Magazine article ADWEEK

Niche Social Networks Offer Target Practice: Mom, Athlete, Pet Sites Draw Ads, but Can't Compete for Scale

Magazine article ADWEEK

Niche Social Networks Offer Target Practice: Mom, Athlete, Pet Sites Draw Ads, but Can't Compete for Scale

Article excerpt

NEW YORK As a maker of toddler toys and games, Playskool has little obvious connection with the Wild West of social networking. But like many advertisers, the company has witnessed the MySpace revolution and wants in. Next month, it kicks off its first social-networking campaign, a yearlong push it hopes will tie it closer to its consumers.

Rather than running on MySpace, however, Playskool's campaign is on CafeMom, a four-month-old social network for mothers that's part of a crop of "mini-MySpaces" geared to specific audiences, from moms and high-school athletes to cats and dogs.

Playskool's promotion on CafeMom is centered on a not-yet-launched forum about developmentally appropriate play activities. Playskool is integrating with the group by sending toy kits to at least 2,500 members and encouraging them to share their experiences with each other (and the company). "The great thing is you can get that direct feedback from actual moms," said Charlie Zakin, director of media at Hasbro, parent company of Playskool.

While MySpace boasts that it generates the most page views of any site, some marketers are focusing instead on networks barely a fraction of its size to serve as marketing test beds. The obvious advantage of niche networks: advertisers are less likely to talk to the wrong consumers. MySpace can boast that it has larger numbers of specific audiences, yet agency executives have complained that despite a plethora of personal data submitted by its users, MySpace is unable to effectively use it to target messages to specific topics or interests.

"If you want to sprinkle some dust on 50 million people, go to MySpace," advised Chad Stoller, executive director of emerging platforms at Organic. But niche networks offer a chance to reach specific influencers, he said.

Yet many niche networks are caught in a bind: their draw is focused communities, but they still need broad enough appeal to make campaigns worth the effort. CafeMom, for instance, is focusing on a targeted but large niche: there are over 40 million mothers with children living at home in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau; by the end of the year, CafeMom aims to have 2 million of them registered.

A similarly large devoted group led to the creation of a pair of popular niche networks, Dogster and Catster, which cater to the 39 percent of U.S. households that have a dog and 34 percent that have a cat. These sites, where pet owners can create profiles of their companion animals, drew a combined 360,000 visitors in February, according to ComScore Media Metrix. That audience has made the sites popular with endemic advertisers, like Purina and pet-friendly hotels. Its home page is currently running an integrated promotion for VPI, a pet insurance service.

Some of these sites are attracting lifestyle advertising as well, according to Steve Reading, chief business officer at Dogster. The site recently wrapped up a monthlong promotion for Procter & Gamble's Bounce, which sponsored an "Are Dogs Better Than Cats? …

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