Behemoths like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube have won the lion's share of media attention around the social networking trend, but many smaller vertical plays have emerged in the space as well. With these sites, specialization is the rule, and there is perhaps more room for marketers to build brands and deliver targeted messages.
One firm enabling the niche approach is Small World Labs (SWL). The company has created entire social networking interfaces for professional and interest-based communities like ClassicalLounge.com, a community for classical musicians, and Sacramento-based PBS affiliate KVIE -- not only to help them connect with their community, but also use the space to push their own brand. SWL has picked up 15 such clients in just under two years since its official launch
"We tailor the content, look, and feel [of] each customer's site, giving them a fully branded offering," explained SWL CEO and Founder Michael Wilson. "This is the main difference between using SWL and MySpace, LinkedIn, or Yahoo Groups to connect together your constituents. With SWL you control the social or professional network, you control the look and feel, you control the structure of interactions, and most importantly, you get the credit for offering this important service to your constituents."
The Austin, Texas-based company offers a range of features commonly associated with social networking, including a rich text editor to add text or html to blogs, photo albums, RSS news feeds, and Evite-like functionality. For community-owners, the platform can monitor ad placements and analytics, while enabling interactions with site members.
In a time when larger networks like MySpace have had problems with ad placements running next to sometimes risqué content, marketers are trying to keep a closer watch on the content associated with their campaigns. One way to do that is by targeting smaller, home-grown communities. But risks abound for the do-it-yourself crowd.
"Branded social networks offer marketers an excellent opportunity to test social networking without worrying about whether their ad will appear next to unsavory content -- which has happened on larger networks such as MySpace," said eMarketer Senior Analyst Debra Aho Williamson. "However, the challenge for marketers developing their own networks will be to entice consumers to participate. Some brands may have more success than others."
Cindy Gallop, former chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, sounds a similar cautionary note. "For individual brands, this is an online phenomenon that still plays by offline rules," she said. "People will only gather round and get engaged with a brand if they have good reason to love it and appreciate it. You have to earn the right to have people want to treat you as a badge brand and flag their affiliation with you publicly, whether that's in public offline or online."
However, once a critical mass of site visitors has been reached, advertising can be highly targeted. As Wilson put it, "Having rich user profiles gives [KVIE] much more detailed demographic, behavioral, and interest information about their users which is valuable to their advertisers, driving more advertising revenue."
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.