Written by Atina Georgieva
It is easy for an entrepreneur to get caught up in the trivial aspects of social media such as Facebook, but success may be hiding somewhere else.
Small budgets and lack of time and expertise are the challenges that entrepreneurs face in their online marketing strategies. Facebook pops up as an obvious choice for building an online audience; however, it might not be the smartest one. The decline of user interest and the saturation of brands and corporate messages have changed the Facebook environment for marketing activities. The constant increase in budgets for keeping audience’s attention makes Facebook expensive and inefficient social media platform for startups.
So, how can a small company with a budget, far lower than the budget of Starbucks, manage to build an online community around its brand? A niche social media might be the solution.
By evaluating the current Facebook environment and illuminating the term “niche social media”, this article will reveal the power of niche social media for entrepreneurs. What is more, the article presents a unique case of an e-commerce startup using unconventional online channel, which is used as a jumping point for a discussion for the crucial aspects in developing strategies for entrepreneurs in niche social media.
Mom just sent you a friend request
Recent statistics show (Forbes, 2013), that for the past year the active Facebook usage among young people (16-24 years old) has dropped with more than 10%, compared with an increase of 15% among older people (35-64). Some years ago, a big concern was children signing up for Facebook, but now teenagers are concerned with their parents being active on Facebook. As gen Y users are the early adopters and growth drivers for social networking sites (Bolton et al, 2013), I can dare to say that the end of Facebook madness is coming soon. However, marketers still consider Facebook as top choice platform for building online audience (Social Media Examiner, 2013).
The invasion of brands has transformed the Facebook newsfeed into a city marketplace, where each company is shouting as loud as possible its message and the users can barely communicate with each other. Companies are attracting audience with big prizes, discounts, exclusive content and etc. but do they actually manage to create online communities around their brands? It should be pointed out that the average brand engagement rate on Facebook is around 1% (AdAge, 2012) and the average number of liked brand fan pages varies from 40 to 70 (AllFacebook, 2013). 70 brands are competing for few seconds of attention, which are often stolen by sponsored stories or sidebar ads. But even if a brand wins this severe competition, will the user care to click and read brand’s message? Rather no, because users often consider online ads as intrusive interruption of web activities (Soares et al, 2012). The rise of Facebook expenditures among SMEs (The Creative Group report, 2013) makes niche social media platforms seem more attractive and efficient for building an online audience for entrepreneurs.
Niche social media: defined
Although social media phenomenon has become a focus topic for discussion in the past years, marketers often see different meaning in it. If we take the broader point of view, we can agree that it is “any online service through which users can create and share a variety of content” (Bolton et al, 2013 p.248). There is no doubt that social media connects people worldwide, but it is interesting to see how people group into different communities online.
Communities of interest are defined as a particular type of community, where users actively communicate about different topics and share the same interests (Hagel &Armstrong, 1996; Andreini & Cassia, 2010). There are other types of communities: communities of transactions (users buying and selling goods as in Ebay), communities of relationship (users sharing personal experiences as in forums) and communities of fantasy (users creating new personalities as in Second Life). Although opportunities for brands are hidden in each type of community, tapping into the communities of interest may be the most lucrative strategy.
If managed well, communities of interest will allow companies to build an army of strong and passionate consumers, willing to support, defend and co-create with the brand. However, companies and especially startups have to find dedicated brand advocates to generate high online word-of-mouth /eWOM/ and spread the brand’s message. Yeo (2012) argues that relational users, or users oriented more towards others rather than themselves, are “more likely to generate word-of-mouth” (p. 297). Being open for others’ opinions and interests, relational type of social media users can also be seen as majority of the people of communities of interest. Thus, we can see that social media channels gathering communities of interest represent advantageous opportunities for entrepreneurs.
In the academic literature niche social media is not defined as a concept; however it is often used by practitioners. “Niche” as a term can be associated with “long tail” markets, defined as serving niche customers and niche markets (Anderson 2004, cited in Andreini & Cassia, 2010). Referring back to the communities of interest and the common usage of this word among professionals, niche social media can be defined as not widely used social media platforms, that bridges over users with same interest and allow them to communicate. Such niche social media websites can be divided into two groups: related to particular activity (photo sharing) or particular interest (sports, hobby) (TheMarketer UK). To get a glimpse of the biggest niche social networks, take a look at the table below.
The quick growth of niche social platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, Path, Quora and Snapchat suggest that users are excited about platforms beyond Facebook. The number and variety of niche social networks continue to rise rapidly and sometimes a particular social network can become hype almost overnight. Hoffman and Novak (2013) also argue that although the social media landscape may seem saturated, there is still room for new platforms to squeeze in. Entrepreneurs should dare to experiment in niche online communities and they may be lucky to catch first the next big social media wave.
