes.
What used to be referred to as “alternative media” really isn’t anymore. It has become the mainstream, even if it refuses to accept the moniker. Now it seems like every brand in the world is trying subversive marketing strategies, which pretty much removes the whole point.
A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with Andrew Frawley. He was kind of the king of alternative marketing methods for a time. Without much traditional experience, he networked his way into becoming the Chief Marketing Officer for a presidential campaign.
Remember Andrew Yang? The internet sensation that went from essentially no national recognition to a household name seemingly overnight? That’s the work of Frawley, who played every trick in the book (and wrote a few chapters himself) to get people talking about his candidate.
But something that Frawley said in that interview has stuck with me ever since.
“Alternative media is saturated.”
He was right then, even if we hadn’t noticed yet. And it has only gotten worse in the time since.
The Clubhouse Saga
Launched in 2020 (well, rebranded from Talkshow), Clubhouse was a social media startup that (literally) had everyone talking. It exploded during the pandemic's early months, and a year after it launched, the app already had more than ten million active users.
The problem was that every company saw this meteoric rise as an opportunity. Every job posting for a marketing position had a note about emerging platforms like Clubhouse, and users started being constantly bombarded by sponsored content and advertisement.
That healthy user base took a huge dip and experienced massive fluctuations over the next year. This spring, Clubhouse announced it was laying off 50% of its staff—a move they called “absolutely necessary—and “resetting” the company.
Founder Paul Davison explained that they “grew way, way too fast,” but there was something else wrong with Clubhouse, at least from my perspective. Very quickly, it lost its cool factor. Lost its edge. Lost the alternative in alternative media.
Reddit Goes Public
The history of Reddit is interesting. It went from a simple link aggregator to where niche enthusiasts would congregate to discuss the latest developments in whatever they were interested in.
It had incredibly-engaged communities that could silo themselves away from the rest of the site, enjoying their particular subreddit in peace.
But as it embraced the slogan “the front page of the internet,” it eventually became Times Square. There’s lots to do, and you’ll want to be part of it—but I’ll be damned if you don’t see massive flashing billboards in the process.
Not to say it is dying. There is still a lot of value in what Reddit brings, and the owners know it. That’s why they’re taking it public this year, or at least plan to.
Remember that cool factor? Yeah, Reddit lost that a long time ago, too. It’s no longer an alternative conduit to an audience you can’t reach with traditional methods. If you want to use it for marketing purposes, you’ll be fighting just about every other major brand in the world for eyeballs.
So, What’s Next?
The question now is simple. If these platforms are so saturated, are they even worth it?
Of course they are. I’m not here to tell you to pull your Instagram budget, or cancel the podcast you’ve been producing. But you’re kidding yourself if you still consider them “alternative.”
What I will suggest is to consider some old ways to do new marketing.
Check Your Mailbox: The Unexpected Boon
In the digital marketing sphere, action taken by several browsers (soon including Chrome) to phase out third-party tracking cookies has sent marketers scrambling for new ways to reach their audience.
These cookies, which have long informed personalized digital ad campaigns, are gradually becoming obsolete, leaving marketers grappling with an impending 'cookie apocalypse.'
But wait, what's that in your mailbox? A piece of direct mail—tangible, personalized, and immune to the changes in your browser's privacy policies. This 'old-school' channel is proving to be fresher than ever.
When the pandemic confined us to our houses, we began spending more time with our mail. An unanticipated consequence of this was increased engagement with direct mail marketing.
According to research, direct mail has a better response rate than its digital counterparts, thanks to its personal touch, nostalgic value, and breaks from screen time.
Don’t get tied up in the misconception that direct mail only works to create awareness at the top of the funnel. It’s here to influence the entire spectrum, even assisting the bottom of the funnel with critical purchasing decisions.
When the recipient is already familiar with the brand, a well-designed piece of direct mail can be the nudge needed to convert consideration into conversion.
The icing on the cake? The reams of data aggregated over the years to support targeted digital advertisement can now guide intelligent, laser-focused direct mail campaigns that deliver results. You might lose cookies, but you gain a strong, relevant, and tailored strategy that marries the best of the old and new.
Trade Shows: The Human Connection
It's easy to forget the power of a good old-fashioned human connection. As we became more remote and distributed in our work, the value of in-person interaction became increasingly evident.
There were times over the past few years when I went a whole day (or longer) without speaking to someone face-to-face. I hungered for that interaction, even if it was just with the barista at Starbucks or the cashier at the grocery store.
This is how trade shows and conventions, once considered relics of a bygone era, can make an emphatic comeback.
Despite the convenience and accessibility of virtual networking, it just doesn't replicate the magic of face-to-face communication.
The intangible elements—a firm handshake, a shared laugh, a moment of eye-to-eye connection, an immediate response, and the excitement and energy of a bustling venue—create a level of engagement that any online platform struggles to emulate.
The resurgence of trade shows in the age of remote work is a testament to this. It builds trust, connection, and, ultimately, business. An attendee could become a valuable lead, a potential customer, or a long-term business partner, thanks to the quality time and interaction these events provide.
In a world where everything seems to be shifting online, this comeback underlines an essential truth: while digital may provide the platform, it's human relationship that fuels the market.
So, whether it's a grand industry expo or a niche event, trade shows are more relevant now than ever.
Referrals: Bridging the Trust Gap
When asked, business leaders estimate that 87% of consumers trust their organizations, but the reality is starkly different. A meager 30% of consumers report having confidence in companies.
Data privacy, shifting economic trends, and divisive social topics have left a lot of customers believing that every company is out to get them or take advantage in some way.
Ads, even personalized ones, lose some effectiveness if there is built-in distrust. The only way to reach that target audience is to find something (or someone) that they rely on and respect to deliver the message.
Enter referrals and word-of-mouth, the oldest form of marketing.
Think about it; doesn't a recommendation from someone you trust carry more weight than any ad, no matter how convincingly presented?
Referral marketing leverages this underutilized power of peer-to-peer recommendations. It builds trust organically, accelerates the customer journey from consideration to purchase, improves retention rates, and strengthens customer relationships.
A trusted referral is a powerful endorsement, and a single referred customer could become a loyal brand advocate, furthering the cycle.
I’m not trying to say social media marketing is dead. I don’t want you to think that content creation is useless.
But you have to understand that these are no longer cutting-edge strategies. Everyone is doing it, and it’ll only get harder as customers become more discerning or technology becomes more sophisticated.
The traditional methods aren’t all bad. Sure, newspaper circulation isn’t what it used to be, but not everything from the past should be dismissed so easily. Alternative media isn’t a blue ocean—it’s bright red.
If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.
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