Of all the online innovations from the past 20 years, it is undeniable that the rise of social media is one of the biggest and most influential. The likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have billions of users among them, and even those of us who aren’t actively using any social networks understand what they are and how they function.
Now, as we pass the 10th anniversary of Instagram, it is interesting to see the growth in popularity of alternative “vertical” social networks, in the form of creating new entrepreneurial opportunities: building platforms to meet the demands of those niche audiences with perhaps more specialized tastes and hobbies.
One of the most important things to think about when launching a vertical social network is its initial purpose and timing. Ten years ago, the social media landscape was dominated by the big name players, however, more recently, their popularity has somewhat plateaued. The public has grown tired of ads swamping their feeds and grown evermore wary following the various data scandals that have embroiled these social media giants.
Tap into a niche audience
One issue with big social media is its broadness; losing relevance to, or even alienating, the groups that were once a platform’s core users. There is no time like the present for smaller, more versatile players to build new networks celebrating “niche” audiences, catering exclusively to specific interests or needs.
I would argue that social media has always had limitations when it comes to representing all interests and communities. The result is that the representation of more specialized hobbies and interests is left fragmented, sparse, and half-hearted in its drive to keep audiences informed and entertained.
Conduct market research
Another essential consideration for entrepreneurs looking to launch a social platform tapping into a niche audience is market research. It is imperative to learn about (and even live within) the field you want to build up with a digital product.
One must spend a serious amount of time exploring those sectors, hobbies or groups that are underrepresented in the digital world. There are many sectors to tap into which still remain archaic and unchanged, but which deserve to join the wave of digitization, and evolve beyond that of a simple group on Facebook.
In Fishbrain’s case, there was an obvious gap that led me toward sport fishing and angling, a hobby that, despite being one of the most popular worldwide, had a limited representation online.
Starting out with a small but talented team in Stockholm in 2012, we designed an app that provided anglers with a digital companion to help with multiple aspects of the fishing experience, from planning where to go to logging and sharing the latest catch.
Our app has recently passed the significant milestone of 11.5 million users, with our most recent spike attributed, in part, to the growing number of people who understand the value of relevant vertical social networks, which platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are almost too big to cater to.
By creating a social network for anglers (and this can be applied to any specific interest) we united a vast community of over 11.5 million people, allowing them to learn from each other, and connect with one another. After all, it is always more fun to share information, insights, tips and catches with people who have the same passions, as opposed to friends who might not.
Create your own platform
When you have selected your field, sufficiently researched it, and found the right time to launch, you must now look toward nailing the functionality of the platform itself. Don’t be afraid to use what is there already. Take a lot of what works for “traditional” social networks and apply it to your own platform.
For example, the ability to take, share and comment on photos. In my case, I saw that anglers loved to boast about their catches, but non-anglers might not want their news feeds crowded with images of caught fish. On a social network dedicated to fishing, these images will garner much more appreciation, feedback and “likes.”
You’re not reinventing the wheel here, but instead trying to reach the right audience and establish yourself within an unconventional market.
Use your data
Once you start to grow, you will realize how much more your platform can be capable of in terms of growth potential and new functionalities.
In my case, we realized our network could help do something more by raising awareness of industry issues, conducting vital research and learning from our own users.
A targeted social network of any kind can provide unprecedented amounts of data to the field or industry it’s in, whereas, big social networks simply harvest data to provide more targeted advertising and to make more money.
We find that our users can contribute information and data in ways that are much more meaningful than simply generating revenue: they can provide information on unique environmental patterns, endangered species, preservation and much more.
Really, the scope for useful and insightful data is vast. By crowd-sourcing information, you, as the network creator or provider, can develop features and information to benefit your users, which ensures that they stay with the platform for longer, and are more willing to contribute to it.
For example, last year we launched a new feature that provides users with a forecast of the best times for catching a particular species of fish. We were able to do this because of the millions of catches logged on our platform. The information was right there in front of us: easily accessible and ready to be used in order to benefit our community.
What we view as “niche” social networks actually provide variety, insight and representation to consumers, at a time when the bigger players have fallen short. By creating tailored social spaces for a wide variety of interests and hobbies, I think we make the internet a better and more functional place.
I would urge any entrepreneur to think about whether their industry needs a social network of its own: it will provide huge opportunities as a business venture, and a lot of enjoyment to the eventual end user it will serve.
Originally published Dec. 4, 2020.