As with all wildly popular trends, social networks aren't immune to consumer backlash and burnout. And we're increasingly beginning to see such trends emerge in the land of social media. The clutter of information and features on the big social networks -- Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and others -- has become too much for some consumers to take. In fact, it's not all that uncommon nowadays to hear from friends who have given up on communicating via big social networks completely.
It's sad, really. For some consumers, what was once an experience steeped in an ephemeral sense of discovery -- the newness of an online domain organized and personalized just to our liking -- has now become vast, all-encompassing, commoditized, and impersonal.
Beyond the user experience, the big social networks also present challenges for marketers. Large horizontal networks can be tough to leverage as targeted marketing tools because they have so many diverse users. They have the scale, yes. But brands trying to find their voices in these networks are easily drowned out by the rest of the noise.
Enter niche social networks. Although they don't boast the gargantuan user numbers widely touted by the Facebooks of the world, these little communities are likely to play a big part in the future of online marketing. They work differently, focusing on specific passionate groups of people who congregate around a targeted subject. And they play by a completely different set of rules than the big guys.
If you're looking to cut through the clutter of the big networks and tap into your niche online audiences, here are some rules to live by.
Keep your mind open to interesting communities
When approaching niche social networks, it's good to keep an open mind -- a very, very open mind. More than likely, you have only a vague idea of all of the places your target audience might be. So if users are going beyond big social networks, where are they heading?
Odds are, if you can dream it, there's an online network of people out there who are into it. Doug Schumacher, founder and creative director at Basement Inc., can attest to this. His firm was tasked with developing the marketing around a new installment of the popular Resident Evil movie franchise -- a project with ties to audiences with a variety of interests, including pop culture, video games, horror movies, and CGI, among others. But the weirdest special-interest target audience? Zombie aficionados. And as it turns out, the web is teeming with zombie-centric social networks.
In Basement's online conversation analysis, the firm found that people were already talking about zombies and "Resident Evil" on these networks -- and they were doing so passionately. Thus, these networks represented an ideal niche audience to target with "Resident Evil" marketing efforts.
Zombie social networks might sound pretty niche. But the point is, somewhere out there, people are talking about your brand -- and you'd better find them.
Larry Weintraub, CEO of Fanscape, says that in the future, we're going to see even more fragmentation when it comes to social networks. "You're going to see niche social networks, and then you're going to see niche-niche social networks," he says.
As an example, Weintraub proposes a scenario in which the plumbers of the world, sick to death with the lack of plumber-related features on Facebook, start their very own social network, PlumberSpace. And within that niche social network, niche-niche social networks appear, such as Southern California PlumberSpace. Although this world of niche-niche social networks is largely theoretical at this point -- or at least in its infancy -- Weintraub believes it will offer great opportunities for marketers. Whether you're Home Depot or a plunger manufacturer, finding an audience as specialized as SoCal plumbers is a marketer's dream -- a highly targeted audience that will likely be particularly responsive to your marketing messages.
Respect social network leaders
Repeat after me: I must respect the leaders of niche social networks. Now, say it again. After all, why should a small social network that's already operating smoothly and passionately do anything for a faceless corporate brand?
"Those [community] leaders have put their blood, sweat, and tears into these communities," says Basement's Schumacher. "They've built these groups up, putting a lot of time and energy behind them. And when you come along with a launch campaign that's not on their site, they can look at it a little skittishly -- because why would they want to send their traffic off to somebody else's site for the content?"
Nobody wants to lose traffic to the corporate overlords, so you have to deal very openly and honestly with niche network leaders. For example, in executing a campaign for a major media company that launched a health and wellness webcast, Basement reached out to all pertinent community leaders first and asked if they would be interested in participating in the launch. Some turned down the opportunity. However, by reaching out, Basement managed to secure a 70-80 percent participation rate among social community leaders, says Jennifer Sparks, vice president of strategic planning at Basement.
On the flipside, social community leaders who decide to participate in brand promotions should also be upfront with their members regarding such participation, says Argelio Dumenigo, senior strategist at Razorfish. As an example of the benefits of these upfront conversations, Dumenigo cites a campaign he helped execute for LifeScan's OneTouch blood glucose meter.
In launching the LifeScan campaign, the marketers extended a partnership opportunity to TuDiabetes, a social network devoted to people with diabetes; in turn, the site's leader reached out to his community to explain why it was a good promotion and why the campaign wouldn't hurt the community. After all, it was important for TuDiabetes members to honestly believe that LifeScan wanted to be a part of the community and help promote it -- not take it over. They needed to know that TuDiabetes would remain as vibrant as ever, even after partnering with Corporate America.
