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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.