Social Butterflies: Facebook's Biggest Competitors

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Better Relevancy Opportunities

So, if you have a group of fashion-minded social networkers, all grouped in one place, it only makes sense to hit them with a fashion ad, suggests Krista Neher, an educator, author, and international speaker on internet marketing and social media. She is also the CEO of Boot Camp Digital, a provider of training and consulting solutions for social media marketing.

"Niche social networks can be very powerful in delivering the right message to the right person at the right time," Neher adds. "Say, for example, I am on a social network for photographers. When I'm on that network, I am in the mindset of thinking about photography. Ads about cameras and equipment are highly relevant to me at that time. The same ad delivered to me when I'm on a business social network may be less relevant to me, since I'm not thinking about photography at that specific time."

Basically, niche social networks "provide better relevancy opportunities," Neher says.

Neher notes that if, for example, a company was looking to specifically target fans of knitting, it might be better off advertising on a niche knitting social network, rather than trying to nab knitting fans on Facebook. She adds, "The only way for a brand to know is to test and learn.

"Different networks require different advertising approaches and copy," Neher says. "Plus, niche networks don't exist for every product. For example, I saw an ad on Facebook for disco ball pants-they had little mirrors on them, and they were hysterical. I'm not sure that there are niche networks for people who want to wear disco ball pants. Not every product will be able to find the right niches depending on how specific their target audience is."

The Key to Social Success: Be Different

Since 2008, Facebook has made a number of acquisitions of smaller networks-such as the social travel recommendation site Nextstop in 2010 and the social check-in service Hot Potato later that year. Its most talked-about acquisition to date--certainly the priciest--was its $1 billion purchase of the popular photo-sharing site Instagram in April.

However, Neher feels these acquisitions don't necessarily mean the best of the alternative social networks will wind up getting swallowed by Facebook. "Each social network offers something different in terms of the user experience," Neher says. "I remember years ago as Twitter started becoming popular, Facebook created ‘status updates,' which were predicted to be the end of Twitter. Now that you can post public status updates, it could be argued that Facebook has the same functionality as Twitter. That being said, the community of Facebook is very different than Twitter; although they may be comprised of the same people, they are used differently. Facebook also added check-in functionality, yet many people still use foursquare and Gowalla."

Neher adds, "While Facebook may acquire other networks that have mass appeal, the way networks are used is different, so I believe we will always have a variety of social networks that we use for different things." Indeed, Neher suggests, the social networks that make it will be the ones that bring something new to the table.

"I think that Google+ shows us that people don't want to do the same thing that they can already do on an existing social network somewhere else," Neher says. "It doesn't appear that people will adopt a new network without a different value proposition."

Neher continues, "The problem with social networks is that they only work when you have friends on them." She recalls that "back in the early days of Twitter, there were a number of other copycats ... pretty early on, some of which had (arguably) better functionality and less downtime than Twitter. That being said, they weren't interesting if your friends weren't there, so people would check them out, duplicate Twitter updates on the new network for a few days, and then decide it was too much effort, and go back to Twitter."

Simply put, Neher feels, "It definitely seems that social networks need to offer something new to survive."

Pinterest: Nipping at Facebook's Heels

One network that has not just survived, but thrived, is Pinterest. The site, launched in 2010, lets people organize and share items they find on the web. Using what the site refers to as "pinboards," people can plan their weddings, sort and share recipe ideas, discover fitness tips, and more.

A hit with critics--TIME called it one of The 50 Best Websites of 2011--the site has also become massively successful with the general public. According to VentureBeat, Pinterest had 12 million unique visitors per month in February. And those aren't just hit-and-run visitors either; infographic reported the average Pinterest visitor spends 1 hour and 17 minutes per month on the site-more than the time spent per month by the visitors of Twitter, LinkedIn, Myspace, and Google+ combined.

Just how big has the site become? None other than President Barack Obama joined the site in March; his pins include the family chili recipe. Among the less well-known Pinterest addicts is Connecticut resident Holly Walmer, who admits to using the site daily. With its lack of status updates, games, and lengthy user profiles, Pinterest hasn't replaced Facebook for Walmer; rather, it supplements it. Indeed, many times when people use Pinterest, their activity also shows up in their Facebook--or Twitter--feed.

Walmer explains that she typically has both Facebook and Pinterest open on her browser, and she says she likes them for different reasons. "I enjoy the ability to see what is happening with friends, colleagues, and family by using Facebook," she says. "I enjoy the ability to be inspired by the different pins that I see on Pinterest, with hopes that I will someday be able to make the cookies from the recipe I pinned, or choose a wedding dress that I pinned because I found it beautiful."

Pinterest also has a way of connecting complete strangers, rather than just friends--as users discover pins from unknown pinners-which is something Neher feels attracts people to Pinterest. "What is appealing about Pinterest is that people can find and discover new things from complete strangers who happen to share their interests," she says. "It allows users to expand their social circles based on the common connection of interests.

"What helped Pinterest catch on so quickly is that it is extremely easy to use and highly visual," Neher says. "Plus, users don't have to create their own content by writing a lengthy blog post. It is a simple and quick way to share things that you like around the web."

The site also presents, Neher says, "many opportunities" for advertisers and marketers. She adds that "smart marketers are already on Pinterest."
Neher points to The Home Depot as an example. According to Google Ad Planner, as of July, 74% of Pinterest's users are female. So, knowing how heavily women use the site, Home Depot has opted to not put a bunch of info on power tools and home improvement projects on its boards, Neher says. Instead, "You see boards about design, lighting, entertaining and decorating," she says. "With just a quick look at the page, you can see a variety of really interesting and compelling posts-I got sucked in looking at how to make colorful duct tape flowers.

"In addition to creating pages and boards, businesses can also make sure that the content on their sites is sharable on Pinterest," Neher adds. "It should include vibrant, interesting images and also have the Pin It button to encourage users to pin."

Pinterest is "kind of uniquely positioned in that it's more about stuff" and less about people, TRAFFIQ's Brown says, "and stuff can be purchased."
Brown adds, "The ability to access an influencer in product-specific context, I think that would be attractive to an advertiser. On Facebook and Twitter, you can get people through influencers ... but the context is more about conversations and less about stuff.

"Getting someone to tweet about your product is a little bit harder than to get someone to pin your product," Brown says.

Simplicity Is Key

The only site that comes between Pinterest and Facebook is Tumblr. Though the networking site is older than Pinterest-having been launched in April 2007-it continues to be quite popular. VentureBeat listed 17 million unique monthly visitors for Tumblr, and those visitors spend an average of 1 hour and 38 minutes on the site each month.

"Tumblr is blogging made easy," Neher says. "The highly visual way that users can share content-whether it is their own unique content or a video from YouTube with their comments-is what sets it apart from other social networks."

Neher adds, "Similar to Pinterest, the success is in the simplicity. While blogging software like WordPress is simple for many people, it isn't nearly as quick and easy as Tumblr."

"The key to Tumblr's success is ease of use and variety," Brown says. "Ease of use begets having a lot of content, which begets more and more users coming to it."

Simplicity, offering something different, catering to a specified audience--all are key to the success of new social networking sites. Only time will tell, of course, which ones will become the new Pinterest and which will become the new, say, Friendster, but Brown has a theory. "The ones that'll survive are the ones that provide good value to the users," he says. "Anything that's a little bit gimmicky or based around novelty probably is not going to be as lasting."

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