Postcards as e-marketing tool – yes it is possible
Laszlo, a Hungarian entrepreneur, has found his way to reach and engage with potential customers using non-traditional online channels. Having set his online shop for typical Hungarian products, he has checked all the must-do things in online marketing: great SEO, interesting content, blog, integrated user-friendly e-commerce system, catchy pictures, and social media presence: Facebook, Twitter. But his secret recipe to success is Postcrossing.com.
Postcrossing.com is a social website, where people from all around the world can create a profile and get a random address to send a postcard. Yes, an offline postcard. Although many of us now have totally forgotten about the experience and excitement of receiving an unexpected postcard from far away, Postcrossing revives this thrill. With almost half a million active users worldwide it has established a solid user base and it is growing rapidly – more than 21 million postcards have been sent (Postcrossing, 2014)! Basically, a user registers his/her postal address in the system, gets a random address, buys a postcard, writes a personal message and sends it by post. And then one day, this same user unexpectedly receives a postcard from another user, thousands kilometers away.
Stepping in this community as a brand may seem difficult and intruding, especially when the users are extremely devoted to the group values and they may be sensitive and reluctant to any kind of advertising. However, Laszlo has managed to find his way through this challenge and find more than 37 dedicated and loyal customers via this channel for only a year and he treats them as friends rather than customers.
How can entrepreneurs find the hidden treasure in niche social media?
Both academia and social media professionals are revealing advices, tips and tricks on how to create and manage brand’s social media presence. However, the mainstream social networks are the focus of each discussion and very little time is spent on talking about how startups can maximize their time and money invested. By referring to Hanna et al (2011) insights in aligning social media in a company’s communication plan, we can get a glimpse of Laszlo’s strategy and outline the essential lessons for entrepreneurs when entering niche social media channels.
Define your media ecosystem and customize the message according to each type of media
Being active on many platforms and customizing messages to each one of them takes a lot of time, which is one of the scarcest resources entrepreneurs have. Kaplan & Haenlein (2010) suggest very useful points about using social media that can be applied when creating your niche social ecosystem.
1. Choose carefully
2. Ensure activity alignment
3. Media plan integration
In Laszlo’s case, the messages are tailored according to the type of social platform he is posting. In Facebook and Twitter, his aim is to engage users in conversations and his articles in Google+ are for SEO purposes. On the other side, Postcrossing communication tone is as he is speaking to his best friend, avoiding any cliché marketing or promotional words.
Begin with your story
Storytelling plays vital role in an online environment as “stories can help build awareness, comprehension, empathy, recognition, recall, and provide meaning to the brand” (Singh and Sonnenburg 2012, p. 189). Stepping into niche social media can be a way to find the targeted users on the right spot, transforming the online environment as the perfect stage for a brand to tell its story. However, entrepreneurs daring to enter these communities should understand very well the communication tone and group norms and values, so the story can be told in the right way and provoke interest towards the brand. If startups fail to do so, they risk to be banned and be labeled as just the next intruding spammer and affect brand reputation in a drastic way.
Laszlo is revealing the business using a narrative story-telling approach: creating an appealing copy about Hungary, its products and history. He had successfully found a niche social network that adds up to his brand story, combining feelings of excitement (receiving a postcard) and curiosity (about new country and typical Hungarian products).
Social media does not require astronomical budgets
Measuring the ROI of marketing in social media is a big challenge for businesses, so we can hardly speak about ROI of presence in niche social networks. Hoffman & Fodor (2010) also argue that managers are often focused more on quantifying the returns of investing in social media in short term. However, they suggest that developing relationships online takes time and a lot of interaction, and instead of counting visits and sales, marketers should try to estimate the power of these interactions. Presence in niche social media is not usually related to any other cost except time, so entrepreneurs can bring their creativity in action and try to develop lasting relationships with powerful representatives of the targeted group.
Laszlo does not buy any social media advertisements and he relies entirely on his online marketing expertise. For his Postcrossing promotions, the cost for sending a postcard is 1.5 euro, which can be seen as significantly lower when compared to buying a word on AdWords. Also, Laszlo has identified the KPIs for each type of media, going beyond the number of fans or followers. For the users coming from Postcrossing activities, the major determinant is the return rate, as he sees building loyalty as crucial factor to word-of-mouth. However, his initiative in niche social media such as Postcrossing is rather in long term perspective – selling few additional products will not contribute much to his financial gains, but rather the interested and loyal customers spreading the word about his business worldwide.
