Four Business Lessons from Niche Social Networks

From BlackPlanet to FirefighterNation, niche social networks cater to their users' needs, both personal and professional.

If the social networking space was like college, MySpace and Facebook would be the big men on campus. And naturally, lurking behind these beefy juggernauts is a clique of nerds—the niche social networks—and from chess clubs to history teams, these "90-pound weaklings" are quietly demonstrating the vast potential of social networking and showing how businesses can better utilize social networks for their employees.

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The Users Come First; The Technology, Second

"Whether you're an athlete and play sports, or you're religious and you like to go to church, people want to coalesce around things that are culturally relevant to them," says Kay M. Madati, vice president of marketing at Community Connect, which owns five niche social networks.

In 1999, the company launched BlackPlanet.com, a social network designed for the African American community. Since its founding, the site has garnered around 18 million users and was recently declared by Hitwise to be the fourth most visited social network on the Web.

Madati says that BlackPlanet is careful not to add technology for the sake of it; they vet it first and make sure it's right for their users. The widgets they add to BlackPlanet pages are proprietary, developed solely for the site.

This contrasts a social network like Facebook, which opened its platform to third-party development in late May and has since seen an explosion of applications that has begun to clog people's homepages. Facebook has not monitored these applications all that closely, as evidenced recently by the creation of the "Secret Crush" widget.

"Clearly, the technology keeps improving and we want to keep up with it," Madati says. "But people come to our site because they can speak to people with similar interests and we add the technology to support that. We must stay true to that moniker."

Encouraging Accountability by Controlling Access

Users of MySpace and Facebook have been known to abuse the sites. Whether it be creating fake profiles or widgets that install malware on network member's computers, the site owners must then deal with the problem reactively. Due to their smaller size, administrators at niche sites can monitor user interactions more closely and ensure people follow the rules of engagement. As a result, the creators of these sites argue that users become more accountable for what they post and how they interact with the site.

"There is a more genuine feel," says Tom Nickell, President and CEO of LightWorks New Media, which runs YouthRoots, a non-denominational social network that seeks to connect youths in the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities through their faiths.

"On MySpace, it's been well documented that people live alter egos [online]. In a more niche and focused environment, people tend to be more genuine," Nickell adds.

Youthroots started in April 2007, and has since attracted 5,000 members. Nickel says that they constantly monitor the site to make sure no body slams each other in a blog post or engages in other forms of Web-rage. They want to encourage positive dialogue. "Youth leaders and parents want to make sure they're in a supportive environment," he says.

Achieving Work-Life Balance

Facebook and MySpace has been criticized as being too playful for work, while LinkedIn, with its black-and-white resumes and limited inventory of widgets, has been seen as too boring.

Niche social networks, on the other hand, have been able to strike a balance between the personal and professional. At BlackPlanet.com, users can keep separate profiles that correlate to different verticals, or sections, of the website. For instance, they can keep a profile that lists professional interests and résumé information, while another that maintains what they'd like to see in a date or post pictures from a night out with friends.

"The way you want to present yourself to an employer can be different than to someone you're dating," says Madati.

Make It Highly Customizable

When Dave J. Iannone founded FirefighterNation.com, he knew the name alone wouldn't be enough to draw his targeted users. Facebook or MySpace harbor thousands of subgroups with niche interests. The New York Fire Department, for instance, has seen many of its members set up subgroups on Facebook.

Iannone says he realized he had to customize his site in such a way that the big guys couldn't compete. He built FirefighterNation.com on top of Ning, a tool that allows people to build social networks and customize them to their audience with a variety of features, including blogs, slideshows and RSS feeds.

With programming experience, Iannone tweaked the search engine on the site to look for "ultra firefighting" stuff, and added a jobs tab that lists relevant openings across the country. The site, which started this past July, has attracted 12,000 users and continues to grow by a few thousand each month.

"I want to give [my users] full control to create custom pages," he says. "All the profile questions I ask them are very specific to what my users would want."

Those questions include how many years they've been in emergency services, the current fire department they belong to, and other past experiences as a firefighter or EMT. To add a personal feel, he adds questions that elicit an emotional response, such as "the best thing I like about being a firefighter or a first responder."

Iannone knows that a good portion of his members will still hold MySpace or Facebook accounts. He believes, however, that his site will be an important companion stop.

"It will take some time away from the big boys [like Facebook], but I think people will spend time on both and use them for different purposes," he says. "I want to give them a completely customized experience."

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