Social Networks for Niches

Article excerpt

Focused niche social networks give rise to defined online communities. Even giant Facebook is taking notice.

Though Facebook has won over a widely promulgated 500 million active members, Kay Gardiner is unimpressed. Frankly, she thinks the social network is clunky and disconcerting.

The busy Manhattan-based writer and attorney isn't interested in playing games, "poking," or posting status updates. She doesn't want to reveal personal information to faux friends nor look at photos of casual acquaintances on vacation.

"It doesn't seem useful to me on a personal level," says Ms. Gardiner. "This stream-of-consciousness communication with other people is something I'm really not interested in."

It's not that she isn't Internet savvy. In fact, Gardiner's quite the opposite: In 2003, she and a friend started a knitting blog that spawned two books and celebrity status in the knitting world. She's also a member of niche social network Ravelry, a site for knitters and other fiber enthusiasts.

"Blogging is labor-intensive," she explains. "On Ravelry, you have this easy interface. It's so elegant. You search for a pattern or yarn and you get somebody's picture of it with personal comments. It's not statistical; it's very human."

As in most niche social networks, members of the free site can post projects, make friends, join groups, and otherwise interact around a focused subject.

"I know Ravelry doesn't really matter to the world that doesn't knit," admits Gardiner. "But Facebook should be more like Ravelry."

There is no doubt in anyone's mind - not even Gardiner's - that Facebook is powerful. Its numbers - users, minutes of users' time, revenue - speak volumes. But it's not for everyone.

On niche social networks, however - communities where users connect around specific topics - it's hard to argue that there's not a site for every hobby, profession, ethnicity, or state of being. The niche sites are appealing to Facebook devotees and critics alike for their specificity. Users get to build profiles, swap stories, ask for advice, and otherwise interact with people who share their interest. As an added bonus to privacy-concerned users like Gardiner, the niche platform deters oversharing of extraneous information - say, family photos and random rants - because participation revolves around one subject.

For home cooks, there is Allrecipes; for intrepid travelers, CouchSurfing.org. There are social networks for figure skaters, soccer fans, stamp collectors, newlyweds, gays and lesbians, senior citizens, plus thousands of others. Niche networks have big numbers, too: More than 338,000 registered users have logged on to Ravelry in the past month, and homemade craft community Etsy has gained 278,208 new members in the same period.

Ning, a build-your-own social network platform with 70,000 paying customers and more than 74 million unique visitors per month across its sites, demonstrates the formidable marketing potential of niche sites. Individuals and companies use Ning to promote their brand in a place where people are apt to participate around it.

"It's not a replacement, but actually an adjunct to all of the other social tools out there: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter," says Anne Driscoll, Ning's vice president of business operations. "You can be on Facebook promoting your idea or organization, but you can also give the people who are -really, truly passionate about a destination a place where they can continue that conversation in a more brand-first environment. …