Technology

Social Networking Goes Niche


MySpace and Friendster’s runaway popularity and exposure have helped spawn an array of targeted networking sites. Advertisers are noticing

Andrew Anker knew he had too many "friends" when business associates, looking to curry favor with his blogging company, began striking up conversations about his "cute" young daughter and his recent family outings. "It was a classic salesperson technique," says Anker, "another way to create this creepy familiarity."

So Anker, the general manager of consumer products at Six Apart, moved his blog to his California company's latest product, Vox. It's a social networking and blogging site with strict privacy controls, so users can limit who sees particular posts. Vox users can make some content available to the general public. Other posts and photos can only be seen by users designated as true friends, family members, or people in the user's extended neighborhood (which includes friends of friends).

New Models

Since launching to the general public on Oct. 26, Vox has nearly tripled in size, says Anker. Its success indicates a trend among newer social networking sites, which are gaining traction not by focusing on the mass-popularity model that made News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace famous, but by helping users connect with smaller, more specific, groups.

Take, for example, itLinkz. On Jan. 31, the social networking company launched the first of its 13 planned targeted networking sites. Its initial offering, NurseLinkup.com, already has more than 500 health professionals visiting the site. Michael Ragan, chief operating officer of itLinkz, says that the site launched, in part, to help users frustrated with the party atmosphere of MySpace, which has users with hundreds of thousands of friends and a reputation for having a 25-and-under audience. (Incidentally, comScore reports that more than half of MySpace users are over 35.) "MySpace is for everyone," says Ragan. "Our focus is on communities."

There are several reasons for the more targeted approach to social networking. One is the sheer popularity of sites such as MySpace and Friendster. As those sites have expanded and become among the Internet's most trafficked, some users and potential users have grown wary about exposing themselves to so many people. Some users would rather connect with people with whom they share common interests, such as hobbies or professional associations, other than knowing somebody who knows somebody who is listed as a MySpace friend.

Some Successes

Debra Aho Williamson, a senior analyst at eMarketer, says a demand for more specific social networks, and the resulting targeted sites, is a natural outgrowth of MySpace and Friendster's popularity. "The inevitable reaction to when something gets too big? Leave for a smaller, more personal experience," Williamson wrote in an August report on social networking.

Dozens of such targeted sites have taken root in the past several years with varying degrees of success. Among the most popular is LinkedIn, a site with 9 million members focused on helping people further their career through professional networking (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/29/07, (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/29/07, "LinkedIn Reaches Out").

Williamson cites Fuzzster, a social network for pet lovers; Yub.com, a site for shopaholics; Model Mayhem, a network for models and photographers; and Mog, a network for music lovers, as just some of the networks now catering to specific interests.

Other sites target demographics believed to be left out of the Friendsters of the world. Gather.com, for example, targets older users, more likely to listen to National Public Radio than hip hop. Chat rooms are focused on particular topics such as wine or politics (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/26/06, "Gather.com: Social Networking Grows Up").

There are financial reasons fueling the targeting as well. Advertisers are expected to spend $1.9 billion on social networks by 2010, up from $280 million in 2006. The sites that commend the highest figures per ad impression are typically those that can tell the advertiser something about their audiences' likely spending habits. Sites focused on shared interests allow advertisers to better target their messages.

Higher Costs

Ragan of itLinkz says advertisers are paying more each time their ads are viewed on his site than on more general social networks. Advertisers, he says, are paying double-digit figures for every 1,000 times their ad is viewed. MySpace's average charge per 1,000 views is considerably less than $1, according to an August eMarketer study citing press reports. "There are only two questions that we get," Ragan says. "How can I get more ad inventory and can I lock that rate in for a year?"

Ashton Peery, chief executive officer of Top10 Media, takes the target-marketing approach even further with StyleFeeder, a shopping-focused social network. Top10 Media creates Web entertainment platforms around which communities can interact, post comments, and discuss content. On StyleFeeder, users post products they like and find friends who like the same items or share a similar style. Products posted are linked to online merchants selling the items. StyleFeeder gets a cut of all purchases from recommendations. "When people want to get business done, they want a social site that is much more targeted," says Peery.

The other aspect fueling targeted sites is privacy. Some users are wary of posting on the larger sites because they don't want their boss, a college admissions officer, or relative finding pictures or posts they would rather keep for friends' eyes only, says Six Apart's Anker. Because they reach smaller audiences, targeted sites have less exposure than a major online destination such as MySpace, which had more than 64 million visitors in February.

Privacy Tools

Social networks are also satisfying this need by providing tools that allow users to select who sees content. The big networks, such as MySpace, have adopted limited privacy controls. (MySpace, for example, allows users to keep their entire profile private.) However, the newer social networking tools and platforms such as Vox have more targeted controls, allowing users to choose who in their vast network sees particular information.

Adesso Systems, which creates business and consumer Web applications, has built a "Tubes" networking and document sharing platform. The downloadable software allows users to segment their social network into as many groups as they want and then send information or files only to that group. For example, a user could have a Tubes toolbar on their computer with a folder for family, a folder for friends, a folder for a specific group of close co-workers, and then another folder for view by everyone in the office. When someone wants to share a photo, document, e-mail or other file with the group, he or she just drags it into the respective tube.

The company plans to add Web page capabilities, such as social networking user pages or blogs, later this year, says Steve Chazin, the company's vice-president of marketing. Already, the Tubes' site has seen 500,000 hits, says Chazin, making him confident there is sufficient user demand. Why? "There are a lot of people who don't want to share pictures of last night's party with their parents," says Chazin.


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