Social networks: Being in with the niche crowd
Specialist social media sites are emerging to attract smaller communities of users and advertisers who share common interests.
When former MP Louise Mensch resigned her seat in parliament in August and turned her focus to developing a social media website, the move was greeted with surprise in Westminster and the British media. But Menshn.com - the politically focused forum site that is the brainchild of Mensch and her business partner Luke Bozier - is just one of a growing number of specialist social networks.
As Facebook and Twitter continue to add to their millions of users, more niche sites are emerging. Rather than seeking constantly to extend their reach among the masses, these sites have the aim of attracting smaller communities of users and advertisers that share common interests.
Mensch says that Menshn - a pun on her name and the word “mention” - is not intended to be a rival to Twitter, which she still uses avidly, including to promote her own venture. Instead, her network is designed to be “a niche complement to Twitter, where people talk about topics that are their passions”, she says.
“The two biggest topics on Menshn are religion and politics - the US election, UK politics and huge religious debates that we have all the time - and it is all thoughtful stuff. There is no spam, no trolling and people get into debates. “
“People are going there because they want to have an in-depth conversation. Twitter ‘owns’ general conversation and anyone would be foolish to try to compete in that space.”
Menshn has yet to seek external funding or to monetise its audience, although Mensch says that the site will eventually try to make money by selling ads, and aims to form partnerships with third-party blogs where its content will be integrated into the comment sections. Ads are likely to be targeted according to the various “rooms” on the site where topical discussions take place, Mensch says. “If we had a weddings room, for example, then [dress designer] Vera Wang would be well targeted.”
But another recent entry into the social media market, App.net, has decided to shun the ad-supported model entirely. Like Menshn, App.net is seeking only a niche audience, but one that pays to use the service.
According to senior marketing manager Ben Friedland, because users are charged, it means that they are valued as customers and not just as an audience for advertisers. They can therefore be assured the platform “will never turn against them, the way other networks have been doing recently”, he says.
Although Friedland does not name those social networks, it is clear he believes that this is an inevitable consequence of selling ads: “The appeal [of App.net] for members is an ad-free service where they have control of their data. The paid model ensures that the members’ interests always come first, as opposed to free, ad-supported services, where the interests of advertisers are placed ahead of the user base.”
Brands are not prevented from joining the site, but Friedland says they are encouraged “to engage with consumers in authentic ways”. He claims that App.net does not highlight or promote their posts and never will; and since users are able to ‘mute’ posts from anyone they do not like, brands have an incentive not to try to sell to them overtly.
In August, App.net announced that it had exceeded its first funding goal of $500,000 (around £311,000), with nearly 60 per cent of the total raised coming from 7,500 members paying $50 (£31) each. The remainder came from software developers who pay to use App.net’s technology in their own apps.
Since many of the posts on App.net’s consumer-facing social feed are technology-related, it appears that many of its members, along with its developer community, are also software enthusiasts. This is probably partly because the site’s offering includes a directory of apps created using the App.net platform. And the site is likely to need sustained support from these dedicated users in order to build a community of loyal paying customers.
More and more sites are trying to carve a niche for themselves among communities with highly specialised interests that have previously not had an outlet. Spiceworks, for example, has built a user base of around 2 million IT professionals and an advertising roster of around 1,000 technology companies trying to reach them. According to its co-founder Jay Hallberg, before Spiceworks was established in 2005, IT workers in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often found themselves isolated from technological developments in their industry.
“We drove around Austin, Texas, where we are based, and when we visited IT pros at accounting firms, law firms and manufacturing firms we were absolutely shocked at the state of technology they had to manage their servers and printers or to run a help desk. We were also shocked at how essentially alone they were.”
Spiceworks’ idea was to connect IT workers at SMEs with companies and individuals developing simple, low-cost technology to help them improve their productivity.
What’s more, according to Daniel Bornstein, vice-president of advertising at online art community deviantART, some niches have the potential to be very large. Although the site started small, with users uploading original artworks in 12 different categories, 12 years later it has more than 3,000 categories and has amassed 65 million monthly unique users.
Consumers’ social media interests do not need to be mutually exclusive either, Bornstein adds. He accepts that deviantART’s users, known as ‘deviants’ are likely to be sharing their artworks on other sites. “Social network usage and engagement is far from a zero-sum game. I would feel comfortable saying that the average deviant probably engages with other social networks as well.”
Even when users are not being targeted for their niche interests, there is plenty to suggest that Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn do not necessarily have the social media market sewn up. In the business world, for example, LinkedIn’s appeal has clearly not grabbed people in German-speaking countries as forcefully as it has Anglophone professionals. Four out of five page views on business-focused social networks in Germany are on Xing.com, according to the site’s vice-president of corporate communications Marc-Sven Kopka.
He claims that Xing leads the market in all German-speaking countries with around 6 million users. It has 12.7 million users in total, compared with 175 million for LinkedIn. And even as the market leader among German-language business networks, Kopka says Xing can continue to extend its reach in those countries.
“We still see major potential there as online business networks have a 10 to 15 per cent penetration rate in the UK, Netherlands, and US. In German-speaking countries, the penetration rate is only 5 per cent, so there’s plenty of scope for us to continue growing.”
This amount of headroom shows how many people have yet to be convinced to join a social network, despite the impression given by the media coverage that the biggest sites attract. For many of the unconverted, the barrier could just be that no site has yet found the right niche for them. A billion people are using Facebook but that means there are 6 billion still up for grabs.
Marketing Week (MW): Do you think your new social network, Menshn, is a rival to Twitter?
Louise Mensch (LM): We are not trying to rival anybody. We recognise that we are in a huge space and that within a huge space, especially where you have one or two giants, what you ought to be doing is looking for a small niche in which you can perform. That is what Menshn is doing.
MW: How do people use Menshn differently from other social networks and discussion sites?
LM: We like to think of Menshn as a ‘microforum’ - it’s like a forum where you post on a topic, but you do it in short, tiny bursts. That’s the direction we’ll be taking the site, so there will be changes to the Menshn you see now before the end of the year.
What I say on Twitter and what I say on Menshn are different. I’m a bit more unguarded on Menshn. I’m actually waiting for journalists in the parliamentary lobby [as Mensch is a former MP] to work out that I say far ruder things on Menshn than on Twitter, but eventually they will.
MW: What are your plans for making money from Menshn?
LM: We are more focused, as the network is still only a few months old, on building a seed community and seeing what that looks like. We haven’t gone in looking for a round of funding and we won’t do that for some time.
We’ve got a new site, a small site, and we want to concentrate on building it organically. After that we think the monetisation will probably take care of itself because it will be so easy to target ads, unlike bigger social networks where you use an algorithm to determine the group you should be distributing your ads to.
Twitter is an enormous social network that can offer incomparable numbers of users. We know that we are a niche player.