Why leaked secret documents point to the future of social listening

future of social listening

The top headline in the U.S. this week was how a 21-year-old member of the Air National Guard was arrested for retaining and distributing classified national defense information through a social media community. This raised many grave security concerns, but there’s also a vital lesson here about the future of social media marketing and social listening platforms.

Let’s get into it.

The Rise of Discord

The first lesson about the future of social listening is that this leak occurred on Discord … and it was undetected there. While Discord is a mystery for many right now, it’s becoming the de facto meeting place for a generation. This 2023 study from Edison Research shows the remarkable growth of this platform among young people:

future of social listening

If you’re viewing this on a mobile device, the chart might be hard to see. It shows that Discord use among people aged 12-34 rose from 26 percent to 42 percent in one year. By comparison, more people in the age group use Discord than Twitter or LinkedIn.

Discord was introduced in 2015 as a chat application people could use to communicate with one another while playing online games. The platform was a niche product until the pandemic when young people were searching for ways to chat with their friends and join online communities. It currently has about 196 million active monthly users.

But Discord is very different from other social platforms like Facebook or Twitter. You can’t be easily found on Discord.

Implications of Discord

It’s likely that the leaked documents would have never come to light if they had just stayed within the Discord community. In fact, the documents had been sitting in a Discord group for months before they were discovered. The documents were only discovered when they were shared outside of the group and spread into more mainstream channels, an event thoroughly documented in this Washington Post investigative report.

100 percent human contentThe popularity of this secretive Discord channel is an example of a marketing challenge I discussed with Sara Wilson on a recent podcast episode called Why Gen Z is Hiding out in Digital Campfires.

A conclusion from that discussion is that young people are folding up their social media tents and barricading themselves in online sites like Discord (she calls them digital campfires) where we won’t be able to find them.

As the Edison research demonstrates, 42 percent of young people are on Discord and their conversations are invisible to social listening platforms. Month by month, social listening platforms are becoming obsolete, at least when it comes to young adults and others setting up shop on Discord, Telegram, metaverse sites, and other secretive apps.

This is profound. Just as these military documents remained a secret within the boundaries of Discord, so do the conversations, insights, and brand mentions that used to be on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn — within reach of the social listening platforms.

The Future of Social Listening

Gen Z consumers are no longer toddlers. In America, we recently had a Gen Z elected to Congress. This is a massive group of voracious consumers who have a new set of rules when it comes to media, community, social media, and marketing.

Today, social listening platforms are a key component of our marketing dashboards. What happens when most of our customers become invisible to us? What is the future of social listening? I don’t have an answer, but we all need to be aware of this emerging reality. It’s not just military secrets that are hiding within the walls of Discord and other digital campfires — it’s brand conversations and insights, too.

For more ideas on how to reach Gen Z, I recommend another podcast episode I did with Sara Wilson called 12 Ways Brands are Flexing to Meet Gen Z on Their Terms.

Another resource to dig into this more fully is my book Belonging to the Brand. Chapter 11 is devoted to secret communities.

As Discord and other secret communities flourish, companies reliant on social listening platforms will have to find new answers.

Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of some of the world’s bestselling marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak at your company event or conference soon.

Follow Mark on TwitterLinkedInYouTube, and Instagram.


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