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Yik Yak holds potential for the right marketers

When Lewis & Clark ventured into the American west, the leaders of their day believed they would find opportunity in a wild and untamed continent. Today, marketers are exploring a different kind of uncharted territory, looking to apps like Yik Yak for the opportunity to connect with the millennial audience.

The brave among us may find opportunity—and surprises—in Yik Yak’s uncivilized landscape.

What is Yik Yak?

Yik Yak is a social media app that has become the rage on over 2,000 U.S. college campuses in the past 24 months.1,2 Here’s how it works: Users post anonymously to the app and Yik Yak displays all messages from within a 1.5-mile radius. For example, if you access Yik Yak from the middle of Central Park, it will show you a feed of all the yaks (aka: user posts) in central Manhattan, from Midtown to Harlem. Think of it as a collection of anonymous posts and conversations that have been pinned up around your local community.

The following screenshots show the Central Park feed from April 21st, switching between the app’s “New” yaks on the left and “Hot” yaks on the right.

“Hot” yaks are ones that have been upvoted by users who find them interesting, helpful, or funny. Yaks that have been downvoted by at least five people are permanently deleted.

Yik Yak users can also add to the conversation by anonymously replying to yaks and upvoting and downvoting others’ replies. (FYI, users who reply are randomly assigned graphic icons— socks and a shovel in the example below—to protect their anonymity. The “OP” icon represents the user of the “Original Post”)

Why should I consider using it?

For many marketers, there is one very appealing aspect of Yik Yak: its user base is almost entirely college students.

Since Yik Yak launched in November of 2013, the network has seen extraordinary growth on college campuses because of its hyper-local, peer-to-peer content. As noted earlier, Yik Yak says it is being actively used by students across 2,000 U.S. college campuses, and rough estimates put their user base at 1M to 3M active monthly users.2 Of course this is great news for marketers: a social media network in which 98% of users are the exact same desirable demographic.

So why is Yik Yak an untamed wilderness of potential?

At this point, there are a couple important things about Yik Yak that you’ll need to keep in mind:

  1. All users are anonymous
  2. Most content is created by college kids

Anonymity is both a blessing and a curse for Yik Yak users. On one hand, it means that the best content—instead of the most popular user—gets the most upvotes and the most visibility. On the other hand, it means there is zero accountability on the platform, and users can say anything they want. (We won’t get into it here, but there are many articles like this about Yik Yak’s cyberbullying problem.)

As a brand considering a foray into Yik Yak, this anonymity can be a double-edged sword. It’s great that brands can anonymously try out different kinds of content without repercussions. However, without any opportunity for a branded presence, marketers will have to work harder to create a recognizable brand voice that engages this audience.

They’ll also have to work pretty hard to generate authentic conversations about their brand that align with the other kind of content on Yik Yak. That’s because Yik Yak is a virtual campus bulletin board for all the happenings, gossip, and tips about school life. Take a moment and think back to college life and the hot topics of conversation on campus. As you may expect, people are yakking about sex, drugs, drinking, recovering from hangovers, bitching about finals, etc. To be candid, these aren’t the most enlightened conversations. They sometimes leave you feeling like you should give your phone a bath just to get the “gross” off.

How could brands get involved?

Well, first off, if you’re looking to be the subject of an AdAge article about being a marketing pioneer, then dive right in. Advertisers haven’t yet ventured into Yik Yak in any visible way so it presents a rare opportunity to be the first marketer on a platform!

In our research we’ve found only one example of an organization engaging the Yik Yak community, and it could only barely be described as marketing. In February of 2016, BBC News used the platform to foster conversations about mental health as part of a weeklong series on mental health issues.1 As you can see in the screenshots below, BBC News was able to stimulate honest dialogue around this sensitive topic, largely because of users’ anonymity.

But how else could Yik Yak be used to a brand’s advantage? Just to get the ball rolling, here a few other quick ideas for marketing within Yik Yak:

  • Join the community’s conversation – User anonymity means your brand is a peer-to-peer voice in the crowd. Use that to your advantage with posts and replies that bring value to college life. As an example, Buffalo Wild Wings could post something like: “Bored with TV at home so we did football right with MNF at bw3.” Or in reply to a user with hangover recovery problems, Pedialyte could post: “Hey, instant cure: Pedialyte. #lifesaver”
  • Advertise flash sales at local establishments – Because a yak’s audience is hyper-local, a bar or restaurant could post flash sales, coupons, and offers that have very narrow windows for redemption. For example: “25 cent wings at JoeJoe’s Bar from 4-5pm today…because nothing beats cheap food!”
  • Announce pop up activations – Brands that are in the area for a limited time could use Yik Yak to invite the student community to attend their event with a post like this: “Tonight’s all-night study session brought to you by the Red Bull tent at 4th & Main. Free Red Bulls for everyone!”

What’s our recommendation?

If you’re uncomfortable with the wild west, you should probably hang back for a bit. While college-aged millennials are a big draw, putting forth an awkward, inauthentic presence is never a good idea. Yik Yak is currently working on monetization strategies that will more clearly define things like sponsored posts, recognizable brand icons, and other advertising options that are common in more established social networking sites like Shapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. If you’re unsure, let the platform mature a little bit before engaging this particular community.

However, for the right brand — edgy and perhaps a little countercultural with a hyper-local presence — Yik Yak looks like an untapped gold mine. If you’re relevant, useful, and able to fit in, we think the Yik Yak community will make room for you. Who knows? You may just find that gold you’ve been looking for (or an Addy or Cannes Lion) out in those hills.