Social networks are the new big thing. Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you've probably heard of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace. You might even have a profile (or two) set up on a social network (or two). Of course, for every big thing, there's always another big thing hot on its heels. Hot on the heels of social networks? Niche social networks.
A niche is a specialized subset of a larger set, so a niche social network is one that targets a select segment of the general population. Sites like MySpace and Facebook have grown so large that some users feel a bit lost in the shuffle. That's where niche social networks step in. These networks allow users to connect with fewer people who have the same interests, hobbies or professional associations. Because these networks target special groups, they often incorporate community guidelines. For example, guidelines may direct users to use a certain tone or language on the site, or they may forbid certain behavior (like harassment or spamming). Some niche networks are so close-knit that users begin using shorthand and share inside jokes, much like a group of friends would.
It's also worth noting that most social networks make their money through paid advertising, and a niche network is an advertiser's dream because it's a readymade target audience. For example, a social network for pet lovers would provide a logical ad slot for pet food. In 2006, advertisers spent $280 million on social networks. By 2010, that number should rise to $1.9 billion [source: Holahan].
So what are these niche social networks and what kinds of hobbyists do they attract? Let's take a look at five noteworthy online communities.
Kaboodle is a free social network geared toward people who like to shop. Founded in 2005, its mission is to help people recommend, share and discover products. It's different from a regular shopping site because it's not just a list of products. It offers users tools to better organize their shopping as well as find the best prices.
Kaboodle boasts more than 12 million monthly visitors with more than 800,000 registered users. The site doesn't sell anything -- it merely exists to help people to share information and bond over their shared interest in shopping. Users say that the community points them toward items they wouldn't have found on their own [source: Bergstein]. Paid advertising supports the site.
Once registered on Kaboodle, users can set up their own profiles. Then, they can add products from any shopping Web site to their lists. This is a valuable tool because it eliminates the need to maintain several wish lists on different sites. Users can create any sort of shopping list they'd like -- shoes, gifts, handbags, toys. All the lists have a "share" option so that other users can view them. Users are also encouraged to express themselves by compiling "style boards" displaying their favorite looks and fashions. Dozens of blogs and articles highlight hot trends and the latest deals. Users can even set up polls to ask the rest of the community questions ranging from, "What shoes go with this dress?" to "What do you buy the 7-year-old boy who has everything?" The site also provides a feedback mechanism in the form of hearts, where users can "heart" someone else's blog or style board.
Ravelry is a free community site for knitters, crocheters, designers, spinners and dyers -- pretty much anyone who works with yarn and patterns. The site aims to help users "organize, share and discover" within the yarn artisan community. The founders created Ravelry to fill a niche they themselves were looking for -- a centralized, easy place to find and share information about patterns, yarn and the like. They built their own community, inviting users to join and share their knowledge about knitting, crocheting and more.
Founded in 2005, Ravelry.com currently has 350,565 registered users [source: Ravelry]. As of this writing, Ravelry is invitation-only and ad-supported. Potential users must apply for an invite and usually receive one within a few days. The site is incredibly popular, even though it's not even formally out of the testing phase yet.
Ravelry gives users a place to organize their ongoing projects -- listing what pattern and yarn they're using, posting photos of finished works or works in progress, and allowing fellow users to comment and advise them on their projects. Forum topics range everywhere from "How do I use double-pointed needles?" to "Have you seen the new Star Trek?"
A few small business owners credit Ravelry with helping them to get their businesses off the ground. Maggie Simser of Dyed in the Wool Handmade, who sells hand-dyed yarn and spinning fiber, says Ravelry's inexpensive advertising opportunities helped establish her online shop. Users look forward finding out about her store's latest additions, and when they use her yarn in a project, that information shows up in their profiles, which provides even more visibility to her target audience [source: Simser].
Imeem is a free social network built around music. Users interact to post and discover new artists, share playlists and watch videos. By building personalized playlists (something imeem calls "social mixtapes"), users can share their favorite music and artists with the community. Other members are welcome to browse and comment on everyone else's playlists. Imeem offers streaming songs from just about every major and indie label, so it's easy to locate your favorite songs. Even though the music on imeem is free streaming, users can purchase from iTunes or download ringtones if they find something they really like.
Once a user locates a song, he or she can rate it according to how much he or she likes or dislikes it. Users can search for music by highest rated, most playlisted and most discussed. Community members set up their own fan groups for their favorite artists, sharing information through discussion forums, photos and blog posts.
The site, currently kept afloat by private investors, started in 2003 and has about 25 million visitors per month [source: Sandoval]. Whenever a user streams or embeds a song from the site, imeem pays the recording company that owns the song licensing fees. These fees can add up, and many music social networking sites are currently struggling to find a profitable business model.
Musicians and artists are encouraged to set up profiles on imeem. They use the site to share and promote their music, by uploading tracks that others can embed on their blogs or profiles. Musicians can post information like tour dates and interviews as well. The site has also expanded to attract directors, providing a place to upload short films and videos. Users can then comment on and rate the films.
