Building Smaller, Smarter Communities

The Web has changed. Social networking, user-generated content, personalized search, streaming video, the profusion of blogs, vertical search engines and countless other Web 2.0-style websites and technologies have given ownership to hundreds of millions of Internet patrons. Sites like MySpace, Flickr and Second Life provide places for people to stake their claims and carve out a small corner of the Web to call their own. And membership in these communities has exploded - by August 2006 MySpace had registered 100 million accounts.

But all great empires fall - they become fragmented and crumble under their own weight. As social networking technology becomes more streamlined and readily available to any website owner, smaller communities are taking dead aim at the giants of the industry. Reuters has plans to launch a financial social networking site based on the MySpace model later this year. But, unlike MySpace the Reuters site will be highly focused - hosting a specific, targeted audience eager and willing to share information.

Scripps Networks, providers of the home and garden cable channel HGTV is launching its own social networking site dubbed "Rate My Room." Viewers will be able to share remodeling strategies, upload photos of their work and comment on other home-designer works - everything you would expect from a social networking site.

Senator, Presidential hopeful and wunderkind Barack Obama recently unveiled Supporters can create profiles, add friends, track events and, of course, help in fundraising.

So what has all of these niche community sites thinking that they can compete with the mammoths of social networking? It's all about smarter communities. Those with a narrow focus are simply better equipped to handle the needs of their members. Niche networks can adapt faster to changing needs and spread new ideas to a community hungry to hear about one thing and one thing only. These networks will become the information hubs and think tanks of entire industries.

There are probably financial analysts with pages on MySpace. But why not go somewhere entirely focused on the financial industry? You can be sure that members of the upcoming Reuters site will be more willing to accept email messages, bulletins and friend requests when they trust the source. Speaking of the new site, Reuters Chief Executive Tom Glocer said, "People don't want to have 100 friend requests from teenage girls in Florida if they are trading the credit derivatives market, but they probably are interested in being able to share research."

If you wanted to redesign your kitchen, would you rather scour YouTube for grainy video from a random do-it-yourselfer, or head to HGTV's site and learn from experts? In this community, you know that you are dealing with people that are vested in what they do and can offer a much better resource for your needs.

I could go to Wal-Mart and ask the teenager in the electronics department about the latest developments in LCD High-definition TVs or, I could head to my local electronics dealer with 25 years of experience in the business. Personally, I'd rather talk to the veteran. And I'd even consider paying a little extra for the service.

So what does all of this mean for your business?

Once these communities are blanketing the Web, it's not hard to imagine that people will head directly to these sights for their needs - much like everyone uses search engines today. Get involved. Seek out communities that are harboring and catering to your industry. Yes, your competitors will be right alongside, but consumers will be there too. And they will be looking for an expert in the field. Think of it as social networking optimization.

If you can't find a specialized community for your industry, you could always create one. Who knows - you may end up getting a billion dollar offer from one of the giants to snuff you out.

by Mike Phillips