"I think it was one of those win-wins for both sides," Dumenigo says. "TuDiabetes' traffic went up after the launch, and OneTouch got the halo effect of working with a grassroots organization that was [centered] around diabetes already."
Provide the tools for a successful conversation
Connecting with members of niche social communities isn't about making media buys, says Greg March, media director at Wieden + Kennedy. Rather, he says, marketers need to deliver "interesting things" to community members -- and by "interesting things," March doesn't mean targeted takeover ads and sponsored polls.
"[These are] your evangelists who will really spread the good word about your company, and you're going to take care of them," Fanscape's Weintraub agrees. "You're going to give them coupons and information they can't get [elsewhere]."
In other words, give them exclusive content.
Whatever the content, it has to be appropriate for the given social network. "Some people might want something really light, really easy -- like a trailer -- and some other communities might want something like trivia -- something more challenging and more intelligent for the community," says Basement's Sparks. "It really depends on the client and the community."
In marketing Huggies to the Circle of Moms social network, Dumenigo says the company offered coupons and a cute baby picture contest. On BeingGirl -- a social network dedicated to girls entering puberty, sponsored by Tampax and Always -- the brands offered free samples. They also hired a female subject matter expert who could communicate directly with girls and answer their questions.
No matter the niche, when questions arise within a social community, brands must be armed with appropriate staff who can answer such queries officially and directly, Weintraub says. These audience-specific Q&As add value to the member experience and drive traffic to niche social sites.
In helping to launch the aforementioned health and wellness webcast in related social communities, Basement focused on sparking conversation. "We gave them discussion guides, discussion aids -- we even came up with themes for conversations and topics for each of the episodes in the series," Schumacher says. And apparently, the weekly guides were met with great approval, as they helped improve the quality of conversations on the involved networks. "[Social networks] are like any publisher: They're looking for good content with as little time investment as possible," Schumacher adds.
Schumacher also notes that some niche social networks are "pretty chaotic looking," meaning they don't offer good navigation or search functions. But such situations can provide marketers with an opportunity to propose a win-win solution to networks.
"We gave [the social networks] assets with which they could create a discussion destination around the content. We gave them buttons, banners, and widgets that were designed with the look and feel of their site," Sparks says. "We can't control the conversation and what they talk about, but we could control some of the look and feel."
Don't be afraid to build it yourself
While it's not always a good idea, a lot of companies have the brand value (and corporate leniency) to create their own social networks, dedicated to their fans. Some brands have been doing this for years -- and with great success.
Dumenigo says that successful brand-built communities include those established by Harley-Davidson and MINI Cooper. With regard to the latter, Dumenigo adds, "Three years ago, I saw a stat that 70-80 percent of MINI Cooper owners joined this community online. That's a ridiculous percentage.
"On the MINI Cooper site, they get together to talk about cars and help each other solve problems with cars," Dumenigo says. "It's almost like audience-generated customer service with the brand. There's probably a good ROI on that because, instead of calling you, they're helping each other."
Weintraub also points to several success stories of branded niche social networks, including those that sprang up around the Twilight book and movie franchise, as well as Ellen DeGeneres' talk show.
"The Ellen DeGeneres Show has a social network set up on Ning, and last I checked, they had something like 350,000 members," Weintraub says. "It's not like Ellen even goes there; these are just fans of the show going there and talking and creating their own topics."
That "Ning" that Weintraub mentions is one of a growing number of online services, including Wetpaint and Gather, that give people robust tools to create niche social networks when the big ones just don't cut it anymore. "On Ning, I can do more with design and layout, whereas with Facebook, I'm just kind of stuck there, and with LinkedIn, it's very text-oriented," Weintraub says. "But here I can actually show pictures of product, and videos are better integrated."
Don't shun the big networks entirely
Despite the allure of the hypothetical PlumberSpace and its niche-niche cousins, the big social networks like Facebook and MySpace are going to be a big part of marketing in the future. Their numbers are too big and their reach is too great to ever be ignored, notes Ryan Stoner, director of strategy at Omelet. Plus, for certain brands, niche networks offer a limited return in comparison to Facebook and the like, notes Wieden + Kennedy's March.
In a way, though, this conundrum points to a larger truism about social media marketing. "The bad thing about my business -- but the good thing for the client -- is that every single campaign is different," Weintraub says. "It's different every single time because there are people talking about everything, and I have to find those people."
So whether it's Facebook or PlumberSpace, go where people are congregating and then engage and amplify those conversations.
There's nothing niche-niche about that, right?
Blaise Nutter is a freelance writer.