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Isn’t It Time You Joined a Social Network? Part I

In the Social Networking World, Niche is Nice

By Barry Myers

Social networks are hot! According to a recent study from comScore MediaMetrix, the two giants of social networking, Facebook and MySpace, attracted a combined 249 million unique visitors in June of this year alone!

But aren’t these online networks just for kids? What if making yourself visible to millions of people you don’t know isn’t your thing? What if all you really want to do is get passionate about your favorite hobby? Does this mean that there’s no place online for you? Absolutely not!
Welcome to the world of niche social networking.

So-called niche or micro social networks are flourishing. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that, like MBA programs and spouses, there’s a niche social network out there for everyone! So let’s take a closer look and see if we can find one that’s right for you.

Exactly what is a social network?
Thanks to the wonders of the latest online applications, there’s hardly a web site out there that won’t allow you to interact with their content in exchange for a minimum amount of personal information – usually your e-mail address. Once you are signed-in to most news and general information web sites, you can comment on articles, post reviews, or participate in online forums.  However, this doesn’t make the site a social network.

Social networks differ from other sites in the amount of information they ask you to provide, the number of ways you can provide it, and your ability to interact not only with the site itself but with other members of the social network.

To help you create a profile and get started, you are usually encouraged to upload photos or videos, create a blog, establish connections (i.e. make “friends”), and chat directly with other members.

There really are no clear lines that indicate when a website officially becomes a social network. BlogHer, a hugely popular community of women bloggers, is generally not considered a social network yet, whereas LiveJournal one of the Web’s oldest blogging platforms is.

Niche social networks v. general interest social networks

Though the Facebook community is definitely getting older, these types of general interest social networks can still feel like the virtual version of a high school party thrown while the parents are out of town!

By contrast, niche social networks tend to be less concerned with meeting new people or creating a cool virtual identity for all the world to see and are more concerned with things like relevant content and member privacy.

Niche social networks are built around a shared interest, trait or objective. They tend to be significantly smaller and offer benefits to their slightly older members that the major general interest social networks do not.

Members are there to connect with others who already share something in common. Whether it’s a shared passion for movies in the case of Flixster, a desire to reconnect with old friends in the case of Reunion.com, or a common demographic or ethnicity in the case of Eons for baby boomers or BlackPlanet for African-Americans.

When you actually think about it, niche social networks in the form of dating websites like Match and eHarmony and career websites like Monster and CareerBuilder actually pre-date general interest networks.

Keep in mind, however, that niche social networks are not defined by their size, but rather by the shared passions and objectives of their members. Thus, even enormous sites like YouTube and Flickr are properly classified as niche social networks because the sites have very focused objectives – video-sharing and photo-sharing respectively.

Also, all social networks are not created equal. This is especially true for niche social networks, which run the gamut from well-financed start-ups to just a hobby for tech-savvy individuals. Most will be free, but some may not be. One, Yuwie, is actually offering to pay you!

What’s behind the growth?

One reason the number of niche social networks is increasing so quickly is because advertisers love them. They deliver a community that shares a common passion, so that advertisers offering matching products and services are virtually guaranteed to reach their target audience.

Imagine, for example, that you are a marketing executive at Purina. Wouldn’t you rather advertise online to a community of pet lovers on Fuzzter rather than take your chances with a site like Facebook?

Taken to the extreme, we are now seeing companies like Reebok (GoRunEasy), Pepsi (Youniverse), Martha Stewart (MarthaStewart.com) and, the ubiquitous Starbucks (MyStarbucksIdea) launching their very own niche social networks to foster brand loyalty and customer involvement.

How do I find a social network that’s right for me?

O.K – so now you’re excited! You’re thinking: “Wow, what a great way to meet other people that are passionate about glass blowing!”…or something like that.

A good place to start is FindASocialNetwork and search for your preferred topic by name. If you still don’t find what you’re looking for, visit Ning. Ning is a do-it-yourself networking site that lets anyone create a social network about anything. The site features easy-to-use templates and drag-and-drop modules to help you create your site. You can also search by keyword for social networks previously created by others – including several for those with a passion for glass blowing!

In my next article, I’ll take an in-depth look at some of the more popular categories and niche web sites.  I’ll describe their functions and weigh the pros and cons of one versus another. Hopefully, you will soon become a happy member of one or more of the many fascinating and flourishing online communities!

Barry Myers has been helping consumer technology brands communicate with consumers for over 12 years. Most recently he was a co-founder of DigitalLife, the country’s biggest consumer-facing technology conference and exposition. He’s currently hard at a work on his own niche social network. Barry lives in Manhattan with his wife, two-year old son, and twin cats Al and G.

Comment by Theresa, posted 2/2/2009, 4:01 PM:

Very informative. Thank you.
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