Commentary

Monetizing The Universe Of Niche Communities

I have a great deal of admiration for MySpace and Facebook. There's no doubt that their success has been instrumental in moving social media into the mainstream and changing the ways in which millions of people relate to one another and to media companies. But despite their size and influence, they--and the handful of general-purpose social networks like them--represent just one piece of a larger ecosystem in people's online lives.

  There are scores of niche communities, some of which have been around for years in the form of message boards, built around specific topics and demographics. Due to the nature of these sites, they boast highly engaged audiences and often command premium advertising rates. Spurred by a new generation of robust, affordable social media applications, niche communities are quickly becoming a critical part of the social Web.

Indeed, recent moves by MySpace itself should cause media companies, brands, and advertisers to take note: niche communities represent a large and untapped universe of opportunity for those looking to embrace and monetize this emerging space.

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Because of their focus on particular subjects or demographics, niche communities are an effective means of fostering deep, meaningful levels of engagement. Sparking conversations with high-quality editorial content, the best niche communities are pros at consolidating audiences with similar values and interests. This translates to numerous opportunities to monetize these sites through standard display advertising, premium sponsorships and ecommerce.

One of my favorite examples of a well-executed niche-community is VIBE Verses, a site owned by VIBE Media, a leading urban culture brand and publisher of VIBE Magazine. (Full disclosure: my company, KickApps, is the technology provider behind the site.) Launched in May, VIBE Verses is an online community for hip-hop fans with a unique centerpiece: an "American Idol"-type contest for aspiring rappers. Artists upload videos of their performances and are encouraged to market their work on other sites through viral video widgets. Each of these widgets acts as a gateway back into the VIBE Verses community, where fans can view, rate, and comment on their favorite performances. Every few weeks, the rapper with the highest rating gets $10,000 cash and exposure. It's hardly a groundbreaking idea, but consider the following:

  • In a matter of months, the site has attracted more than 80,000 active participants and millions of viewers;
  • The project yielded VIBE an 8x return on investment via advertising and sponsorship revenues; and
  • VIBE built Verses in under a month using off-the-shelf social media applications. As a testament to the success of the community, VIBE has plans to extend the contest into an ongoing series. For this latest round, VIBE Verses 3, VIBE partnered with the world's largest social network, MySpace, to deliver a unique contest experience for members of both the VIBE and MySpace communities. Promoted to MySpace's 72 million plus members, the winner of VIBE Verses 3 was selected by world-famous artist and producer Wyclef Jean, from a group of finalists who were chosen by the community. In addition to the cash prize, the winner won the right to open for Wyclef at his MySpace record release party in Los Angeles.

You may be asking yourself what MySpace stands to gain from a partnership with a niche community like VIBE Verses. Through this relationship, MySpace is able to leverage and associate itself with a premiere brand in a highly sought-after market segment. VIBE, on the other hand, can leverage MySpace's massive audience to drive exposure of their brand and highly engaging programming. This in turn enables both organizations to package and sell high-value advertising and sponsorship offerings to brands seeking to reach a uniquely engaged audience.

More than ever, media companies and brands are beginning to test the waters of social media to see where it fits into their overall marketing strategies. If the VIBE/MySpace relationship is any indicator, the best brands are recognizing that to leverage both large, general-purpose social networks and highly targeted niche communities in the same campaign maximizes the value we can derive from both.

Blum is CEO of KickApps, which provides Web publishers the tools to enable their sites with User Generated Content, Social Networking, Premium Video, and Content Syndication capabilities. Before joining KickApps, Blum was president and COO of JumpTV, a Multi-Cultural Internet Protocol Television Network. Prior to JumpTV Blum spent eight years at AOL, most recently as the vice president of Product Marketing for AOL's Audience business, where he and his team were responsible for re-launching the AOL Portal and delivering a suite of Web-based applications including: AOL's Video Player, Video Portal, Streaming Video advertising platform, AIM and AIMpages social networking service.

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