A space for everyone

When Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia announced that it would launch a social network on MarthaStewart.com in the second half of 2007, industry watchers groused that the launch might come too late.

When Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia announced that it would launch a social network on MarthaStewart.com in the second half of 2007, industry watchers groused that the launch might come too late.

While the world had been watching MySpace and Facebook grow into behemoth acquisition fodder, a new crop of social networks has launched, with many focusing on specific niches. While Stewart’s pressing concern may be time, the separate issue is: With so many new sites focusing on granular topics, how many social networks can a person join before a social tool becomes a nuisance?

It’s a little hard to believe that News Corporation-owned MySpace was initially a niche play, designed to allow bands to upload music and promotional materials.

“The launch of MySpace focused on music enthusiasts by enabling them to create a page that communicated their interests,” says Allyne Mills, general manager of Allison & Partners, the agency that worked on MySpace’s launch. “Customization was a key thing.”

At the time of MySpace’s launch, Friendster.com was the go-to destination for the key 18-35 demographic. Even though Friendster still has 27 million listed profiles, MySpace has stolen the top social networking mantel with 80 million users. Even MySpace is assailable; kids are buzzing about competitor Bebo.com these days.

“Because it presented a unique community, it grew,” Mills says. “It has moved beyond just music interests to all-encompassing social networking.”

Now, there are social networking sites tackling all manners of the human experience from golf (GolfBuzz.com), women running businesses (LadiesWhoLaunch.com), and adults running from MySpace (Gather.com). Martha Stewart’s offering will serve her prime demo: 25- to 45-year-old women who will use the site to share recipes, photos, and other home-improvement issues.

“The key for me was that everyone has to travel,” says Peter Shankman, founder of AirTroductions and CEO of the Geek Factory. “If you’re sitting on a plane, why not make that productive?”

AirTroductions allows users to try to pair up with other members for airline seating arrangements, to avoid a random lottery of passengers that could lead to an unsavory neighbor. The Web site currently has over 14,000 members.

With Airtroductions, Shankman says the technology allows you to find someone to sit next to who might make a good business partner or friend, or, as he candidly puts it, merely someone who bathes.

“The key to social networking is there needs to be a means to an end. The common goal is [for a social network] to produce a better outcome,” for its users,” Shankman says. “In the end, it comes down to [the question], ‘How many sites can one person become a member of?’”

Shankman recalls the irritation of getting constant friend requests from general-interest sites he uses sparingly or not at all.

“The coolness factor of ‘friends’ is gone,” Shankman says. “If I’m going to build this profile on a site, what is going to do for me?”

That difficult question explains why there are so many niche sites popping up.

“More and more, the sites that serve a purpose [will succeed],” Shankman says. “It’s not about social networking for the sake of it; it needs to produce some tangible benefits.”

And while Shankman believes that the public can juggle membership with multiple social networking sites, he adds that few of his members have reported simultaneously maintaining a page at MySpace.

“They have neither a need nor a desire to go on MySpace to trade pictures of bands,” Shankman says of a majority of Airtroductions’ users.

Allison & Partners now represents MySpace co-creator Brad Greenspan who has launched a video-themed social networking site called vidilife.com.

“You can belong to MySpace, but, if you’re also into sports, you can belong to a social network that caters to sports,” Mills says.

She adds that niche sites can’t just get fat off of healthy subscriber numbers; they have to continuously innovate and involve consumers in the process.

“We’re seeing the shift from publishers and producers dictating content to consumers directing where the content goes,” Mills says. “There’s so much available to consumers that they don’t have to stick around if they’re not thrilled with it.”

That concern is magnified in a mobile environment, where users want their information wherever they are and on whatever device they happen to own.

Derrick Oien, president and co-founder of Intercasting, which created mobile phone-based social networking technology Rabble, says that social networks can’t just live on the Internet.

Oien and his business partner Shawn Conahan created Rabble as both a mobile-based social networking service and a third-party publishing platform for mobile devices. For instance, it works with Blogger.com to make the blog software accessible on phones operated by most carriers.

“We knew from our previous experiences that there are some consumers that are very mobile-centric,” Oien says.

Oien says that there is a market for more niche networks, pointing to his own habits. He says he uses Blogger to blog and LinkedIn for business contacts, while bands are using MySpace for promoting their albums and work.

Oien says consumers will pick services based on “what is the best experience” for a particular function like blogging, sharing photos, or finding the best book to read.

With a crowded marketplace and so many networks serving disparate functions, Allison & Partners’ Mills says promotion involves all of the traditional tools.

“All of the tactics we have used in the past apply,” Mills says. “If it’s a fashion site, we can build awareness through fashion magazines and shows.”

But, she adds: “Things like blogs and SEO can really drive the campaign to the next level.”

Shankman says that traditional media relations has played a major role in AirTroductions’ success, saying that the Web site has received mentions in 450 media outlets.

“Virtually every reporter has said, ‘That’s a great idea, I should join that,’” Shankman says, adding that reporters, like everyone else, both have to travel and hate getting stuck in a bad seat.

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