By adaptive - December 3rd, 2014

Niche social networks look set to be the next social space where brands can engage with customers

When Facebook was opened to the general public in 2006 few could have anticipated its extraordinary impact. Facebook was a seismic shift that created the tsunami we call social media today. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest are the social giants – the networks with the biggest audiences and the most desirable spaces for corporations and their brands to engage with customers. Or are they?
Over the past few years the niche social network has steadily grown in popularity, thanks to better levels of user interaction and engagement. In 2012 a survey by Reuters and research firm Ipsos found that one in three users were getting bored with Facebook and in 2014 the GlobalWebIndex found that this figured had risen to almost 50%.
The niche social network offers a specialised space that’s designed to appeal to a very specific market with a clearly defined set of needs. Where once the streams of social minutia on networks such as Facebook and Twitter were the ultimate in online voyeurism, now users are looking for connections, community and shared experiences. Social networks that tap directly into specific activities, hobbies, tastes and lifestyles are seeing a consistent rise in popularity. These social platforms offer brands a rich space in which to engage with their target market and build awareness.
“Closed loop social networks are standalone, niche networks that typically have much smaller social graphs. They are limited to groups of people with the same, specific interests, such as music, gaming, cycling or online marketing,” says Gavin Hammar, founder and CEO of Sendible, “These types of social networks allow brands to segment their messaging and target users of these platforms based on the shared interests of the community.”

A generic issue

Security and privacy are just two of the reasons behind the consumer shift towards the walled gardens of niche social networks. These are hardly minor issues, of course, and ones that have had a massive impact on the popularity of Facebook and Instagram. The latter saw a drop in daily users from 16 million towards the end of 2012 to 7.81 million in January 2013 because the new terms and conditions said that the site could profit from its users photographs. 
However, there is also a growing sense of ennui when it comes to interaction on the bigger networks. Mainstream users are getting bored with generic content and random updates about food and mood. 
“What is emerging is that these smaller and niched social networks are becoming more relevant to the needs of the modern Internet user and even have the ability to disrupt entire industries,” says Will Green, CEO, Apurimac Media. “This is exactly what WhatsApp has done to erode SMS revenue in the telecoms industry. The users’ increasing concern for privacy and anonymity goes a long way towards explaining the prevalence and popularity of platforms such as Snapchat and YikYak.”
Taking a look at some of the figures around the most well-known niche networks is enough to make any brand pause. Snapchat has around 100 million active monthly users. WhatsApp hit the 500 million active user mark in April of this year. WeChat revealed a total of 438 million active users and Line came in at around 235 million.

This isn’t even taking into account the volume of users currently using sites such as Care2, CafeMom, Goodreads, Revelry and Flixster
The goal for the brand is to find a way of marketing to the niche social network that doesn’t alienate the consumer, but rather positions the organisation as part of the experience. Unlike the generic ubiquity of Facebook, for example, the closed loop network is about relationships and leveraging these to build the brand’s identity.
Prakash Patel, Chief Strategy Officer of Fogg Experiential Design, defines marketing to the niche social network in 140 characters: “It is the process of using social media platforms to manage and build mutually beneficial relationships from cradle to grave using CRM principles.”

A brand invasion

The Digital Trends Report by 33 Digital and Hotwire, describes the evolution of social marketing perfectly, calling it the era of “social by design”.
The way in which consumers communicate over social has changed and brands now have a unique opportunity to craft strategies that are focused and intense as opposed to generic and widespread. However, this is not always an easy task and there aren’t necessarily clear routes to harnessing the consumers sitting on extremely closed networks such as WhatsApp or Snapchat.
“The difficulty here for brands is that there is no precedent for maintaining a presence on these sites, and no obvious way to mass communicate with fans like on other social media,” says Joel Windels, Marketing Manager EMEA, Brandwatch. “The challenge isn’t necessarily insurmountable, but brands should be where their customers are, so finding a way to harness the power of closed-loop networks is essential.”
There have been some superb examples of brands harnessing niche networks to build awareness and campaigns. The film Ouija was one of the first to be advertised on Snapchat and Channel Four has adopted WhatsApp and Snapchat as platforms the audiences can use to receive updates – most recently about the Scottish Referendum.
Hammar suggests that brands use the networks to steer conversations and promote subjects without being too “salesy” and to use them as a way of building relationships, beginning the sales cycle and promoting brand advocacy. 
“The best way brands can leverage these social networks is through recommendations, making sure that fans of their companies are recommending their products or services to fellow members,” says Hammar. “With a smaller social graph consisting of members all interested in the same thing, a recommendation from one of these members is extremely powerful and can lead to high conversion rates.”
In the second part of this series we will be looking even deeper into how brands can harness niche social networks effectively, and some of the dos and don’ts worth considering before dipping the corporate toe into these very specialised waters.
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