“It’s natural human behaviour for people to seek others with similar interests,” says Simon Kemp, regional managing partner for We Are Social Asia. That’s what has happened. Although users can easily create their own subgroups within LinkedIn or Facebook, dozens of niche social networks have emerged in fields from dating to pets.
One example is Houzz, a US site for home renovators, now setting up in Japan. Strictly speaking it’s not a social network but has strong community elements, such as photo sharing and recommendations on hiring professionals. Another is Meet My Dog, an app to build a community around dogs and their owners. Created in the US, it’s also launching in Japan, where 16 per cent of households own a dog. “We want to focus on the relationship between people,” says founder, Sifang Lu. “People don’t just go to the park to give their dog exercise: they want to make new friends.”
Sites and apps like these offer a channel to customers. The question is, how do brands use it? John Ng, head of media innovation for ZenithOptimedia APAC, says some see niche platforms as attractive in the same way marketers saw food and travel verticals in the early 2000s.
From a brand perspective, an online community needs to be active. “If there’s not much conversation, it becomes useless,” he says. It also needs scale and some money in it — for example, do users have discretionary income? Are they willing to engage?
Kemp says brands still see marketing platforms purely as channels to insert product promotions. There are many creative and effective ways of engaging audiences, he says. “You have to go back to, ‘Why does that community exist in the first place?’ It’s not rocket science, but it still startles me so many overlook this basic rule.” In social marketing, brands need to behave as a peer to the community, he advises. If it’s a network built around a passion, there may be specific needs a brand can address with its expertise. An example is hardware or software firms joining a forum to offer a tutorial on how to perform a certain task.
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Of course it doesn’t have to be on a dedicated niche platform. Ng says it doesn’t take much for people to set up a niche community within Facebook, and Facebook embraces multiple passion points for each user. It doesn’t take much for brands, either. Cathay Pacific uses LinkedIn groups to engage with key traveller segments. It shares travel tips and updates on Cathay’s initiatives for travellers, creating two-way conversation, the company notes.
Kemp says the opportunity is there to use online engagement to build new products and services. “I would spend a huge amount of time learning about customers and their needs, not trying to sell them something.” He cites a US site, PatientsLikeMe, where patients share information about their illnesses and medical professionals. It has 200,000 members and is tracking 1,800 conditions, enabling medical researchers to monitor diseases and treatments.
Brands can become successful managers of specialised social networks, such as J&J and BabyCenter. The brand acquired the site in 2001 and it now has an Alexa rank of 769 with local sites in China, India, Brazil and the Middle East. The site offers advice to expectant mothers and new parents, and has active community bulletin boards. Running the site helps J&J to connect with customers, offering a forum for testing marketing messages and providing valuable data such as long-term tracking.
From a personal side project to a national home- design marketplace
Houzz was founded by wife and husband team Adi Tatarko and Alon Cohen as a side project while they were renovating their home in 2009, with the aim of helping them and their friends simplify the process of redecorating.
The US-based site now has more than 35 million monthly unique users around the world and over
1 million active home professionals. It provides an end-to-end solution for home renovation and design, according to Liza Hausman, VP of industry marketing at Houzz. People “with any style and any budget can find inspiration, get advice, research and hire the best home professionals, read guides and articles, and discover products and materials to complete their projects”, she says. “We’re completely focused on the home renovation and design industry, and are delivering the best technology, user experience and products for this market.”
The site is now looking to build on its success in the US by introducing the model into Asia-Pacific.
For brands, Houzz offers a platform to drive product awareness and sales among the 35 million homeowners and trade professionals engaged in home improvement projects. On Houzz, customers are looking to discover and buy products, whether they’re collecting ideas, researching or ready to purchase.
It provides advertising solutions for national and regional brands, as well as local service providers.
It also offers Houzz Pro+, a subscription service that helps home professionals build their brands locally. In October 2014, the firm launched Houzz Shop, its home products marketplace in the US, enabling people to buy products and materials they see on Houzz directly through the site and app. These new revenue channels were launched in response to demand from the Houzz community — from professionals and brands looking a way to build their awareness and differentiate, and from consumers looking to buy the products that had inspired them.
Our view: Asia’s nascent niche network scene gives brands an opportunity to take the lead in community building.