Where are the niche online communities in 2012? The same place they’ve always been..

So here we are in 2012 and straight into that time of the year in which the experts start to predict and inform us where the social media industry is heading in the next 12 months. Everyone can play this game and have a stab at predictions, and some are interesting, some are exciting, some are provocative, others are mis-guided at best. It’s for each reader to decide what they agree or disagree with, and that’s great, but one ‘prediction’ has got stuck in my craw more than the others this year, primarily for its appearance in these predictions every year; the rise of the niche social network.

The argument put forth is that now that social media marketing is more and more ubiquitous for businesses, marketers need to start thinking beyond the big players; Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ (included solely in my opinion for its potential SEO clout). Year-after-year a host of new pretenders are trotted out that aim to take people away from Facebook, and expect them to join their niche community and manage all their niche social interactions and interests in that specific space. These new social networks, we’re told, will mean businesses need to branch out away from the Facebooks, to wherever their customers actually spend their time online.

First of all, when has this ever not been the case? Regardless of what sites are available online, if you’re marketing on the Internet, you need to know where your audience are and go to them. However it is still the case that in the majority of instances, Facebook and Twitter are where your customers are – it’s where everyone is, look at their member numbers. (LinkedIn of course comes into the equation for B2B companies).

The fact is, those communities have the superior numbers over everyone else, so more often than not, they will still be where you need to have a presence. For me, smaller social networks that base their model on Facebook will just fail, we have too many profiles, too many ‘about me’ forms to fill in, who can really be bothered with maintaining any more?

Businesses need to go where the audience is for sure, but that won’t be to new social networks. In all the many social media listening reports and audits I’ve worked on, the main source of conversation when you exclude Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn, 9 times out of 10, is forums. This is where your niche audience is. Forums are where you’ll find the insight into your specific area. It’s been this way for years, and no new social network is going to lure these established communities away. Forums will always win out over niche social networks.

Why? Because they’re easy. On a forum, you simply add a username and away you go. Social media is about conversing and debating, sharing opinions and ideas. All you need for that at a basic fundamental level is the ability to enter text and respond. Everything else social networks provide us is secondary; the pictures of you out partying with your friends, the GPS update that proudly displays the fancy restaurant you’re currently being ripped off in, the monotonous farming game you that devours your time. Yes these things are popular and have become part of the social media experience, but they make up your overall general online social profile, which for most people is a slightly imagined version of themselves, and for most people it exists on Facebook. I don’t need to fully reimagine and create a new social ‘me’ every time I want to talk about football, or cooking, or being a parent. I’ll add a name, and start typing instead.

I’m going to use Football as an example of splinter niche social networks and why they won’t work. I’ve naively been excited in the past about new football social networks for football fans to hang out, talk football, post videos, etc – all that stuff you do on Facebook, only centred around football – a topic that every football fan loves to debate ad-nauseum, and who everyone is constantly vying to be seen as the expert. But these networks become boring quicker than a post-match press conference; because there’s no one there. Where are all the opinionated football fans to talk to? They’re on forums and blog comments. This is where the real debate happens, and every football fan online knows it. You can’t change it, try as you might.

The problem with this for marketers of course is that forums are notoriously difficult to engage in. If you’re not creating a presence there that will participate as an equal, and genuinely add insight and value, all the while making sure your sales pitch remains a million miles away, then you’re doomed. You could easily end up doing more harm than good. However forums are invaluable to the social media listening phase. Forums are the real goldmine for people talking about your niche business. Facebook, Twitter et al have the most static noise, Forums usually have the frequency you’ll want to tune in to.

But I should probably clarify slightly before I go; if there’s a social network out there that specifically caters for the niche community you’re looking to market to, if it has a vibrant, active community and loyal members, then that’s perfect, and participation is essential. My argument is with the ever-present prediction that these types of smaller networks will become social media game changers, they won’t. I’d almost go as far as to say nothing can stop Facebook, but I don’t think I’ll go that far..

So to finish off, put myself on record and most likely set myself up for a large helping of humble pie later in the year – I predict niche social networks will not flourish in 2012, but I do predict they’ll be predicted to do so in 2013 this time next year.


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