When the topic turns to social networks the conversation tends to be about the typical players – Facebook and MySpace. However, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of online social networks out there that don’t even begin to rival the millions of users of the big ones but instead cater to niche audiences.
Many of these networks are for-profit undertakings much like the major social networks. But others are marketer-driven networks launched by companies to promote their brands and cater to their most loyal users.
These networks facilitate collaboration among groups that was previously difficult or impossible by gathering hyper-engaged aficionados together using the Internet, overcoming previously prohibitive geographic barriers.
The major social networks have features built-in that allow users to self-segment and gather into groups already. That’s nothing new. And brands can create pages and personas on most of the popular social networks that can allow users to connect around their brands.
Niche social networks, however, are custom-built to meet the specific needs of users in the communities they aim to attract. Take BakeSpace, a site for cooks, as an example. BakeSpace has features that facilitate easy recipe-swapping, and allows members to “follow” other members to see what they’re friends on the site are cooking for each meal.
Sites like BakeSpace have sprung up for just about every topic. There’s ASmallWorld for high rollers, Pet Crash for pet lovers, SuperGlued for concertgoers, Birdpost for birdwatchers, the list goes on. In news, the New York Times is experimenting with TimesPeople and BusinessWeek is experimenting with Business Exchange. Check out this database for an idea of what is out there.
Because these networks are so focused they’re also going after a different type of advertising, often at a higher price. For 2009, 28.2% of the ad spending on social networking is expected to be outside of the big two social networks. Some say that’s because niche networks are able to target advertisements with much more certainty than the big social networks are.
While Facebook can employ a user’s location or age to target advertisements, niche social networks are able to provide ad buyers with users who have specifically defined interests. And other targeting methods, such as behavioral targeting, which tracks users and targets them based on their online activity, has drawn ire from the Federal Trade Commission because of privacy concerns.
That is just increasing the push to these “niche” or “vertical” social networks for some advertisers.
“Companies are learning that these smaller communities may reach people that are more valuable to their brands,” Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Forrester Research, told the Washington Post. “It will someday feel more like information than marketing.”
Some, however, such as eMarketer senior analyst Debra Aho Williamson, have wondered about the long-term viability of many of these platforms. That’s partially being blamed on increased consumer usage of social networks, without advertising dollars to match in the down economy.
“With US ad revenue growth slowing, smaller and niche social networks will have a tough time gaining traction and several may close up shop or be acquired by larger players,” Williamson wrote. “In addition, marketers that have built standalone social networks tied to their brands will either close them or migrate them to existing social network platforms where they can reach a broader audience.”
However niche networks evolve they’re an important trend to watch for anyone in advertising or marketing. With that in mind, there are several unanswered questions about the future of the networks. Is niche social networking a fad or will they continue to pop up as deploying social networks becomes easier and cheaper? Will these social networks ever get into the content-creation business, stepping into the space of legacy specialty and trade publications? Will the major social networks simply evolve as a place to aggregate a user’s online persona, with most of the collaboration taking place on niche sites? And should content producers (including news organizations) consider increasing the social nature of their sites to accommodate that interaction?