Social media is approaching an important juncture, as big established networks seem to be reaching saturation and smaller networks are also stabilizing. It appears unlikely that audiences will continue to grow at the same rate that they have over the last decade, suggesting that future growth will focus on convincing under-utilizing groups to join, or "doubling up" by convincing existing users to join multiple networks.
It turns out a lot of this work is already done, but overlooked, as the oldest social media are also the least utilized from a marketing perspective. I'm referring to the online enthusiast forums which coalesced around any number of topics, beginning in the 1990s with bulletin board services (dominated largely by prophetic nerds who knew MS DOS and the fire magic of IP) and later growing to include more user-friendly chat-rooms. Amid the social media frenzy these foundational sites have largely flown under the marketing radar. Until now.
Huddler, co-founded by brothers Ted and Dan Gill, aims to introduce second-wave social media functionality to all those pioneering enthusiast forums -- upgrading the experience for intensive users and casual visitors (lurkers) while preserving the integrity of what is at base a user-generated universe. In the process Huddler opens some windows for marketers to reach a highly-engaged user base.
Dan Gill says the germ of the idea came from his older brother, a "real gadget junkie and car guy," long engaged with tech-focused enthusiast forums. But the elder Gill was frustrated because the stereotypical enthusiast forum remained very basic, reflecting the technical limitations of the early Internet as well as single-minded devotion to the subject at hand, whatever it may be -- cars, Buffy, hydroponics, etc. As purists tend to be fairly conservative (if not ritualistic) in their appreciation, many forums didn't really change much, even as the broader Internet progressed.
From a user perspective the Huddler upgrade simply adds useful features like images, video, wiki galleries, user profiles, and multimedia email, integration with Facebook and Wordpress, and a number of other site-specific improvements. On the business side it offers social audience measurement and ad targeting, while freeing site administrators from laborious technical duties. After transferring all the historical conversation threads and reformatting them on Huddler's servers, it combs them with a hierarchical tagging system, applying a product taxonomy and linking to unique brand product pages. Current partners include Head-Fi (for headphone enthusiasts), EpicSki.com, ChefTalk, and DenimBlog.
Users can interact with corporate reps who maintain blogs associated with the forums. Huddler also facilitates product giveaways and contests and conducts crowd-sourced interviews with brand reps and execs. The brand product pages also serve as centers for wiki-style reviews, boosting the site's search ranking by concentrating consumer sentiment from users with authoritative expertise (presumably, people who buy $10,000 headphones know whereof they speak). Current participants and clients include Sony and Fox.
So far Huddler has enjoyed impressive growth, growing from three sites with 300,000 unique visitors per month at the beginning of the year to 24 sites with 9.5 million visitors per month currently. All the affiliate sites have grown in terms of posting activity, registration activity, and natural search performance, according to Dan Gill, who summarized the basic pitch: "We'll handle technology and business, you handle content and community."