Is The Next Big Thing a Lot of Smaller Things?

by Chris Metinko, Media Relations Specialist, Business Wire/San Francisco
Chris Metinko

Chris Metinko

Remember MySpace?

Remember when Facebook was going to be the next big thing?

In social media — just as in everything — there always is the “next thing,” and many are pointing to the exploding popularity of niche social networks as exactly that. Many such sites have seen tremendous growth in the past year, as they cater to specific interests, hobbies and likes.

According to the online data measurement firm comScore, the online virtual pinboard site Pinterest saw the third largest percentage jump in unique visitors from December 2011 to January 2012 — behind only the IRS’s and the Department of Education’s websites. Also according to comScore, it became the fastest user site ever to hit 10 million monthly visitors.

As Business Wire media reps attended programs held in San Francisco during February’s Social Media Week, some of the talk was not on the titans of social networking — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter et al. — but rather these niche sites that seem to be taking up more and more of social networkers’ time. According to some officials in the burgeoning new category of social media, the migration of users is easily explained.

“There’s a lot of noise in the system right now,” said Oliver Hsiang with StumbleUpon, a search engine that creates virtual communities to rate and rank search results. “People want something to filter through the stuff you don’t care about.”

Niche sites allow users to focus on certain subjects and likes instead of Facebook’s all-encompassing style, which some can find hard to navigate. Sites such as Reddit, a social news site where users post, rate and rank news stories, have gained increased notoriety and users. Jena Donlin, business development manager with Reddit, said the site even allows users into different communities and subcategories to more narrowly focus on interests.

Such niche sites also can potentially be gold for journalists, because they reach a specific, targeted audience. For instance, if a reporter is writing about weight-loss and wants to talk to someone trying to lose weight, going to the uber-popular social network DailyBurn seems logical. If someone is writing about the public’s take on a new, hot restaurant, going to food-obsessed network Foodspotting should do the trick. While these sites may not reach the audience numbers Facebook does, a journalist knows the site’s members are extremely interested in their specific topic or beat, and the site can let writers know what people are talking about on a more regional or national level — not limiting reporters by geography.

Despite the current popularity some of these sites, they still face obstacles in their battle for users’ time. One, obviously, is they are exactly what they are suppose to be — niche sites — meaning they are not going to interest everyone.

Donlin said increased popularity also can bring issues, as it can become increasingly difficult to “keep up with the conversation” on sites. Hsiang added niche sites also face the same problem nearly every website eventually confronts — coming up with fresh and new content to keep users coming back and spending time on the site instead of doing other things like watching television, reading or using other social media.

“You compete for discretionary time with everything,” Hsiang said.

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