By Chris Lee
In October 2012 Facebook announced one billion active members of their hugely popular social networking site. This was a significant milestone but for a lot of people, it is in fact niche interest networks, rather than the generic ones, that are becoming a more attractive way of interacting with people and content that matter to them. That’s the view of Cathy Pittham, Managing Director Europe for communications consultants Racepoint Group.
Pittham believes that Facebook introduced the broadest demographic to social networks and remains somewhat of a de facto standard for the industry. But social networks are no longer in the early-adopter stage, user expectations are also changing and a one-size fits all approach now has limited appeal as consumers and business social network users become more sophisticated and have greater expectations of how networks fulfill their specific needs, she argues.
“It’s all about ‘what am I interested in’ today. This is going to drive the future evolution of social networking in both consumer and business to business environments,” Pittham told NMK. “The proliferation of mobile devices – smart phones and tablets that allow people to connect anywhere -has driven engagement in social networks on an unprecedented scale. Anyone cultivating a community or indeed new social technology is now focused on the mobile interface and what content will engage social users on the move.”
Social networking: phase two
Pittnam says that what made social networking sites so exciting for consumers in the first place is the immediate ability to interact; to comment, respond, express a point of view in an unfettered environment. Now we are moving on to phase two of social networking, Pittham argues.
“Brands have been eager to maximise the original opportunity to engage with potential customers, but may have failed to understand what drives consumers to connect over the longer term,” she said. “Brand ‘noise’ on social sites is in danger of being as off-putting as unsolicited marketing and advertising is in the offline world.”
Play the long game
Generating apathy towards the commercialisation of social networks, combined with the increasing sophistication of users who are now beginning to understand the power of searching for and identifying the content and engagement that is specifically tailored to them will drive the growth of niche social networks, according to Pittham. She calls this the ‘long tail’ of the social networking business.
“Niche social networking sites will develop over the next few years to cover an extraordinary range of interest areas, from knitting groups to communities of professional physicians. From the user perspective, niche social networking sites offer quicker access to the information users are seeking, deeper engagement with like-minded folk and better-targeted functionality than that bigger sites currently do,” she added. “So diverse sites like Ravelry will give you all the information about knitting you’ll ever need or for the more social philanthropic, Care2, a site that connects different types of activists interested in a range of issues, from all over the world.”
Not all of this new generation of network will experience Instagram-like adoption, although the monetisation of that success has still to be evidenced, Pittham said, but the potential for these sites and a more sophisticated business model around commercialisation is probably unstoppable.
“We’re going to see some interesting new opportunities and challenges from the use of the data created by these communities,” she continued. “Who will own it and how can it be used? Imagine the value of the data for example, that Nike has collected with its Nike+ Fuelband initiative – details of our diets, exercise regimens, health. I can imagine a few health insurance firms, health supplement manufacturers – who might be interested in that?”
Pittham concluded that within two years, many of us might be spending a lot less time filtering endless updates, comments and pictures that really are not relevant of interesting and using social networks to get precisely the information that is relevant to us.