In the 1970s, when I was a kid, the entire television universe consisted of six channels: ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and two UHF channels that featured little more than sports and the occasional second-rate horror movie.
Eventually, things changed.
Cable television expanded that universe considerably, growing into what we know today: the proverbial “500 channels,” including specialized networks featuring everything from food to weather.
That evolution was driven by one unmistakable force: audience demand. After decades of being content with limited choices – my parents, after all, were just happy to have TV at all – we began to want more, including more depth than the networks historically had provided. Instead of seeing our favorite musicians perform on Saturday Night Live for five minutes a week or seeing our favorite sports teams a couple of times a year, we began to rely upon MTV and ESPN to give us what we wanted much more frequently.
The shift in what we expect from television is a fitting precursor to shifting preferences among social media users.
Today, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube act as “broadcast networks” of sorts – places we go to find breadth more than depth. We are spending an increasing amount of time, however, with niche social media sites that act as “cable networks” – places we go for depth of content. In addition to going to Facebook to talk hockey, for example, we go to Hockey-Community.com. More interested in knitting and crocheting? You may be as likely to visit Ravelry.com as Twitter to connect with friends who have the same interest. And, demonstrating just how “niche” niche can get, there’s a good chance that professionals in the oil and gas industry might find as much useful information relative to their work on OilPro.com as they would on YouTube.
This phenomenon has been developing for some time. One notable example: in Piper Jaffray’s Fall 2013 “Taking Stock with Teens” study, 17 percent of respondents chose “other” as their most important social media site, meaning that there was a social media platform more important to them than all of the biggest names, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Tumblr and Pinterest. And while the “other” category certainly wasn’t limited to niche sites, it nevertheless showed remarkable growth in a short period of time. In the spring 2013 study – just six months earlier – a mere 4 percent of respondents had chosen “other.”
There’s an important lesson in this for brands: niche networks are making it both more difficult and easier to connect with your audience. How is this paradox possible? It’s more difficult to find them because our audiences are becoming more widely dispersed, and it’s becoming less likely that you’ll find a critical mass of your customers or prospects on any one platform. When your product or service speaks to the needs of a specific group, however, and when a critical mass of that group’s members gather on a specific niche network, you have an unmatched opportunity to build relationships.
It’s important to note that using niche networks to your company’s advantage requires more than just a simple presence on those networks. In order to get something out of it, that is, you’ll need to provide something of value – primarily in the form of content and conversation. In addition, it’s critical to resist the urge to make blatant sales pitches to these audiences. They’re gravitating toward niche networks because they want a more reliable means of solving problems and using their time well, not because they want more marketing messages.
In the long run, will it be worth the effort to spend more time on niche networks, even if doing so requires spending less time on broad social networks like Facebook and Twitter? It’s too soon to tell, and the answer will vary from business to business. Stay tuned, though: niche networks are slowly but surely becoming ready for prime time.
ANTHONY JULIANO is a marketing and social media strategist, teacher, trainer and writer. He is vice president of marketing and social media strategy at Asher Agency in Fort Wayne, and he teaches social media and marketing classes at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Connect with him at LinkedIn.com/in/anthonyjuliano or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.