What WallStreetBets Tells Us about Marketing to Gamers
The WallStreetBets phenomenon has big implications for the future of investments. It’s also a master-class case study in gaming subculture motivations and behavior.
The meteoric rise and inevitable sell-off of GameStop stock is one of the most fascinating events of this young year, and it was all instigated by a group of Reddit pranksters who grew up on games and the internet.
It worked. During trading last week, the share price soared to $483, up an incredible 1,600 percent since the end of 2020, when it was trading for around $17. On Monday, when the Reddit trading community began taking their profits en masse, many of them became instant millionaires. Meanwhile, the rest of the world was left trying to sort out what just happened and whether it was good or bad.
One thing is for certain. WallStreetBets’ stock market heist struck a chord with gaming and internet subcultures. It’s a brilliant example of how to orchestrate a successful online campaign. Today, we’ll be looking at why WallStreetBets took off, and how those lessons apply to online marketing campaigns aimed at young consumers.
Gaming nostalgia brands are a powerful motivator
GameStop’s business model is firmly rooted in the past. The chain came to prominence in the early aughts trading used copies of PlayStation 2 and Xbox games at malls and shopping centers. Not surprisingly, Reddit’s largest demographic, users aged 25 to 29, were kids and teenagers during that time. One could argue that nostalgia was a big, motivating factor in WallStreetBets’ endorsement of the declining brand.
In fact, many already have. Time, Bloomberg, CNBC, The Ringer, and New York Magazine, along with posts on r/WallStreetBets itself (NSFW–language), all point out the nostalgic tendencies of the Reddit investor trend. Notably old-school brands like AMC, Blackberry, and Express have been the benefactor of similar investment campaigns.
What does that tell us about gamers? Well, that they respond very strongly to nostalgia brands that resonate with them, for one thing. Brands should be on the lookout for opportunities to work in throwbacks in their marketing campaigns.
Of course, nostalgia is a driving force in young adult-focused advertising. Featuring shiny plastic cell phones and video cassette tapes, Lancôme’s Y2K-inspired marketing campaign for Juicy Tubes lip gloss blew up on Instagram, and Airbnb’s takeover of the last Blockbuster Video still standing garnered 45.3K likes from a single tweet.
But gamers just might be the most responsive to nostalgia of all. Of 2020’s ten best selling games, according to NPD, all but one are related to games from times past, including Final Fantasy VII: Remake, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a collection of Mario games from the late ‘90s through the late aughts.
The only one that isn’t directly tied to an older title, Ghost of Tsushima, has its own nostalgic bent: it allows players to witness game events in Kurosawa mode, aping the cinematic style that Akira Kurosawa used to shoot his famous samurai films.
Gaming nostalgia generates buzz over social media
Had the GameStop campaign targeted some anonymous business, few people outside the sub-Reddit would have paid attention; but because it was linked to a nostalgic gaming brand, WallStreetBets took off on social media.
The movement gained traction on platforms like TikTok where the #wallstreetbets hashtag currently has 193 million views. As a result, r/WallStreetBets became the fastest growing Reddit forum, gaining 4.3 million new members in the past seven days. The Washington Post reports even 10 year-olds got in on the trading action, with the approval of their parents, of course.
Why? For younger generations on the internet, gaming is more than a pastime. It’s how they communicate. Popular hashtags like #gamingmemes (699 million views) and #minecraftmemes (2.6 billion) on TikTok are filled with content of gamers expressing themselves in ways directly and tangentially connected to gaming. Brands who find authentic ways to become a part of that conversation can reap the benefits of huge audiences.
Memes can exist IRL
In the thick of their short squeeze campaign, WallStreetBets began buying ads on billboards in cities around the world, including Dallas, Orlando, and Auckland. These ads positioned sub-Reddit specific memes, including their hot shot whiz kid logo and the now infamous “diamond hands” emoji, over heavily- travelled interstates.
While it may seem counterintuitive to buy physical ad space for internet memes, it turned out to be a stroke of genius. The billboards became a meme factory. People took photos of the ads and posted them online, spreading awareness of the campaign even further.
This is a similar strategy to those used by streetwear brands who do crossovers with nostalgic gaming brands, such as Supreme sponsoring a Mortal Kombat coin-op with Arcade1UP, or Adidas creating a sneaker collection themed after Dragon Ball Z. Fanboys and fangirls snapping pictures and doing product reviews of these in real-life items keep their brand relevant among gaming subcultures.
Internet subcultures are highly passionate about the causes they support
Another factor contributing to WallStreetBets’ incredible success was that its members were on a mission. The community rallied around the battle cry of defending a beleaguered company from what they saw as underhanded hedge fund tactics. By pooling together their assets, they could drive up GameStop’s stock price, gouging short-selling hedge funds for billions.
In a show of support, many Redditors took huge gambles with their personal finances, cashing out 401Ks and putting their life savings on the line. They were willing to risk everything to contribute to the cause.
Call them crazy, and they may well be, but this illustrates something fascinating about gaming communities. Namely, that they are highly cause-driven and come out in large numbers to support them. Marketing campaigns that align with causes gamers are passionate about have a better chance of being endorsed.
Which causes a gaming subculture supports will vary. For WallStreetBets, it was a populist movement taking on the establishment. For speedrunners, a subsection of the gaming community who challenge each other to beat games the fastest, it’s giving to charity. The bi-annual Games Done Quick marathon has raised over $25 million dollars for Doctors Without Borders and the Prevent Cancer Foundation.
For fans of the shooter Half-Life, it was simply having the chance to play more Half-Life. Last year, the final chapter of Black Mesa, a community-made remake of the beloved first Half-Life game, was released to universal acclaim after the game spent 16 years in development.
One interest gaming subcultures have in common is their support for independent content creators. Gaming communities helped spawn the whole idea of the passion economy with the early adoption of platforms like Patreon, Steam Early Access, Kickstarter, and the indie game developer donation site itch.io.
If you’re curious about putting these takeaways to work for your brand, reach out to email@example.com and let’s strategize!