Athletic Brands Sign with Social Net for Action Sports Fans

Analysts and advertisers are divided on long-term prospects for marketing through vertical social networks. But a few such sites, including a Ford Models-run network for fashion models and a physicians’ network called Sermo, have succeeded in building audiences and selling ads.

One vertical social media play launching this week, Loop’d Network, is notable for its ready-made user base and the slew of brand partners already on board. Loop’d marks an expansion of two-year-old Sponsor House, a service used by 200,000 registered amateur athletes in motor, action and endurance sports to connect with companies that may want to sponsor them. The firm has created communities for launch advertisers Monster Energy, Oakley and Pacific Sunwear. It’s also struck up a content syndication and ad sales relationship with Surfer Magazine’s Hot 100, an annual issue profiling young surf talent.

According to Scott Tilton, president and CEO of Loop’d, many smaller sports-focused companies don’t know how to reach their target consumers except through a fairly limited set of Web sites and magazines for enthusiasts, plus mainstream social networks.

“The problem facing some of these brands is the only thing they know at the moment is MySpace,” said Tilton. “We can provide analytics so they can understand what they can do to better target and tweak campaigns to make sure they’re getting the most value possible.”

Monster Energy, which distributes energy drinks like Monster Assault, launched its Monster Army online community with Sponsor House in 2005, and it’s grown to 50,000 registered users. A two-year extension of the relationship will result in a new interface at MonsterArmy.com and exclusive interviews, videos and other content. John Lee, director of sports marketing at Monster Energy, told ClickZ News Monster he’s pleasantly shocked at how engaged Loop’d community members are in in managing their profiles and interacting with the brand.

Prior to its 2005 launch, he said, “We were sponsoring amateur athletes, but not to the level of getting 50,000 kids be a part of it. We did limited marketing via our internal Web site and through events.”

The viral growth of the Monster Army community on Sponsor House raised the company’s ambition and prompting it to sponsor young athletes, including those in high school. Monster has begun printing the URL on beverage containers and sending a branded monster truck to events around the country.

“The goal is to find the next Shaun White or Ricky Carmichael, the next future star… through this program,” he said. A secondary goal is brand awareness, “getting our name out there to places we can’t physically touch as of yet.”

Other brands launching communities on Loop’d include sports apparel retailers Oakley, which will offer a video contest as part of its presence there, and Pacific Sunwear.

Additionally, the company has struck up a relationship with Surfer Magazine to create a community and content area focused on the print rag’s annual Hot 100 guide to the best young surfers. Both Loop’d and Surfer Magazine will be able to sell ads on community pages, and the two will split revenue.

The future of vertical social networking platforms is open to debate. Analyst Emily Riley of Jupiter Research said the firm sees limited but real opportunities for such services to thrive and build large audiences.

“There are certain instances where vertical social networks are very useful and will probably maintain a relatively loyal audience,” she said. However, she said consumers only have so much time. “You’re going to have a very small participatory audience… Only a fraction are ever going to share content.”

Loop’d Network has partly gotten around that problem by first cultivating a large audience of amateur athletes through its Sponsor House matching service. The firm claims to have 10 million monthly page views and 350,000 unique users per month. According to Tilton, 60 percent of the firm’s revenue comes from advertising, the majority of which is spent on promotional microsites.

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