Harness the Power of Vertical Social Networks

Social networks are everywhere. You’re on them, so are your “friends.” Your kids are on them, maybe even your parents. What was once a unique Internet idea is now a mainstream Web platform and is even the subject of future Cisco strategies.

In the past year, brands have looked to social networks to market to the community. This strategy has tended to be a natural, first-instinct reaction to the pressures of social media as brands look to ride the wave of popular Internet audience trends to maintain a state of consumer relevancy while keeping their share of eyeballs. In some cases, this has worked. For example, marketing to social networks can be beneficial to lifestyle brands people choose as a badge of social status.

All good marketers know to reach their customers where they live. Great marketers have a finger on the pulse of what’s next. The long-tail theory (define) has shown there’s sustained life after the big bang of mainstream appeal, and the same applies to social networks. Vertical-interest social networks are growing in popularity, as users join niche networks that appeal directly to their everyday interests and personal passions. While MySpace and Facebook are strong personal and anonymous relationship and expression platforms, vertical social networks allow people with similar interests to congregate and form rich communities of participation and conversation.

This isn’t a radical change. In fact, it’s a natural evolution. All communities eventually break into smaller tribes once they meet other members with specific interests. For marketers, this particular evolution represents an interesting opportunity to reach passionate, active consumers in a more targeted environment.

It’s how you work with these new networks that could lead to a new form of marketing ROI (define). While it’s always a good strategy to cast a wide net with broad-reaching media properties, it’s advantageous to fish in a pond full of potential customers. A more targeted audience offers more opportunity for lead aggregation, feedback, and better targeted customer conversation.

But what if your brand lacks a natural fit with the communities of mainstream social networking sites? We’re working with our clients to do more than market to the community. We encourage them to learn from the community by building community platforms that encourage audience participation. This will provide results that go a bit further than standard Web metrics. If our partners can utilize the networks to gain product and brand feedback, suggestions, and insight, ROI can go deeper and include an R&D aspect. Considering these networks are focused on specific activities and interests, feedback and conversation quality is often deeper and more insightful than typical survey and focus group comments.

How to get involved:

  • Find networks that appeal to your audience. You know who your audience is and what they like to do. Chances are, there are already a handful of online communities and social networks that appeal to their interests. Check out LibraryThing, Yelp, and Meetup to get your feet wet.
  • Check out the community. Don’t just jump in, check out the community to see how vibrant it is. Are they active? What do they talk about? Who’s there?
  • Learn what works. Get a meeting with the people who run the site. Let them tell you about their firsthand experience with their community. They’ll know what works and what doesn’t.
  • Don’t market; create a conversation. Resists the urge to buy a banner or brand a page. Instead, find ways to encourage participation and see if you can get the community to come to you through conversation and criticism. Create a contest or sponsor an initiative to start conversations.
  • Be transparent. Observe appropriate marketing efforts and let the network know who you are. Once you introduce yourself as a voice of a brand, you’ll be impressed with the quality of your responses.
  • Study through observation. Reports provide metrics, but if you really want to learn more, you’ll need to spend time in the network.
  • And don’t forget to have fun. Enjoy the constructive feedback you receive, and maintain your new relationships. In addition, don’t forget that the Internet’s anonymity may lead to some negative feedback. Don’t take it personally!

    Chad is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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