Niche Social Networks Offer Target Practice

NEW YORK As a maker of toddler toys and games, Playskool has little obvious connection with the Wild West of social networking. But like many advertisers, the company has witnessed the MySpace revolution and wants in. Next month, it kicks off its first social-networking campaign, a yearlong push it hopes will tie it closer to its consumers.

Rather than running on MySpace, however, Playskool’s campaign is on CafeMom, a four-month-old social network for mothers that’s part of a crop of “mini-MySpaces” geared to specific audiences, from moms and high-school athletes to cats and dogs.

Playskool’s promotion on CafeMom is centered on a not-yet-launched forum about developmentally appropriate play activities. Playskool is integrating with the group by sending toy kits to at least 2,500 members and encouraging them to share their experiences with each other (and the company). “The great thing is you can get that direct feedback from actual moms,” said Charlie Zakin, director of media at Hasbro, parent company of Playskool.

While MySpace boasts that it generates the most page views of any site, some marketers are focusing instead on networks barely a fraction of its size to serve as marketing test beds. The obvious advantage of niche networks: advertisers are less likely to talk to the wrong consumers. MySpace can boast that it has larger numbers of specific audiences, yet agency executives have complained that despite a plethora of personal data submitted by its users, MySpace is unable to effectively use it to target messages to specific topics or interests.

“If you want to sprinkle some dust on 50 million people, go to MySpace,” advised Chad Stoller, executive director of emerging platforms at Organic. But niche networks offer a chance to reach specific influencers, he said.

Yet many niche networks are caught in a bind: their draw is focused communities, but they still need broad enough appeal to make campaigns worth the effort. CafeMom, for instance, is focusing on a targeted but large niche: there are over 40 million mothers with children living at home in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau; by the end of the year, CafeMom aims to have 2 million of them registered.

A similarly large devoted group led to the creation of a pair of popular niche networks, Dogster and Catster, which cater to the 39 percent of U.S. households that have a dog and 34 percent that have a cat. These sites, where pet owners can create profiles of their companion animals, drew a combined 360,000 visitors in February, according to ComScore Media Metrix. That audience has made the sites popular with endemic advertisers, like Purina and pet-friendly hotels. Its home page is currently running an integrated promotion for VPI, a pet insurance service.

Some of these sites are attracting lifestyle advertising as well, according to Steve Reading, chief business officer at Dogster. The site recently wrapped up a monthlong promotion for Procter & Gamble’s Bounce, which sponsored an “Are Dogs Better Than Cats?” forum that included information on using Bounce to cope with shedding animals. Last week it kicked off a promotion for the upcoming Paramount release Year of the Dog, a comedy about a woman coping with the death of her beloved pet. Rather than simply run banner ads, Dogster developed a photo contest that will award a dog and its owner a trip to Los Angeles to live the life of Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua: a stay at the Fairmont, a trip to the doggie spa and a screening of the movie, which is due for release April 13.

Such partnerships hold benefits for the sites beyond ad dollars, increasing traffic to their pages and hopefully growing their membership ranks. Paramount will link to the Dogster promotion on its movie site, which should give the site more exposure to consumers, Reading said. General Mills recently trumpeted a promotion with CafeMom by sending e-mails to Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, and Box Tops customers.

High-school athlete site Takkle is using the same approach with its integration deals. The five-month-old site for high-school athletes has linked up with Procter & Gamble’s Tampax brand in its first-ever social media campaign: a video contest for cheerleaders. P&G is using Takkle as a social-networking platform, driving girls to register on the site for the contest through e-mail lists and promotions on its property, a site dedicated to teen girls that attracts over 500,000 visitors per month, per ComScore.

While analysts expect mega networks like MySpace and Facebook to drive the social-networking market, they anticipate niche social networks will attract valuable audiences for marketers. (EMarketer forecasts advertisers will double social-network spending from 2006 to more than $865 million this year, and that some $45 million will be spent on niche advertising.) And some of these sites, including the newer ones, see ad buys growing. CafeMom has seen campaigns go from $25,000 at its December launch to more than $100,000, according to CEO Michael Sanchez.

As budgets rise and move beyond tests, so too will scrutiny of returns, warns Nate Elliott, an analyst with JupiterResearch. “In a year or two, the scale becomes much more expected, because [brands] are not just playing around anymore,” he said. “They’re trying to execute, and to execute you need scale.”

Niche social-network executives admit as much, saying that, for now, they cannot compete with the scale offered at portals and more established sites. “It’s much easier for [media planners] to do an iVillage buy,” Reading said. Sanchez believes scale still matters, despite all the talk of the supremacy of the long tail. “It’s hard to imagine a site with a small number of uniques and a niche topic generating substantial brand advertising,” he said.

Elva Lewis, an associate marketing director at P&G, said measuring the effectiveness of social-networking programs is “still tricky.” For now, the company’s goal is simply to “learn how these networks really work.”