Can niche social networks compete with the big boys?

It’s hard to believe that Facebook turned 6 this month. I mean, hasn’t FB always been around? And what did we do before, when we wanted to tell the world what we’re doing at the weekend? Can anyone remember?

I met with entrepreneur Ivan Massow this week to take a trip down memory lane – 10 years back, to the start of the millennium when life was increasingly moving online. It was then that Ivan founded Jake, one of the first online social networks, and aimed specifically at providing a network for gay professional men.

Ten years is a long time in cyberspace, we agreed, as we looked back at the inception of Jake. Was it a given that Jake would be online, I asked. According to Ivan, yes. The idea of online groups, bringing together friends, colleagues or simply those with a shared interest was taking shape (remember Friends Reunited?) and as a rule, states Ivan, the gay demographic are early adopters. So Jake was born, providing a safe (paid-up members only), filtered (professional) and vibrant online space for business connections to be made. Added to that were – and still are – face-to-face networking events, special interest groups (media, culture etc) and a messaging service, JakeMail.

So far so good. In the past 10 years, Jake has attracted around 40 000 members and a whole host of high-profile sponsors and advertisers, mostly in the luxury and lifestyle markets (think Porsche, Mulberry, and so on).

But, I wondered, how has the advent of social media as a business communication norm changed things? The market is now very different. The behemoths that are Facebook and LinkedIn dominate – ubiquitous, constantly evolving and, critically, free. So how does a niche social network like Jake compete? Does it need to? And can it compete?

Well, the answer it seems, is not so clear-cut. First and foremost, Ivan said, Jake can compete for the very reason that it’s niche. It fulfils a very particular requirement that many other social networks do not. For a start, it’s an open book once you’re a member: all members are gay professional men. So, suggests Ivan, a certain amount of pre-qualification is already done. You know the score. Unlike other social networks, for example, you don’t need to be ‘introduced’ or ‘friends’ or a ‘connection’ before you can start to network or contact new people.

On the other hand, however, the tech-savvy business world demands more from their social networking these days than they did 10 years ago. It’s not a case of choosing one social network or another to be part of. Not only do we belong to multiple networks, but we increasingly expect them to interoperate, to better suit our needs. So that’s where Jake’s going as it’s functionality is overhauled: LinkedIn and Facebook functionality will be introduced, along with iPhone and Blackberry apps. And basic membership will be free, with members paying only for specific business services online.

So, it seems, competition is not necessarily the key. All social networks offer something different and the chances are, we’ll happily consume all that they have to offer, so long as it suits our needs and especially if it’s for free. There’s space for all of them so long as they do their job and make our lives easier, more interesting and more connected. As Ivan pointed out, we’re all fundamentally the same as we’ve always been, even when we were running round in loincloths. We want the same things. We still need to forge bonds, build communities and connect. That much won’t change.

Wisdom’s 3 factors for success: Niche online networks

  1. Actually be niche. Do it well, stick to it, build on it, don’t deviate. Your ‘nicheness’ is your richness.
  2. Create a specific, niche world within your network by choosing the right affiliations for advertising and sponsorship, partnerships and services, that reflect your target membership’s aspirations.
  3. Constantly notice how your members interact, both within and outside of the network. What do they need? Do they have to go elsewhere for certain functionality – and could you provide that?

Image by Astrid Harrisson

What are your experiences of niche social networks? Will they survive? How many social networks do you use? Are there any niche groups that need their own social network? We want to hear your thoughts!

With thanks to Ivan Massow, Astrid Harrisson and Sarah Killick.

3 Responses to “Can niche social networks compete with the big boys?”

  1. I’ve been experimenting with ‘niche-ness’ within LinkedIn (a Group) and here in Tokyo for some time. There is certainly something to be said about keeping things exclusive.

    I focus on:
    – it being web & LinkedIn centralized, but in person, in Tokyo or at least Japan
    – no B2C – invite acceptance required, try to keep it closed to recruiters (huge part of the Tokyo ‘business’ networking scene), Appointment setters, FX systems sales guys and Financial Planners
    – ‘micro’ or small events. Starting from me introducing two people together up to about 15-20 max with the most common being under 10.

    It’s not a Social Networkas such of course, but it most certainly is my network, and I strive to be connected to these ‘GoodPeople’, in-person’.

    One thing that’s become clear, is you can’t tell your network what Social Media (or communication) channel to do, you really need to be on top of all those you see as relevant. Given Social Media is a conversation, a relationship through the use of technology, having great tools like etc. are great for interfacing all in one place. (just a plug, have nothing to do with them)

    Nice article, thanks for sharing. Got here through a posted Facebook link by @mikekato

  2. Awesome work. I always find very unique posts here on your Blog.

  3. Awesome examples, gonna bookmark this for later use when I will create my own comments form

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