IPG Media Lab
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IPG Media Lab

Gen Z Wants to BeReal, and Brands Need to Keep Up

Gen Z’s embrace of alternative social platforms is changing how they use Instagram and TikTok, and foretells a major shift in online discovery

Image credit: Heidy Lee / Gavel Media

Move over, TikTok! There’s a new social platform that Gen Z can’t get enough of — BeReal, a photo-sharing social app initially launched in 2020, is quickly gaining popularity among Gen Z users over the past few months. In recent weeks, it seems to have accumulated enough scale and started to break through to more users beyond Gen Z.

On Monday, BeReal became the №1 free app in the iOS App Store, and remains there throughout the week. Data from Sensor Tower estimates that it has now been installed 20 million times; another market research firm, Apptopia, estimates its total downloads at 29.5 million, and that around 333,000 people downloaded BeReal on Sunday, July 17 alone. No wonder that BeReal memes are practically inescapable wherever you turn online this week.

Why is BeReal suddenly everywhere? What propelled its mainstream breakthrough? Is it a reshuffle of the social media landscape or simply another fad app of the month? Taking a closer look at the circumstances surrounding the rise of BeReal suggests that it is far more likely to be the former than the latter. And as every time when a new “it” app arrives on the scene, brands are eager to jump in.

Why Gen Z Wants to BeReal

Created by a French developer named Alexis Barreyat and available for free on both iOS and Android, BeReal sends out a push notification at a random time every day, prompting users to take two pictures with their phone’s front and back cameras simultaneously, preferably within two minutes. If you missed the notification and ended up posting after the two-minute countdown expires, your photos are marked as “late” for all to see. As an added incentive for posting, one can’t view their friends’ posts unless they post first. Unlike on most social apps, you can’t filter or edit your photos once they are taken. All “Reals” (aka the double-images) are only visible to friends by default, but users also have the option to make their posts public, which would make them show up on the app’s “Discovery” feed.

BeReal’s growth trajectory mirrors many of the youth-driven social apps that came before it — starting with college campuses and building buzz among younger users looking for alternative platforms to freely express themselves via word-of-mouth promotion and a successful college ambassador program. What makes it stand out from the “fad-of-the-month” social media apps that came before it comes down to its simplicity and, more importantly, timing.

BeReal’s mainstream breakthrough arrived at a time when many social media users, especially Gen Z, are getting tired of the algorithm-driven, overstuffed user experience on dominant social platforms, particularly Instagram and, to a lesser extent, TikTok. In other words, after seeing more ads and algorithm-sourced content from strangers, we started to miss our friends.

Judging by recent viral tweets, no one seems to like the recent changes that Instagram has been making in its desperate attempts to become more like TikTok, including a recent move to make almost all videos that users post into “Reels” and start showing them to way more people. Not for nothing, Meta’s flagship Facebook app is also doubling down on algorithmic feed, and perhaps the older generations will start to feel a similar angst towards it as the younger users that have fled the big blue app a long time ago.

Meanwhile, TikTok is not faring much better either, as the company battles one controversy after another, particularly the relatively low earnings that creators make on TikTok, while reportedly laying off some U.S staff in a company-wide restructuring. But at least it is still generating a ton of cash, with the app on track to triple its revenue this year to $12 billion, further threatening Facebook’s hold on social media.

BeReal’s success is also part of a larger trend of social apps attracting Gen Z users by appealing to their increasing demand for low-pressure user experiences that allow them to keep in touch with their friends. A recent YPulse research shows that, while young consumers are hooked on their current social apps, they are also burnt out from the pressure to appear perfect on social media, with 55% of Gen Z saying they’ve been feeling social media fatigue. As a result, they are increasingly turning to a new wave of alternative social apps, including SideChat, Poparazzi, and Locket, and yes, BeReal, all targeting Gen Z by focusing on anonymity and/or authenticity to reduce the mental stress of keeping up a perfect appearance on social media..

The Quest for Digital Togetherness

The other aspect of BeReal’s opportune timing has to do with where we are in figuring out how to forge a shared online routine that can substitute, or at least supplement, the kind of commune togetherness that we are collectively losing in the age of digital acceleration. While a lot of this type of check-in among close friends has moved off social media to private group chats and DMs, there’s something nice about being able to do something together at the same time every day. There’s obvious value in a platform that facilitates passive check-in at the scale of one’s entire social circle.

In this regard, BeReal’s success follows a long line of viral experiments in “digital togetherness,” from the sudden rise (and fall) of HQ Trivia to the recent viral phenomenon of Wordle. They are all part of the continuous quest to build what we here at the Lab refers to as “the multiplayer internet” — a trend that we highlighted in our 2022 Outlook report.

In a bid for authenticity and connection, young people start flocking to BeReal, drawn by its simplicity of use and pared-down creative tools. The resulting content may be unpolished and even a bit boring at times, but that is how real life goes.

Make no mistake, the people that are downloading BeReal this week are not deleting Instagram and TikTok. In addition to taking their daily BeReal snaps, they will continue to scroll through Instagram and TikTok, but the main motivation for using them has long started to shift away from social connections and communications, and drifting into social discovery, shopping, and other utility-driven use cases. It’d seem like BeReal has fully decoupled the “socialization” aspect from social media and left it with more discovery-oriented use cases like entertainment (content discovery) and shopping (product discovery).

