The time is ripe for a new wave of niche social networks

By Johan Attby , written on October 16, 2013

From The News Desk

Are you fed up seeing pictures of your fishermen friends posing with their catches on Facebook, gardening friends showing off their award-winning roses, and another bird from your birdwatching friend? This could be a very long list. But just hold out. That is all soon going to go away. And if you’re like me you won’t miss it.

There are two reasons that these sorts of self-promotional posts will soon cease to be. First of all, you are not as excited about your friends passions and hobbies as they are unless you share their hobbies, and therefore you don’t pay much attention to their posts. Second, your friends post their hobby activities and achievements to brag about them and to get valuable feedback. But since you’re not an expert in their fields, you neither get very impressed nor have something of real value to contribute in a discussion.

Facebook is not a social network for niches -- it’s a platform for sharing general stuff between friends. Because of that I predict there will be an explosion of niche social networks where people can share their achievements with peers. It has already started in some niches, but it is going to accelerate in a big way.

So why am I convinced this will happen now? It's not like this hasn't been tested before. There are hundreds of online forums for every hobby, but few have more than 100,000 users, and the companies behind them make only nickels from banner ads. The reason is mobile. Mobile changes everything for social niches. Almost all hobbies are carried out in the wild and not in front of the computer. Therefore users need to be able to log their activities in a super easy way using a mobile app. Removing the hassle of logging and enabling easy sharing is the key.

With todays smartphone penetration, it's possible to reach a critical mass of users quickly, and then network effects kick in and accelerate growth. Because of the desire to share and discuss activities and achievements with peers, these solutions have a very strong viral component too.

I believe there will be some highly successful companies created that go after this opportunity. They will attract millions of very active users in a short period of time and make significant money.

People spend a lot of time and money on their hobbies. An American fisherman, for example, spends on average $1,500 per year on his hobby, and in that perspective he will likely spend another $50 per year on an app that is highly specialized for him and used by his fishing buddies. The lifetime value of a user in a social niche will be very high. As people do not change their hobbies very often, many have the same hobby for their entire life. And when we talk social niches and hobbies we are talking about big numbers. Globally over 200 million people fish, whereas 40 million in the US. Thirteen million hunters in the US averaged eighteen days hunting and spent over $20.5 billion on their sport. Twenty percent of all Americans are identified as birdwatchers. And so on.

I’m not a big believer in first mover advantage in general, but for niche social networks, I am. There is a very strong lock-in because of the social component. You want to be on the same platform as your peers, and the one with the most relevant and updated content for your niche. The solution that gets traction first will grow exponentially and outperform the competition to become the dominant solution. There could be local conditions that make it possible for some solutions to do well in local markets for a short period, but the global similarities are much bigger than the local differences for almost all hobbies. Therefore, smart solutions that allow for local adaptions, but with a global user base, will eventually outdo local ones too.

One excellent proof point that this is happening now is the company Strava They provide mobile apps and social networks for two niches, cycling and running. When they launched a couple of years ago it was in a market that was already crowded with solutions. For the mass market, there were the general fitness apps like RunKeeper and Nike+ that each had millions of users and and for the high-end market there were cycle computers and wrist watches from companies like Garmin and Suunto. By coming up with highly specialized and slick apps, Strava could reach a critical mass. They now have millions of users for each niche, and they have proven that their users are willing to pay a premium for their solutions.

So say bye bye to the posts of fishermen posing with their catches on Facebook, and say hello to the very same posts in a niche social network where the fishermen get the credibility they deserve and receive highly valuable feedback.

[Pandoily’s special report on antisocial networks is sponsored by Life360. Learn more about Life360 at]

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]