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Niche Social Networks - Way Forward

An overview on the emerging trends among niche social media platforms. The disruptive platforms grab user time zeroing in on a specific interest or hobby.
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If you think that Facebook is getting obsolete and the engagement levels are downward, surprisingly, you’re not alone. In the US, 2019 saw a drop of 42 percent of the users checking FB frequently and 26% even deleted the app. So what’s driving the decline of Facebook or for that matter any ‘commonplace’ social media which is experiencing a similar drop. Comparing across products, LinkedIn, being a social network for professionals is gaining popularity and more importantly stickiness. People no more consider it an app to install when you’re searching for a job or to update your connections about the latest certification you did. So what could be a reason for a palpable shift in perceptions.

Disrupting the Social Media

Take it or not, social media industry itself is commoditised. The novelty of connecting with friends online, seeing their life events, and chatting with them is long gone in a fast evolving internet era. Like any matured industry, users are expecting tailored products and offerings. Enter customised social platforms with diversified features. Imagine an expectant mother. She might be going through a very unique phase of her life, and needs emotional support and related information. She would prefer to turn to a community of pregnant peers. She might be better identified there, connect with their thoughts and worries, and be more fruitfully engaged, rather than in a commonplace social platform.

The community need not be pinned to an all occupying phase of our life. Even a small hobby or interest can spawn a group of similar enthusiasts and could be run as a sustainable business. If you’re an an interested birdwatcher, you may not have many acquaintances sharing the hobby. You might wish to share your experience and listen from other peers, but maybe passive enough to set out and be a member of an amateur birdwatching society in the neighbourhood. Now, with a niche platform you can be part of a larger online community of birdwatchers worldwide and hear from them. Here you’re satisfying an important urge of your psyche, which keeps you coming back again. 

A niche platform must satisfy three primary conditions to remain relevant:

  • A large enough audience who can connect with the content. So the area of interest picked is very important. There should be enough people to be drawn as your potential users and at the same time, it should be narrow enough for the users to feel at home in your feed.
  • The platform should be able to build a trust and closeness among the users. Users would prefer to take part actively in discussions. The platform should invoke the level of attachment among users that pushes them to seamlessly draw up their experiences and hear from others in a closed space. 
  • Most importantly the app itself should be personal. The emotional attachment they feel towards their interest should be translated to a feeling of belonging, in the relationship with the platform. This in turn makes them valuable customers.

Monetising the Connect

These platforms’ growing popularity is taken note of in the investment space as well, with VCs and PE firms carefully watching them to reach a critical mass of customers to drive a profitable business model. The main advantage of niche community apps is the faster and cheaper customer acquisition. A good word of publicity and targeted marketing can fast draw the users onto the platform, because the choice is based on their own interest and urge to join an enriching peer group of like minded individuals. Targeted marketing programmes could be devised for publicising the platform in the already existing peer groups in the domain. So network effect kicks in very soon and more users flock to the niche content offered. The value of the platform increases exponentially as more engaged people start posting relevant content.

Another enormous advantage is the highly segmented consumer set to offer data and insights about. Here companies need not spend millions on algorithms to draw the social graph of the users. Of course user classification is important, but it’s a far more comfortable starting point. This narrowed down data is much richer to brands, to promote their products. Imagine how easier it will be to sell a backpack in a peer group of travel enthusiasts. It has created big opportunities for these companies to provide effective insights, to act upon. The third benefit stems from the user retention that these platforms can boast about. When the app is all about your favourite pastime or lifestyle, you keep coming back to it. It creates an emotional lock. Firms can take advantage of this by offering premium subscriptions. The user is more drawn to such plans on such a platform. LinkedIn premium subscription’s growing popularity can be sited here. A commoditised social media can never milk such an opportunity because it doesn’t sound appealing to its broad user set. 

Fishbrain Case Study 

Fishbrain is a niche social media based in Sweden for sport fishing hobbyists, which is, surprisingly, one of the most popular past-times in the world. Currently Fishbrain has around 10 million active users with more than 8 million catches logged world wide. Catch data includes the size and weight of the fish, the bait, location and accessories used. The app also rakes in numerous atmospheric parameters like humidity, air pressure etc. Behind the scenes, their algorithms crunch all this data into meaningful insights to help their customers engage better. Better spots and times of catch are automatically suggested through the app. The company is also branded to be supporting conservation aspect, and emphasises the catch and release policy very strongly so as to create a sustainable environment.

They promote a premium version too, sold for around $9.99 per month, which offers a wider range of insights about catches and baits to be used. That might seem a very expensive plan, but for a hobby like sport fishing, wherein enthusiasts spend much higher amounts on accessories, reference points are higher and it is seeing fast user adoption. From 2018 to 2020, they were able to command a two thirds increase in the subscription amount. The business model mainly runs on this conversion but there are other revenue streams like targeted advertising and merchandise. Again when it comes to a niche social media, the targeting part becomes much easier for brands to rely on.

As the market matures, it’s not the question of these unique apps uprooting Facebook or Instagram. Actually, both of these can collaborate in mutually beneficial ways through integration. But it’s to be assumed without doubt that these platforms take user time out of broader social media. And that’s where the latter would have to pay greater attention. We would be surely more excited to share photos of a newly blossomed rose with our gardening peers than a wider set of friends.