Imagine walking into a networking event at a crowded bar where you don’t know anyone. You walk around the room, overhearing people talking about many different topics. Some of them sound kind of interesting, but the wide array of conversations is overwhelming and not particularly relevant. You have a couple of drinks and talk to a few people, but your results are hit or miss, and eventually you leave.
Scene 2. You attend another networking event, this one at a private meeting room where people are gathered to discuss a preannounced topic. Everyone knows why they are there, and this common interest is the major topic of discussion in every group. You learn a lot of new information, and even walk out with contact information for people who are interested in learning more about what you do.
Which event would you rather attend? Many people learn how to get a lot out of crowded “happy hour” networking events, but sometimes it is just easier to find a place where people will already care about what you have to say. And if we take the examples I mentioned above and move them to the Internet, that’s where niche social networks come in.
The goal and structure of every social network is different, and creates a different type of environment for users and would-be marketers.
When you think of social networks, you probably think first of Facebook, with its large user base across a variety of demographic elements and geographic locations. However, this broad demographic can be a weakness as much as a strength. Some products only appeal to a niche market— it can be awfully hard to generate engagement, relationships, and leads if you can’t get people interested in your posts.
The challenge of marketing on Facebook is related to its primary purpose—that is, to connect you with people that you already know. Facebook isn’t really about meeting new people (although you can). It’s about creating digital ties between people who have already met in real life. That is the core reason for its popularity, and the reason that it intuitively makes sense to most individual users.
By contrast, Twitter and Google+ are structured to allow users who will likely never meet in person to connect with each other. When you find someone sharing information that is relevant, interesting, or funny, you add them to your stream and develop relationships from there.
This brings us to Pinterest, an interest-based social network that sprang up last year. Through Pinterest’s archive of user-generated graphics, visitors can create virtual pinboards for any of their hobbies, interests, or dreams, and follow other users who have similar boards. Although it is a rich creative environment with many opportunities for content marketing, Pinterest focuses more on building your own boards than on connecting with other users.
The ‘general’ social networks that we mentioned above—the biggest players on the Internet today—are a relatively new phenomenon. They have become the centerpiece of an otherwise heavily segmented Internet. Where previously Internet users were divided across hundreds of sites based around common interests (where the interaction took place mostly in forums, under anonymous usernames), now everyone is on Facebook, sharing about their daily lives under their own names and personal details.
Although these forum-based sites certainly still exist—and many are thriving, thanks to the anonymity that allows you to ask questions freely—they have now begun to give rise to a ‘rebooted’ trend: niche social networks.
As the name suggests, niche social networks are built for a specialized target audience or focus. There are dozens out there—if you can think of a hobby or activity, there might well be a social network that is relevant for it. (Check out the end of this article for a list of popular niche networks for different activities and professions.)
LinkedIn could be considered the largest of the niche social networks— in fact, as of January 2013, LinkedIn boasts over 200 million users. The site’s features were built to meet the needs of the professional niche, making LinkedIn the natural choice for first-time job hunters and CEOs alike. Its focus on users’ professional life provides a sense of direction and common purpose when people visit the site, which is the primary attribute of any niche network.
The more limited audience of niche social networks can be a significant benefit for both users and marketers—so much so that many observers of social media expect niche networks to explode in popularity throughout 2013. Users love them because of the opportunity to focus on what they really love to do, and connect with people who love the same things. But without the audience size of a Facebook or Twitter, what benefits and opportunities might they have for marketing?
If the crowded happy-hour social networks (Facebook and Twitter, for example) just aren’t working for you, take a few minutes and see if there are any niche social networks that might allow you to connect more directly with your target market. These niche sites are on the rise—and if there’s a passion for it, there just might be a site already there, with an active user base that is ready to share their passion with you.