Just this month Facebook announced it had passed the 1 billion active members mark. You may think that the rest of the social media world might as well just turn around, go home, and switch off the light as it passes. But that’s not quite the full story.
There are some market-specific competitors that are huge in their own spheres of influence:
- Orkut still does well in Brazil and India.
- VK (formerly Vkontakte) is popular in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe.
- Tencent's Qzone claims to have almost half a billion members itself in China – an obvious stumbling block in Facebook's quest for complete worldwide dominance.
In markets where Facebook already dominates, or for sites looking for their own global audience, it seems a little pointless meeting the social media giant head on with anything like a similar format.
Enter the Niche Social Network
The idea of appealing to a specific core audience isn't exactly new. Forums, message boards, and online communities – the forerunners to social media sites as we know them today – have brought people with shared interests together for years.
LinkedIn has been a huge success, although a catch-all term like "professional networking" represents a pretty broad niche. Meanwhile, the phenomenal growth of Pinterest and Instagram demonstrates how a clever idea and a visual hook can be massively successful. Facebook wasn't slow in recognizing the potential of Instagram and gobbled it up for a reported $1 billion.
There are also, however, a host of true niche social networks springing up. They're not necessarily looking to compete with the big boys on their own terms, but to win their own dedicated and highly specific sets of followers.
The Top 1%
Some are specifically targeting the “high net worth individual” or HNWI, presumably on the basis that that's where the concentrated money lies. Swedish social media entrepreneur Erik Wachtmeister recently announced the launch of a new site called Best of All Worlds, aimed at “the top 1 percent” of Internet users. To help maintain its exclusivity, subscription to Best of All Worlds is by invitation only.
Wachtmeister, who also created one of the first social media sites a SmallWorld in 2004, said:
"The top 1 percent of the online audience, people who are leaders in their field, investment bankers, PR people, media, fashion, government... It's not about jet-set or rich people, but sophisticated people who have good taste...It's more three million people than a billion.”
In a similar move, it's been reported that Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, best known for their legal battle with Mark Zuckerberg over Facebook, have invested $1 million in SumZero. Set up by their friends and fellow Harvard alumni, Divya Narendra and Aaalap Mehadevia, SumZero is aimed at a small community of professional investors.
Hobbies & Interests
Others occupy less heady but no less specialized niches.
There are sites for divers, nurses and government workers. Whatever your occupation, hobby or interests in fact, there's probably a social media site aimed right at you.
Even dating sites have been getting in on the act. Like 'professional networking', 'single' is a pretty big niche and social dating sites like Badoo, which claims to have more than 150 million registered members wordwide, have been quick to exploit the fact.
Passions Network, meanwhile, is a niche within a niche. A dating site for people with particular interests, the network comprises a host of interlinked sites and allows members to use message boards, chat and email others with similar interests.
The individual sites vary from the serious to the decidedly quirky, allowing people to hook up based on location, literary tastes or a shared love of "Star Trek" or moustaches.
Future of Niche Social Networks
There are potentially as many niche social networking sites as there are interests, occupations, or hobbies to be shared and new ones are springing up all the time. Many don't last long, and few will enjoy the success of Instagram, but that's unlikely to stem their growth as a combined whole.
James Murray of Experian, said: "Expect to see a proliferation of niche social networks over the next 12 months offering deeper functionality and greater engagement."
The success of Pinterest and Instagram, he added, could be attributed to the fact that they haven’t tried to be "another Facebook." He said: “Instead, they have both identified a gap in the market and used the scale of Facebook to reach consumers."
So that's 1 billion Facebook users and counting. But for a growing number of people niche social networks appear to be offering a more specialist and personalized experience that social networks with a wider net simply can't match.