Social Networking is Online Publishing 2.0

I’ve recently changed my mind about some of the smaller niche, trade, business-to-business websites that are on the online scene. These are often trade publications that cater for specific industries. I’ve realised that, if approached correctly, this type of publishing is perfectly poised to be more than just traditional content publishing, but powerful social and business networking too. Suddenly, what previously seemed like a boring, bog-standard publishing site, comes alive as a potential social or business network.

As a budding online entrepreneur seeking to get into the social networking game, it probably wouldn’t be wise to create something that competes directly with Facebook right now unless you’ve have won the lottery about eight times in a row, or your name is Google or Microsoft.

However, an area where you could compete successfully is in the niches and on a regional level. You could for example create an online social/business network for specific interest groups such as teachers, doctors, bloggers, stamp collectors or even wine farmers within your region or country, and perhaps in certain instances, globally. The difference between these social networks, and say that of Facebook, is that these niche networks would be highly customised and feature-rich in a way that specifically caters for these interest groups as opposed to the generalist nature of Facebook. No matter how many custom Facebook applications are created, I doubt Facebook could ever be customised enough to cater for specific needs and issues of the prosperous wine farmers of Guatemala or internet-savvy teachers in South Africa.

Niche, business-to-business, trade publishing brands have always offered something different to the big mainstream news brands that attract the masses. Although they don’t get the big audience numbers, these niche-interest brands tend to be much closer to their audience and to the content they publish. That’s why advertising often does well here, because even though they appeal to a small audience, it is usually a passionate, focused, knowledgeable and engaged audience. And that’s why websites that publish niche content are in a strong position to take advantage of the social networking revolution.

Publishers have traditionally only bothered about the relationship between themselves and the reader, but now via an online social/business networking tool — they can be intricately involved not only in the relationship between themselves and the reader, but now in the relationship between the readers themselves. Publishing a website these days should not only be about the publisher connecting to its reader, but a publisher connecting its readers to other readers.

The bottom line is that a niche website is an opportunity to create a strong social network. Here’s a practical example: We have been tasked with developing websites for Healthcare workers and Teachers, based on pre-existing print titles. To be brutally honest, I’ve never been particularly enthusiastic about these jobs. Ordinarily we would follow the same route we would follow for developing any other website: you publish content, resources and interactive features (forums, polls, blogs) for the readers that will visit.

But if you think about it, the opportunity is much bigger: why not build social networks appealing to the specific interest groups of these niche sites, leveraging your trusted publishing brand to build a specific online teacher social/business networking tool? It will be more than a website that teachers visit to read articles, but a website allowing them to connect, collaborate, and communicate with each other while providing a closed network with customised tools. It’s a model that could work for any niche interest grouping.

For the publisher it means a more direct, stronger and potentially longer-lasting relationship with readers. For example, compare the relationship Facebook has with a user like me, than say the relationship that generalist sites like the Guardian Unlimited or IOL has with me. The latter sites don’t know I exist. But in comparison, Facebook knows all about me. This relationship is far more useful.

It’s this “network approach” to an audience that is infinitely more powerful than the traditional relationship publications have with their readers.

Comments (3)

  1. Charles wrote::

    I’ve been thinking about this on 2 levels. Firstly being a web developer who has built a lot of sites where it’s often about putting good information out there in a (mostly) one way fashion, starting with good intent but slowing down due to lack of time, and slowly the website content becomes quite static and outdated. I’m getting tired of building these sites…

    Having a strong contributing/sharing community is certainly one way of getting out of this, but how do you reach that tipping point where there are enough contributers to make it seem worth taking the time to contribute yourself? Maybe it just takes one loyal and dedicated user, maybe one hundred? It’s a great idea, but how do we make it work?

    Customised tools seem like a good idea to get people to the site, but will they be enough to lead people to contribute? Maybe the tools you’re talking about are tools whose output is shared and used on the site? Other issues preventing people from contributing could be a kind of insecurity in what they know: do I know enough to put my ideas (and myself) out there? What if I’m wrong, laughed at…; plus technophobia.

    Then exploring your niche idea. As a user, using facebook, I enjoy it for the social/friends/fun aspect, but I often post things which I think maybe only one percent of my friends will actually be interested in. I know that web devs and designers would gain from my postings, but will they even notice it amongst all the other facebook noise?

    Most of the stuff I’m interested in, I’m not really getting on facebook – occasional status updates and some shared/posted items are relevant, but mostly I look to my feeds, many of which come from niche sites which give the exact kind of information I’m looking for. So I for one would actually choose to spend some time at another site where I’m giving and receiving (it has to work both ways to be sustainable, unless I’m getting paid to do it!) stuff that’s important to me.

    Matt, what do you think the key factors would be to attract new contributers your niche site?

    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 11:08 pm #
  2. Dear Matt,

    You are absolutely spot on with your assessment. There is a massive opportunity for business-to-business publishers and niche community interest groups etc to leverage social networking and all the incredible applications that are being developed to aid in connecting with their communities.

    Communities is the key word here. And I firmly believe that so-called trade or B2B media has a massive opportunity here to engage fully – as most are not doing – in leveraging those communities for more sustainable business. It’s never been the ‘media of the moment’, rather always considered the bottomfeeders of the media world, but social networking can change all that if used strategically.

    Thanks for this post – I’ll be using some of your comments in my research!


    Louise Marsland

    Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 11:15 am #
  3. Henre wrote::

    Matt, funny you should mention wine farms, niche networks, regional social sites etc. I have been giving this a lot of thought and have published as such a while back specifically geared towards the area I live in.

    We’ve pitched and so far so good!

    Friday, November 2, 2007 at 3:28 pm #

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