Separating Discovery from Socialization

The accelerated commercialization of the leading social platforms is proving to be a double-edged sword: it provides users with more entertaining content and opportunities to discover new brands, but it also makes people miss seeing updates from their friends without having to wade through five sponsored posts or videos with affiliate links first. The rise of BeReal signals a growing shift in how young people are using social media, and the “jobs-to-be-done” they assign for each platform.

Social media, mainly TikTok and Instagram, already serves as young people’s main sources of style inspiration. YPulse’s Fits for the Feed report found that Gen Z believe they are the ones who create trends, more than fashion designers or magazines, and Millennials also lists TikTok and Instagram as their main sources of inspiration. More importantly, where they find inspiration is also where they’re finding brands to shop from, whether through recommendations or advertisements, with TikTok also the top place Gen Z says they have discovered a brand.

Source: YPulse’s Fits for the Feed report

Recently, this trend is moving beyond style inspirations and making an impact on local discoveries as well. Gen Z is reportedly ditching Google as their main search engine and looking to TikTok and Instagram to decide where they want to shop, dine, and play instead. According to Google’s own data, nearly 40% of Gen Z prefers searching on TikTok and Instagram over Google Search and Maps. Social media formats, particularly short-form video, have effectively digitized word-of-mouth, and they are changing the way young people are discovering local businesses and deciding where to spend their time and money.

Perhaps as a response to this shift, Instagram rolled out a new in-app map experience this week to help users discover more places nearby. Building an existing feature lets users explore other people’s posts on a map, this new map feature added more discovery-function functionality, allowing users to search for a specific place in the Explore tab or tap the location tag on a post or Story to see what’s nearby. Instagram also shows other popular places on the map so that you can see other posts and Stories shared at those locations, as a new way to find a new restaurant, cafe, or even park.

Of course, Instagram is not the first to come up with the idea of a socially enhanced map. Earlier this year, Snapchat introduced a “Map Layers” feature to its in-app map, allowing users to discover nearby restaurants and concert events through the integration of “Snap Mini” apps made by partners like restaurant review site The Infatuation and event ticketing platform Ticketmaster. While looking through restaurants or concerts that are happening nearby, users can also see if any of their Snapchat friends are interested in going, thus bringing an important social layer into the decision making process.

As with pop culture, young people’s preferences and behaviors in how they use social media are often strong indicators of mainstream consumer trends down the road. Two of the biggest format changes in the social media landscape in the past few years — a shift from permanent posts to ephemeral “stories,” and the rise of short-form video paired with an algorithmic feed — both started with Gen Z users on Snapchat and TikTok, respectively, before the rest of us caught on as the dominant platforms started to relentlessly copied the new popular formats.

The curious part of BeReal then is how the unfiltered reality the app espouses runs diagonally from the fundamental basis of UGC-driven social platforms like Instagram and TikTok. The mundanity of the GetReal content is the point, and at the end of the day, the act of posting something — anything — in solidarity with your friends is far more important than what you actually end up posting before the countdown runs out. Stripping off the polished sheen of Instagram posts or the calculated creativity that went into crafting a perfect TikTok, BeReal is a social platform in the purest sense of the word. And that will make it even harder for rivals to integrate copycat features without further bloating the user experience.

The Culture Pops Playbook

With everything I’ve written on its uniqueness and opportune circumstances, it is still entirely possible for BeReal to go through the same “boom-and-bust” cycle as HQ Trivia or Understanding the nuances between how people use different social platforms is imperative for all brands that wish to stay in touch with the zeitgeist and effectively reach younger audiences. It is also too early to tell what types of monetization strategies BeReal would pursue, and what brand opportunities that would entail. The existence of a Discovery feed could play a major part in its future revenues, depending on what types of sponsored content the company would allow, and, more importantly, that the users would tolerate. There’s already plenty of detractors criticizing BeReal’s “casuali-instagram” premise and questioning its effectiveness to truly deliver a healthier social platform.

Regardless of the staying power of BeReal, one thing is clear, brands must try harder to prepare for a brewing attention shift that moves local discovery off Google search into mainstream social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, while the real social aspects of our digital lives migrate to simpler new platforms, free of ads, influencers, and bloated interfaces.

The rise of BeReal is closely related to an innovation territory that we here at the Lab call “Culture Pops,” which refers to the capability of leveraging proactive media planning and brand activations against appearance of cultural moments as they pop into the mainstream. For brand marketers, looking at how fast culture moves today may be rather intimidating to tip the proverbial toes into the water. Rather than big companies leveraging their established brand awareness to amass followers, it is often the smaller startups that have proven to be more apt at establishing a presence on social media and play the algorithmic discovery game to their advantage.

For example, Manna Drone Delivery, an Irish startup delivering groceries, frozen goods, books and medication to people throughout Dublin, is leveraging its TikTok virality to boost brand awareness and build an online community, as opposed to customer acquisition. The company plans to expand beyond Ireland, into the U.S. and UK next year, and its borderless fame on TikTok will no doubt play a major role in its expansion plans.

As BeReal figures out its monetization path. Brands should look to other aspects of pop culture to find unexpected partners. For example, HBO recently expanded partnership with language learning platform Duolingo to promote the upcoming Game of Thrones spinoff series. Duolingo is one of the few brands that have successfully cracked the TikTok code by leaning into its giant green owl mascot for funny and relatable content, and providing a course for High Valyrian, the fictitious language spoken in the GoT universe is a fun and platform-native way for HBO to reach Duolingo’s users. In lieu of an easy way in, brands must learn to create their own Culture Pops moments.

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Richard Yao

Richard Yao

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab