Finding your social niche

This is the year of the niche social media site, say some major brands, because they offer the chance to show different sides of a brand’s personality away from the on-brand messaging of Facebook and Twitter.

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Fresh take: Jamie oliver uses Twitter and Facebook, but likes Instagram for its difference

Facebook is the behemoth of social networks with more than 800 million active users, which is somewhere close to the entire population of Europe. But while it is popular, many brands are finding Facebook too blunt a tool for their customers; they suggest that 2012 will be the year of more niche social media.

Photography social network Instagram is the latest niche network to see an influx of brands. Instagram – which already has 15 million users – allows users to apply a range of photographic filters, share their images, follow other photographers and post comments. Last week, Levi’s announced it would be using the site to recruit the stars of its latest ads.

Cookery brand Jamie Oliver has also embraced the opportunities of Instagram. As the brand is based around the personality of chef Jamie Oliver, the company’s head of online, Ayssa Adnani, says Instagram offers a way to communicate literally what he sees in front of him. Adnani explains: “He loves interacting and he loves things that are cool and suit him.” Instagram is a way that Oliver can represent his visual world in his own style.

While Oliver also has presences on other social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, Instagram gives him an opportunity to do something different and add an extra dimension to the chef’s style of chatter. Oliver’s Facebook page tends to fairly subdued and ‘on-brand’, but his Twitter feed is peppered with his distinctive turns of phrase as he chats to followers and friends alike.

“He’s always liked interacting with his audience and he does a lot of chatting on Twitter. But he found that he wanted to post pictures of the things he was making and, at that time, it wasn’t as simple as it could have been [to do that through the major social media networks] so he went to Instagram,” she explains.

Oliver’s contribution to both Instagram and Twitter are not in any way controlled by the marketers in the business, says Adnani. With Instagram’s photo filters providing a vintage sheen to Jamie’s snaps that chimes well with the yesteryear flavour of many of his At Home and diffusion line products, it appears the chef has fortunately chosen a social network that fits his business plans.

Another brand that has brought Instagram into its marketing mix is Canadian fitness retailer Lululemon. Promising an holistic approach to health and fitness, the brand’s social strategy aims to mirror that ideal by using a number of niche social media sites to cover aspects of the healthy lifestyle.

It is not just Instagram that Lululemon is using. The company has also signed up to be the first brand partner of iPad social magazine Zite, which personalises content as users interact with it. The magazine taps into your social networks to ‘learn’ the way people read and what content attracts them. The fitness company is adding health content to the site as part of what Zite describes as a section that “will help its guests find inspiration and new ways to meet their fitness goals.”

Another brand collating content socially for its users is Storify. The service, which curates social media from around the web into an editorial proposition, has attracted numerous blue chip brands.

Storify marketing director Jeff Elder explains: “Our stories are as skinny as a tweet. And yet we can condense 50 times as much information into them. Brands like us because we can pull up social media that tells the story but not in such a way that allows the loudest, angriest critic to derail the story.”

From Levi’s collating its social media into a debate on women’s perceptions of their bodies and clothes to American Express wrapping up all the relevant media around a music sponsorship property, Storify claims to help companies deliver a very controlled branded experience to the customer.

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Casting card: Levi’s is usingphotography social networking site Instagram to find people to star in a new campaign

Meanwhile, many companies are also seeing new social networks spring up around the idea of customer reviews. Consumer-created reviews are the most popular source of product information for shoppers, according to NM Incite research, while as many as 70% of adult social networkers shop online.

The aim of the new batch of social review apps is to match the intimacy and trust that shoppers normally gain from their advisers, using the accessibility of an electronic social network. Stamped, launched by former Google product manager Robby Stein in November 2011, is one such app. An invitation or suggestion-only network, it links friends in a cycle of recommendation.

Stein, the company’s chief executive, explains: “Brands want to join Stamped because it’s based on recommendations and that has a humanising effect. Brands can also recommend products. For example, [clothing designer] Michael Kors or Rolling Stone’s [film critic] Peter Travers will suggest something to do with fashion or film.”

With 100 credits – more can only be earned by having your friends approve your reviews – the reviewer uses a credit each time they post a review on Stamped.

“Stamped exploits the weaknesses in sites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp where you need to know what you’re looking for before you find it,” says Stein.

Facebook announced it was discontinuing its reviews function in November 2011. Initially, this seemed counter intuitive as a State of the Media:Q3 2011 study from NM Incite showed that 60% of social media users use the platform to create reviews. But, in fact, it does make sense, because when seeking an opinion about a considered purchase, consumers’ instinct is to turn to either a company’s own website, such as the hugely successful reviews section on Amazon, or more importantly their friends. Niche social reviews services such as Stamped hope to replicate the role of the friend more effectively than Facebook.

But as The Economist’s Mark Johnson (see case study, below) suggests, social isn’t always about seeking out what you already know exists. There is still potential for social media to introduce new brands to consumers by surprising them. He explains: “Going on recommendations, it [The Economist’s Tumblr page] pops up on the dashboards of people who wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to engage.”

Hal Stokes, former global head of music at teen social network Bebo, agrees: “The difference in the social environment is that consumers ask the question rather than seek the answer. They want to know where to go skiing rather than go to a specific website. Brands’ focus should be on tracking these conversations.”

For some brands, however, it is not enough to use niche social networks. They are keen to integrate the social element into their own online presences. This not only brings the consumer to a domain controlled wholly by the brand, but by encouraging ongoing consumer interaction beyond simple purchase activity, it grows the company’s search engine optimisation potential.

Evans Cycles, for example, already engages with a passionate cycling community through its content and forums. In addition, it encourages review activity on its own site through an application called Search Voice Inline (SVI), created by social reviews agency Bazaarvoice. The technology embeds review text into the site’s code, increasing SEO. In place since 2010, search engine visits to the site are up by almost a quarter.

Stamped also has the advantage of hyperlocality and links across the more mainstream social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Stamped’s Stein notes that there are plans to expand the platform to Android and desktop but for now the app remains solidly iPhone only. This may be enough as almost half of those using mobile web have a social app and almost a quarter have one that enables feedback on products and services.

Interestingly, while many of these niche social networks bring a members only spirit of discovery to an increasingly democratic social space, the majority still rely on the four or five big players to spread the word.

Instagram by and large relies on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr as well as its own smaller upload sites such as Extragram to showcase user pictures. Networks such as Stamped which purport to be entirely by invitation only and linked to “your closest friends” still offer the option for you to tweet or Facebook your stamps of approval.

So it appears that while niche social networks offer brands the opportunity to do something more targeted or simply different from the options available on Facebook, in many cases, companies are getting the best of both worlds. They can use the niche networks when they have a specific goal in mind and then advertise this through the wider social infrastructure on Facebook and Twitter.

Whether it’s Instagram, Stamped or Storify, it looks like brands will be spending 2012 at some of the web’s more niche networks in order to reach more people than ever.

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Picture this: Known less for its amages than its illuminating copy, The Economist uses photoblogging site Tumblr to reach new people

CaseStudy The Economist

For a brand not known for its images, it would seem odd that of all the more specialised social networks out there, The Economist should choose to use Tumblr – the photoblogging network. And when you consider that the typical Tumblr user is not your typical Economist reader, the plot thickens. And that’s just the way Mark Johnson, The Economist’s community editor, likes it.

“We’ve been on Tumblr since August 2010 and we really enjoy what we’re doing there. The Economist may not be known for being highly illustrated but I think our cartoons and charts are particularly valued,” he explains. “The audience is one that has heard of The Economist and perhaps has a vague understanding about what we do but the most common comment we receive is ‘I didn’t realise The Economist did this’. It’s a great way of reaching people who don’t know you.”

Johnson feels that Tumblr embodies the whole point of the social media sphere/ “It’s a way of cementing the relationships you already have and a way of reaching people who don’t know you. Going on recommendations, it pops up on the dashboards of people who wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to engage.”

Within this segment, it seems word is spreading fast. Johnson claims that The Economist has 30,000 followers on Tumblr and believes the platform is growing at the same rate as Twitter was a couple of years ago. In terms of marketing he understates his commitment, joking: “It’s worth putting a bit behind it.”

The perennial problem for brands managing social networks crops up once more. A presence on the big names such as Twitter and Facebook is essentially free so choosing to go on a more niche site could hardly be any less expensive; however the cost to the organisation of managing a niche network over a populist one can be just as heavy.

“We are putting great efforts into making sure this doesn’t become resource heavy. We are a small team and we take advantage of all the tools we have. One of the reasons we don’t jump onto every new network out there is that it can take a lot of work. We are careful not to spread ourselves too thinly,” he claims.

As with many of the brands which begin interacting on third-party social networks, Johnson’s use of these has turned his thoughts back to The Economist’s own site and potential for developing community there.

“Our own community goes hand in hand with social networks elsewhere,” he says. “By making it easier for people to participate on our site, there has been a dramatic increase in user-generated content. Community is at the core of what we’re trying to do and we’ll be putting more work into it to make it engaging.”

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Viewpoint Social media

It comes very naturally to the More! team to be on multiple social sites – we’re on everything from Twitter to Instagram to [entertainment network] Get Glue.

It’s about being where our readers are. We know they’re on Facebook – at 117,000 people, we believe More! has the largest Facebook community of any UK women’s magazine – but readers are also trying out new apps and social networks, so it makes sense for us to communicate with them there.

The different social sites do provide complementary functions – you can chat to us on Twitter or on our Facebook wall, you can tell your friends you’re reading the magazine on Get Glue, you can see which images inspire us on [online social pinboard] Pinterest, you can get a snapshot of our day on Instagram, or you can read and comment on our interns’ blog on [photoblogging network] Tumblr. And as a brand, we can follow our readers and keep up to speed on their lives, which only improves the content we produce in the magazine and online.

These days, people expect their favourite brands to be accessible online, whether they want to give feedback, share details of a purchase they just made or ask a question. Stamped is a great way of telling the world which magazines, shops, restaurants or books you like – similarly to many social apps, it’s a public way of building up a picture of ‘you’. My personal Stamped profile tells my followers that I love Dorothy Perkins, Cath Kidston and restaurant The Riding House CafŽ, which sums me up pretty well.

Twitter is probably the best all-round experience for our readers because every member of the More! team tweets on the account – our fashion intern Leigh might tweet from a photo shoot, while our features writer Georgina tweets from her train journey to work – so it gives readers insight into our team and how we put the magazine together. In addition to this, most social apps like Instagram, Get Glue, Pinterest and Stamped allow us to tweet (or post to Facebook) our activity, so our Twitter followers get to see this too.

Readers know if they tweet us a question, we’ll reply, and we often get into Twitter conversations with readers. For these same reasons, Facebook aside, I’d say Twitter delivers the best experience for us as a brand too. It allows us to chat to our readers every day, and follow their lives – the highs, the lows, everything.

There will always be big players dominating the market, and the fact that Facebook and Twitter allow smaller and newer sites/apps to integrate with them will cleverly always bring you back to them, but this allows the new sites a chance to grow and breathe.

Alison Perry

Executive editor More! magazine

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nma explains social media

Social media is the collective term for the branch of digital media and websites of which the foundation is the connectedness between the users and content. While the site may have functions outside of communications, such as retail or content, its core is the community, which tends to be built upon the ease at which the site allows them to interact.

This community aspect of social sites has led to another distinguishing trait/ that participation in social media requires openness and transparency by anyone using, hosting or being on these sites.

Charlotte McEleny new media age

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