By Matt Cross Social media and digital communications have completely reshaped how brands and businesses reach different audiences. In 2014 we’ll see an evolution in the way brands maximise their use of different social platforms. As [caption id="attachment_2243" align="alignright" width="150"]Matt Cross Matt Cross[/caption] firms have got to grips with social media, they’re less impacted by new services and technologies, and are able to discover increasing amounts of opportunity from the existing mature platforms. With so many different places for users to build communities, a prevailing trend for this year, is the rise of ‘niche social networks’. Over the years social media, Facebook and Twitter in particular, have provided a foundation for users to express views and opinions to a mass group of friends and followers. What has changed is the explosion of social media services that allow users to set up or join a network built around a specific group or interest. The result is individuals are increasing activity across multiple smaller networks rather than one large one. Brands should therefore be looking to react accordingly and identify the networks that are attracting their audience. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg gave an interpretation of Moore’s law applied to online sharing, his theory being social media users are creating double the amount of content shared each year. An interesting observation is the correlation between the amount of content people share increasing and the nature of online behaviour. There has been an evident shift in online sharing behaviour, driven by trends and issues such as privacy, the rise of mobile and a declining interest in established forums. For a brand wanting to take advantage of niche social networks, knowledge and understanding of online behaviour is essential. The move towards quality over quantity can be reflected in the success of alternative platforms that allow for the creation of niche social networks. At a time when Facebook boasts over one billion monthly active users and Twitter over 200 million and growing, the fact that focussed networks are thriving demonstrates the clear appetite for them. The combination of growth and fatigue is one of the contributing factors to the success of niche networks. Early adopters of mainstream social media are driving a shift away from saturated social networks to ones that focus on their interests. The acceleration of smartphone use allows niche social network providers to launch and scale at an astounding pace. A good example is the instant messaging service WhatsApp. In just five years the service has around almost 200 million users sending billions of messages daily, numbers which led to Facebook’s multi-billion acquisition of it. The purchase is a clear cut example of the mass broadcast social media platforms adapting to the desire from users to communicate with smaller groups of contacts. If the giants are adapting and evolving, then corporate communications must follow suit. Finding the right audience For a brand seeking to cultivate contact with an audience through a niche network, it must possess a deep understanding of that network and how its users communicate with one another to be accepted into it. Beyond the movements of those that first led the charge, it is worthwhile asking why a niche network continues to attract new users. Understanding this is the key to the shaping your communications to the group. The speed of change in the world of digital communications has seen users go from absolute novices to savvy community members. The result is brands need to pay respect to the knowledge and capabilities of its audience when shaping communication. The rise and range of a niche social network, built on specific interests, has developed at a rate of knots. Now knitting fans can share hints and tips on Ravelry, book fans can review and debate on GoodReads and technology professionals can visit Solaberate. The rise of niche interest networks practically covers every hobby and demographic on the planet. The reason theses niches are increasing is because users are taking away more value from them as a network. They consider the sense of community to be greater and an overall more rewarding investment of their time compared to the general networks. The internet has obliterated geography and language as a barrier towards large interest-driven networks, so the rewards for a brand that invests into understanding an audience in order to connect with it are vast. Many companies talk of creating ‘brand ambassadors’ out of their target audience and becoming a successful part of a niche network can create innumerable advocates of your brand. Building on a foundation of trust A big attraction to users who join smaller communities is the accentuated sense of trust they feel. Trust is major theme when it comes to online information sharing in the modern era and is something that should always be at the forefront of communications planning and delivery. The importance of trust was reinforced at this year’s SXSW. Intrigued by what the conference would reveal as a trend in the technology industry, the Hotwire Insights and Analytics team monitored tweets from the event to see which topics were causing online conversations. The topics that garnered the most mentions were Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, both of whom gave video conferences on the subject of online security and privacy. The actions of the people like Snowden and Assange have led to the implications of online data security being top of the news and educational agenda. As a result of so much media attention we gave seen some online users become increasingly selective about the information that they post online. For a brand that is looking to build a presence within a niche network, or try and create a niche network of its own, consider the emotional aspect of communications between users and learn how to be a part of that. Due to the targeted nature of the audience it is appropriate to work to a quality over quantity plan with communications. There exists a huge opportunity to make the most of the ever changing ways people use ever changing social media. The role of the niche network, built around relationships or interests, is a genuine opportunity for your brand to begin getting closer to an audience that relates to you, fostering loyalty and making your communications more effective. Matt Cross (@crossy) is managing director at Hotwire PR, based in the UK.  Illustration by Gerardo Obieta - @G_Obieta