Successful Niche Social Networks
What makes an online "social network" successful? According to Gina Bianchini, co-founder and CEO of Ning -- the software platform powering the largest number of social networks on the Internet, it's all about "Authenticity, interestingness, and/or a passionate base of members." These are the only commonalities of the most popular networks in the more than 200,000 powered by the Ning platform.
Bianchini also points out the strength of smaller "niche" social networks. Only 37% of Ning's traffic comes from the most popular 200 networks. The greatest bulk (63%) of users and page views are generated by medium size networks that appeal to a certain user group, interest, focus, or sub-culture.
This means that -- although the social networking giants like Facebook, MySpace, and Xanga have gigantic user-bases and thousands of advertising and development dollars -- smaller, more focused social networking sites will make up most social networking done on the World Wide Web. Techies and Egg-heads point to the nearly universal Power Law (also known as the 80-20 Rule and The Long Tail ) to explain this phenomenon. Although huge social networking sites will have the power to attract many users, investors, and advertisers and set overall "social networking culture", the most populated portion of the social networking universe will be inhabited by users looking for connection tools related to smaller groupings and specific needs or interests. Even the thin tail of "dead networks" and unpopular sites is important since it represents a larger community of people experiementing and learning about social networking in general.
This is why MuddyHudson is building niche socail networking sites for our clients. As the Internet becomes an increasingly important relationship tool, especially for the "wired generations" reaching adulthood now, those who develop "niche social networks" will be in a unique position to gather, influence, and guide groups of driven users. Information-only websites will be left behind by interactive sites that mirror real human interaction and share information created by and for the network's user base. Because of the "starfish " power of flat organizations, niche social networking sites will have a better chance of propagating their values and motivating their members to action than sites that attempt to use classic marketing methods based on the "Marketing Mix " or "Four P's".
The essential ingredients of successful niche social networking sites are almost common sense. First, the technology has to be affordable and usable for a smaller scale community. That is why MuddyHudson uses mostly open-source software when creating sites. This reduces costs to basic design, installation, and setup, while not requiring thousands of man-hours and hundreds-of-thousands of investment dollars associated with developing a software platform from scratch. These tools are collaboratively built by loosely organized groups of programmers around the world in niche social networking environments, proving one thing niche networks do better than any others -- get work done.
Second, the site has to mirror real human relationships. If a site has no "passionate base of members" as Bianchini calls it, the technology is next to worthless, no matter how cool it's design or functionality. Unless the user-base is driven to invest in each other's live in general, they will not be likely to invest in each other's lives online. Site owners, community facilitators, and developers for niche networks must continually leverage the people power of the site for it to work. For one thing, the site will not have the same "buzz power" or advertising budget as MySpace or Facebook. Users will generally come by word-of-mouth referrals from friends or from low-cost, grassroots sources like blogs and minor websites. This means niche networks must work harder for user-ownership and satisfaction and must be run by community faciliators who work as participants, partners, and movement organizers.
Third, vision and values articulation is much more important on niche networks. Remember, Bianchini points out that authenticity (integrity to your identity and values) and interestingness (compelling or unique vision) are required for a successful network. The best niche networks will balance the attractive power of specific interests with the freedom and space for expression, creativity, and experimentation that reflects the diversity of their very human user-base. Niche networks will need to become experts at using "centered set" rather than "bounded set" approaches to maintain focus without violating key values and expectations of the community and without cutting off the tremedous power and duribility of dynamic, organic growth.