Imeem also provides statistics to users so they can track their own content -- to check out who's accessing their profile, monitor the popularity of their playlists or see if anyone is embedding their music on a blog or Web site.
Classmates.com is a Web site that connects current and former classmates. It was one of the first social networking sites, launched in 1995. Basic usage of the site is free, allowing users to search for and view alumni from their high schools or colleges. However, users must upgrade to a paid "gold" membership in order to view people's details or send them a message.
The alumni network currently has 4.6 million paid users and 40 million registered accounts [source: Tartakoff]. The site is popular with people trying to set up class reunions or find out contact information for classmates they've lost touch with. Users can set up a profile with their high school or college and graduation years, which will make them searchable to other people. The site features message boards where classmates can share information about other alumni or plan a reunion.
Classmates.com also features "interest groups," where users can connect on a variety of topics. People network with each other in forums about business and the workplace, the military or sports -- just to name a few. A message center helps users contact each other without being forced to give out their personal email addresses.
In a time when a free social network like Facebook is exploding, some people wonder if Classmates.com is about to go the way of the dinosaur. However, Classmates.com -- a niche site, unlike Facebook -- continues to pull in both members and money [source: Tartakoff].
Flixster is a free community site for movie fans. The site provides information on movies currently or soon to be in theaters, actor profiles, fan clubs, celebrity gossip, movie news, video clips and interactive features like forums and user quizzes.
Founded in 2006, Flixster has more than 15 million unique monthly visitors who've provided almost two billion movie ratings [source: Flixster]. Private investors and advertising dollars keep the site in business.
When users create a profile on Flixster, they can rate movies as well as list their favorite actors, movies and videos. They can browse the site to find other users with similar interests. Specialized forums allow users to discuss movies by genre, as well as other subjects -- some related to movies, some not. The site also includes a user-built wiki, which discusses the history of movies. The wiki contains pages on subjects like independent film, comic book-based movies and blockbusters. Users are encouraged to add their own articles to the wiki.
A standout feature on Flixster is its integration with the social networking powerhouse Facebook. Facebook users can add the Flixster application to their profiles and begin rating movies and taking quizzes. Facebook publishes any Flixster activity to the user's feed, which attracts other users to join in. Flixster also offers an application for the iPhone, allowing users to view trailers, rate movies and search for local movie times -- no matter where they are.
To find out more about social networking and niche sites, check out the links on the next page.
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- Bergstein, Brian. "Making shopping a virtual social experience." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 25, 2008. (May 14, 2009) http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jan/25/business/fi-socialshop25
- Cheng, Jacqui. "imeem now offers streaming tracks from all Big Four labels." arstechnica.com. Dec. 10, 2007. (May 14, 2009) http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2007/12/imeem-now-offers-streaming-tracks-from-all-big-four-labels.ars
- Edmunds, Gladys. "Niche marketing can drive your business." USA Today. March 23, 2005. (May 14, 2009) http://www.usatoday.com/money/smallbusiness/columnist/edmunds/2005-03-23-niche_x.htm
- Gordon, Kim T. "3 Rules for Niche Marketing." Entrepreneur. March 4, 2002. (May 14, 2009) http://www.entrepreneur.com/marketing/marketingcolumnistkimtgordon/article49608.html
- Holahan, Catherine. "Social Networking Goes Niche." BusinessWeek. March 14, 2007. (May 14, 2009) http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/mar2007/tc20070314_884996.htm
- Jesdanun, Anick. "Social site users find bigger's not always better." PittsburghLive.com. April 27, 2008. (May 14, 2009) http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/business/s_564516.html
- Kaboodle. "About Kaboodle." Kaboodle.com. 2009. (May 14, 2009) http://www.kaboodle.com/zm/about
- Martin, Katherine. "Why Bleeding Heart bakes with a mission." Modern Baking. March 1, 2007. (May 14, 2009) http://modern-baking.com/retail_baking/mb_imp_16709/
- Morrison, Chris. "TC50: Niche social networks thrive, for birdwatchers, fashion-conscious, dead people and more." VentureBeat. Sept. 10, 2008. (May 14, 2009) http://venturebeat.com/2008/09/10/tc50-flipping-the-birdwatch-overpriced-clothes-and-more-at-the-vertical-social-networking-panel/
- Sandoval, Greg. "Labels size up Web 2.0 music services." CNET News. March 2, 2009. (May 14, 2009) http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-10184877-93.html
- Simser, Maggie. Email interview. Dyed in the Wool Handmade. 2009. (May 14, 2009) http://www.dyedinthewoolhandmade.com
- Tartakoff, Joseph. "Earnings: United Online Beats Expectations; Ad Revenue At Classmates.com Falls." Washington Post. May 5, 2009. (May 14, 2009) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/05/AR2009050503375.html