Advertisers May Find Big Value in Smaller Sites.
You may have seen my story from Saturday about niche social networking sites, which are starting to grab a share of advertising dollars. Marketers have been flocking to the flashy networks like MySpace and Facebook to get access to the millions of members that log on every day. But to reach a more targeted audience, companies are beginning to test the waters of advertising on smaller communities built around a hobby, interest or age group.
I talked to the founders of about a dozen social networking sites catering to specific audiences, from real estate agents to retirees. They all had interesting stories, so I thought I'd share a bit more about how they got started and how they operate.
Michael Carter originally created Passions Network as a dating site to let singles connect with others people that have similar interests. There are now 106 networks within the site, frequented by about 600,000 members. There's a site specifically for gardeners, sci-fi lovers, truckers and nerds. The most popular site targets people who are a bit overweight (it's called largepassions.com). A site for shy people has turned into sort of a support group for people with anxiety problems
Carter's idea: After joining one network, they'll see others that pique their interest and join them too, creating a personal web of memberships within the site. So an atheist who's into yoga and likes cartoons can meet a highly select group of like-minded people. Right now, he says he takes the "lazy" approach by partnering with Google to list relevant ads on each network. The site also partners with other companies that share the theme of the site. For example, a site for photographers may team up with a photography magazine or equipment seller and link to each other on their Web sites. He wants to get more than 1 million members before seriously going after advertisers.
"The idea is to make it easy for advertisers who want to sell to appropriate customers," said Carter, who runs the network from New York. He added that people seem to be more comfortable identifying themselves as nerdy or shy in a more intimate environment.
Jango.com founder Dan Kaufman also thinks advertisers may start to prefer that kind of predictable environment, instead of running the risk of having their ad show up on a MySpace profile next to four-letter words and racy video clips. Jango lets people create their own customized radio station (it's licensed as an online radio company) and then connect to other people with similar musical tastes by listening in to their stations. Jango also gets revenue from transactions on the site: When a user stumbles on a song they like, they can download it directly from iTunes or Amazon.com. Jango launched last month and has about 160,000 members.
Koe Murphy, who lives in Washington, also created a music-oriented site, OnLoq.com , but caters specifically to hip-hop lovers. A former graffiti artist and DJ with an MBA, Murphy said he's part of the market he's trying to serve. One of the site's goals, besides introducing members to new music, is to be a repository for cool, cutting-edge videos and other "underground" content that members can post.
"It's a model that says, 'Hey, you've got cool stuff. We've got cool stuff. Let's hit the market together and both get noticed," he said.
Besides selling advertising, Murphy wants to develop "targeted" relationships to help get original content on the site. For example, it recently struck a deal with an entertainment management firm FUNimation, to give OnLoq.com exclusive content in exchange for ad space.
Other sites target professionals. Brian Wilson started Zolve.com, a social network for real estate agents, in a garage-- a heavily armored one-- while he was stationed in Baghdad. During his 17-month tour, he read about the ups and downs of the real estate market and wanted to tap into the detailed knowledge real estate agents have about specific cites and neighborhoods.
Right now, the site works as a business resource for agents, letting its 4,200 members share clients to collect referral fees, and rate each other's performance (similar to the way buyers rate vendors on Ebay.com). Eventually Wilson wants to use the members' knowledge to create thousands of Wikipedia-style pages of local real estate information where local merchants can advertise. So a specific neighborhood would have its own page, with school and park information, and the dry cleaner around the corner could buy an ad for $10.
"Nobody's got that local insight," said Wilson, who lives in Colorado Springs. "Why not give them a forum to display that expertise?"
Many of these sites are new--Zolve launched two months ago--and are still waiting to attract enough members to make the advertising model a viable one. But if companies are trying to reach a highly specific audience without blanketing Web sites with banner ads, they certainly have plenty of options.
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