Over the last year, more than 20 million people, mostly young, have enjoyed social media refuge BeReal, an app that gives its users two minutes to snap and share a photo with friends once a day. BeReal has exploded in popularity over the past year, thanks in large part to the ways it avoids social media’s common shortcomings. The app’s gimmick promotes authenticity from its users, and, noticeably, it’s ad-free—for now.
You can’t buy an ad on BeReal, but brands have been creeping their way into the app’s once exclusive social circles. If BeReal ever wants to make money, the company will be powerless to stop them.
BeReal’s current silence on the issue of ads and monetization speaks volumes. The company didn’t respond to Gizmodo’s questions, and it didn’t comment on a number of other stories on this subject, either. The company isn’t ruling out the possibility of welcoming ads onto the platform in the future.
The most high-profile brand to join the limited social network so far is Chipotle, as reported by Input. The burrito palace experimented with sharing coupon codes on the app, and even sent out its social media team to snap BeReals in Times Square as part of a coordinated stunt. E.l.f Beauty, a popular cosmetics brand that’s gone very viral on TikTok, has been using BeReal to treat followers to an “inside look” at the company. Other brands including Trident, SourPatch Kids, and PacSun have dipped their toes in the BeReal waters as well, posting photos in the style of the app on other platforms.
BeReal isn’t flooded with content from big companies, but players in the ad industry are eager to get involved. One marketing blog posted a list of best practices for brands that are ready to be real, including hot tips like “why not post a picture of customers enjoying your products and services?” (Genius!)
The introduction of corporate America’s marketing efforts puts BeReal in an awkward position.
The app’s main draw is authentic, unfiltered posts shared between friends. That’s about as far as you can get from ads for big brands, no matter how hard they try to “hello, fellow kids” their way into the hearts of Gen Z. In fact, BeReal policy actually forbids ads altogether.
BeReal hasn’t kicked Chipotle or e.l.f Beauty off the platform, although they’ve been quietly kneecapped. Right now, you can’t add either company on the app because both have too many friends, which means there’s no way to see their content.
Chasing away brands with advertising budgets to spend is a dangerous business move, and it’s hard to imagine BeReal fending them off in the long run.
BeReal is so popular that Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok have all copied the app’s features. The original hasn’t figured out a way to make money, though, and the bigger social media apps have the distinct competitive advantage that comes with billions of dollars in revenue.
That’s partly why a number of ad industry insiders take a wait-and-see attitude towards BeReal’s success. “Brands are trying to get caught up in that initial groundswell,” said Nathan Allebach, creative director at Allebach Communications, speaking to Input. “But if we talk four to five months from now, I’m not so sure it’ll still be hot as it is right now.”
The lack of funds that comes from avoiding ads hasn’t helped other social media upstarts in the past. (Remember Clubhouse?) Even Netflix, once talked about in the same sentences as companies like Amazon and Google, had to introduce advertising as competition stiffened in the streaming business. Ello, once seen as an ad-free Facebook killer, is still trucking, though when was the last time you heard about someone using it?
BeReal is in its early stages. The social network is still small enough that it’s trying to hire college students as brand ambassadors. It’s possible that kicking profit down the road and avoiding advertising for now could be a winning strategy. But if BeReal lasts long enough, ads seem inevitable. You can’t be real forever.