Matt Cross, Deputy MD at Hotwire PR talks digital maturity, ‘niche social networking’ and the future of social media.

2014 is set to be the year of digital maturity. For years, brands and businesses have been taking advantage of innovative new services and technologies. This year, however, they are being impacted less by innovative new service launches and more by the opportunities presented by those that already exist.

One of these opportunities is the rise of the ‘niche social network’. As social media use has evolved, brands need to adapt in line with this evolution. In 2014, brands should understand that generic broadcast to the masses is out. Marketing teams need to go to where the audience is, across multiple channels, social or otherwise.

Over the last five years there has been a definite shift in the way web users communicate and share across networks. Whether it is privacy concerns, a rise in mobile-first apps, or simply a fatigue of social media, there has been a noticeable change in patterns of behaviour.

This year is the tenth anniversary of Facebook and eight years since Twitter reimagined the text message. Since their booms in 2008, both networks have exploded in size.

Facebook now has over one billion monthly active users and Twitter has just over one fifth of that, and is still growing at an impressive rate. However, as all good communications professionals are aware, it is quality, not quantity that counts in this world.

As the mainstream social networks have expanded so quickly across the English speaking world and beyond, they have also become saturated. The knock-on effect of this saturation is that social media ‘magpies’ are shifting their allegiance from the established players in search of something more focussed to them.

Take the example of WhatsApp, founded only five years ago in 2009 has grown to almost 200 million monthly users sending over 10 billion messages a day. The allure is the benefit of a single platform that can be used to form small, targeted, user-defined networks so that users can share what they like with who they like, rather than indiscriminately broadcasting the information online. Facebook itself is clearly backing the potential of the ‘niche social network’ which is what led to it splashing $19 billion this year on WhatsApp.

Users driving change

For a brand reviewing its communications strategy, it must take into consideration who and what is driving the change in how social media networks are being built by the users themselves.

In this instance there is a need to understand what else, apart from the early-adopter teens, is accelerating the shift to interest-based niche social networks. Once understood you can then ask how your brand can most effectively react to this.

Social media users have now reached a level of proficiency that didn’t exist when networks first emerged. Those users are now looking for a network that really understands them and their needs.

The response to this need has so far been impressive as well. Whether it’s PartnerUp for entrepreneurs, Current for businesspeople or Solaberate for technology professionals. There is now an incredibly targeted, niche social media network for likeminded people who want their online focus on a particular interest or hobby.

What the users get from their network is a truer sense of community and a more rewarding use of their time. For brands, understanding this will create a level of engagement that they simply cannot obtain on the mainstream general sites.

In an increasingly interest-driven world, the brands that invest time in understanding and connecting with their audience will be successful. Niche social networks relating to your brand offer a highly targeted audience, which, if interacted with in the right way, can become your biggest advocate.

Another force driving users into niche social networks is trust.  The need for trust was a main theme at this year’s SXSW. A great barometer on digital trends, the Hotwire Insights and Analytics team monitored activity on Twitter throughout the event and discovered the virtual conferences of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange generated the most online chatter. Both men gave their views on online security and privacy and the amount of online conversation around their appearance highlights just how important trust is to consumers. For a brand this means earning credibility in a community, playing by their rules and respecting their values.

There has a been a lot of work done on educating wider society of the implications of posting online and generally we are all becoming more aware of our online trail. Conscious of the availability of the data we share is encouraging people to think more selectively about what, where and how we are willing to engage.

Understanding how users want to interact with each other on their social networks will allow brands to tap into that mentality and shape their communications accordingly.

The quality over quantity argument has never been so pertinent if you want to engage an audience that you align your brand to.

Now is the time to take advantage of the ever-improving flexibility of web technologies. Struggling to find a network of people that really fit with your brand? Why not take the ultimate step closer to your audience and build your own niche social network?

This post originally appeared on the B2B PR Blog.

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