When advising clients on the right marketing mix, I always recommend reserving at least 10% of their budget for experimental marketing. Digital initiatives, as a whole, used to be considered pretty experimental, but more often than not digital is now central to any marketing plan.brand

The risky bet these days is setting up your brand’s shop on one of the many niche social networks popping up all around us. Do you risk getting a brand presence going on Pinterest only to realize your audience isn’t there? How do you figure out what role your Facebook page plays versus your Google+ page? Here’s a look at how to tackle the big question: “Is it worth building a brand presence on a niche social network?”

Study up: Check out the site and go through the entire user experience. Sign up, download the app, collect the badges, and invite a few willing friends to test it all out with you. Is the site well designed and user intuitive? Make sure you understand all that it has to offer.

Listen: Now that you’ve figured out what’s what on the site, it’s time to see how other people are using it and tune in to the conversations they’re having. Following the flow of conversation on a social media site often leads to several insights that come in handy when you get to step four.

Check the site’s vitals: Find the site’s “advertisers” or “media kit” section to discover audience demographics, the total active user base, and other stats key to determining if it is a good match for your brand. If the site doesn’t give you those details, then you have to discover them the hard way – with good old-fashioned research. I sometimes call up the site sales rep and ask questions about the audience and try to get an idea of what’s on their product roadmap. Then I go to other sites to learn more, like checking out the site’s monthly traffic stats on

Look for or invent brand-engagement opportunities: It’s at this step that I bring my savviest colleagues into a room to pore through the site for marketing opportunities. Sure, there’s the option of setting up a brand page, the standard banner ad package, and maybe a sponsorship opportunity or two. I never discount these options because they can be an effective part of the marketing mix. But my colleagues and I dig deeper. Where do our respective company core values and goals align? Instead of asking what the site can do for the brand, we ponder what the brand can do for the site. This often leads to new ideas, not yet realized on the site. Some are simple ideas that no one’s thought of yet, or at least done well, like Lands’ End’s “Pin it to win it” contest on Pinterest. Other ideas fit more into a product-development category, which niche social networks are more than happy to discuss – I’ve found that they love building new and relevant experiences for their audience.

Be warned these ideas often take more time, money, and determination, but the payoff is worth it. You co-create an experience on a social network tailored specifically to your audience. Brands that innovate at this level can expect better engagement and good press attention, too.

Make the call: Now it’s time to decide if it’s worth your brand’s time to invest in the niche site you have your eye on. It takes guts to recommend engaging with a niche social network that a client has never heard of. But if you have solid research, a laser-targeted audience, and perhaps even a few calculations in your back pocket like expected cost-per-engagement, you might find yourself hailed as the genius that tapped into the next big social media craze.