There is no doubt that Laszlo’s online strategy in niche media as Postcrossing is unique. Besides, he writes each postcard with unique and personal message, according to the information that the receiver revealed online. With the explosion of social networking sites that combine any kind of people around any kind of interest, entrepreneurs have the possibility to explore, test and develop feasible niche social media strategy that can also serve as a competitive advantage in the severe competition for users’ attention.
Entrepreneurs, are you still thinking of Facebook?
Going back to the reason why people are on Facebook may convince entrepreneurs to leave it out of focus in their marketing activities. People use Facebook to connect with people, who they already know in real life. Perhaps it works the same for brands – it is easy for established brands to find their audience. However, entrepreneurs should invest enormous amount of money and time to tell their story and perhaps these resources can be spent more wisely.
Laszlo’s strategy illustrates very well the power of niche social media if adopted tactically. It is a long-term strategy that requires time, commitment, creativity and most of all, vision. Entrepreneurs should have a vibrant purpose when entering a particular niche social media and they should embrace each community’s unique culture. Such an action can generate high eWOM, bring passionate brand advocates and open new market opportunities – all crucial necessities for newly set startups.
If you are an entrepreneur that doesn’t feel comfortable on Facebook, simply shooting in the dark, then you should enter niche social media that best suits your brand and reach out to the target customers. And when shaping your next social media endeavors, remember:
“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.”
AdAge (2012). Brand Engagement Rate Still 1%, But Facebook Is OK With That. Available online: http://adage.com/article/digital/brand-engagement-rate-1-facebook/238317/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+advertisingAge/Digital+%28Advertising+Age+-+Digital%29 [Accessed on 10 February 2014]
AllFacebook (2013). How Many Pages Does the Average Facebook User Like? Available online: http://allfacebook.com/how-many-pages-does-the-average-facebook-user-like_b115098 [Accessed on 15 February 2014]
Andreini, D., & Cassia, F. (2010). Effectiveness of sponsorships in niche communities online: A preliminary study. International Conference On Management And Service Science, MASS 2010
Armstrong, A. & Hagel, J. (1996). The real value of online communities. Harvard Business Review, 74(3), 134–141.
Bolton, R., Parasuraman, A., Hoefnagels, A., Migchels, N., Kabadayi, S., Gruber, T., Loureiro, Y, & Solnet, D. (2013). Understanding Generation Y and their use of social media: a review and research agenda, Journal Of Service Management, 24, 3, pp. 245-267
Forbes (2013). Dead and Buried? Here's What's Really Happening With Facebook. Available online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/haydnshaughnessy/2013/12/30/dead-and-buried-heres-whats-really-happening-with-facebook-demographics/ [Accessed on 15 February 2014]
Hanna, R., Rohm, A., & Crittenden, V. (2011). We're all connected: The power of the social media ecosystem. Business Horizons, 54, 3, p. 265-273
Hoffman, D., & Fodor, M. (2010). Can you measure the ROI of your social media marketing? MIT Sloan Management Review, 52, 1, pp. 41-49
Hoffman, D., Novak, T. (2012). Toward a Deeper Understanding of Social Media. Journal Of Interactive Marketing (Mergent, Inc.), 26, 2, pp. 69-70
Kaplan, A., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons, 53, 1, p. 59-68
Postcrossing (2014). User stats. Available online: http://www.postcrossing.com/stats/users [accessed on 13 February 2014]
Singh, S. & Sonnenburg, S. (2012). Brand Performance in Social Media. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 26, 4, 189–97
Soares, A., Pinho, J.C., Nobre, H. (2012). From Social to Marketing Interactions: The Role of Social Networks. Journal of Transnational Management, Vol. 17 Issue 1, p45-62.
Social Media Examiner (2013). Social Media Industry Report. Available online: http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/SocialMediaMarketingIndustryReport2013.pdf [Accessed on 15 February 2014]
The Creative Group report (2013). Social Media Marketing Plans. Available online: http://creativegroup.mediaroom.com/social-media-marketing-plans [Accessed on 13 February 2014]
TheMarketer UK (n.d.). 5 Niche Social Media Strategies. Available online: http://www.themarketer.co.uk/how-to/digital-focus/5-niche-social-media-strategies/ [Accessed on 13 February 2014]
Yeo, D. (2012). Social-Media Early Adopters Don't Count. Journal of Advertising Research, 52, 3, pp. 297-308
 The information about Laszlo’s social media strategy for this article was obtained via informal interview.