Monetizing a niche social network

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When I was a kid, my mom sold Tupperware. She spent most of her time trying to arrange these get-togethers, where one of Mom's friends would invite all of her friends into her living room for a "party" -- and then Mom would sell burping sandwich holders to all of them by the station-wagon load.

And that's the exact theory of creating a niche social network for a product: Gather similar-minded people in a central location for social purposes, and let the selling take care of itself.

As a Broadway producer, I have two very different problems -- one short term and one long term -- that I obsess about every day.

1. The short term: How do I speak to my customers?

Broadway tickets are sold through third-party ticketing agencies, which means we don't have the ability to communicate directly with our customers. In fact, we don't even know who our customers are.

2. The long term: How do I develop the audience of tomorrow?

For better or for worse, I'm married to Broadway, which means I need to make sure that my livelihood is nurtured and protected not only tomorrow but 10 years from now. With the National Endowment for the Arts reporting a 10 percent decline in attendance for musicals and a 21 percent decline in attendance for plays over the last 25 years, what can I do to make sure today's youth grow up with a passion for attending live theater?

Two birds, one stone
Incredibly, developing a niche social network for Broadway theater lovers was the solution to both of these seemingly different issues.

While message boards and chat sites existed for some of Broadway's passionate fans (the "Trekkies of Broadway"), nowhere on the web was there a Tupperware party atmosphere where fans could identify themselves, share what they loved about Broadway, and be proud of being a fan.

By building, a social network developed on the Ning platform, I was able to provide all of these fans a place where they can share their passions with other people just like them.

In 18 months, we had 15,000 of Broadway's best and most talkative fans on our site (13 percent see more than 13 shows per year). We now have permission to speak to our most passionate customers, or our "missionaries" as I call them, anytime we want, which enables us to address problem  No. 1.

At the same time, whenever you gather a group of people in the same room, the volume of the chatter increases. Mom's Tupperware parties used to keep me up way past my bedtime, thanks to the volume of those 14 ladies and one guy. By creating a social network, the sheer volume of the conversation about Broadway and Broadway shows is amplified electronically. The louder the conversation, the more top-of-mind the subject, and the more it becomes part of the fabric of one's everyday thought process. Many of the members on BroadwaySpace are now engaging in multiple conversations about Broadway every day, whereas a year ago, they may not even have had one. And Broadway, as a brand, benefits, helping address my second problem related to developing tomorrow's audience.

The monetization question
So great, was a terrific solution to my two plaguing concerns -- but in solving those two problems, I had created a third.

Now that I had created, how was I supposed to pay for it? Could I find a way or ways to monetize this niche social networking site?

The answer was yes, but frankly, we didn't spend one minute developing a sales strategy on the site until more than a year into the life of the site. Why did we wait so long? Social networks are like nightclubs. It's not about where they are, or what they look like, or what they're called. It's all about who goes. They don't even have to be big. They just have to have the right type of people.

Instead of trying to sell, we spent the majority of our time and resources on building our members so that our site consisted of highly qualified leads that convert at a much higher rate than other more generic sites.

Simply put, we put faith in the Tupperware theory. If we could assemble a group of similar-minded and passionate people in a room, the money would follow.

On the following page, we'll take a look at three initiatives we used to build our membership.

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Chiara Bolognini
Chiara Bolognini October 1, 2009 at 7:04 PM

Really interesting perspective about social media. It is essential to get a full understanding of the engagement different kind of business are having in social media. You have highlighted an important point: business which does not have opportunity to get to know their target groups have farther benefits from being engaged in social media.