If you thought all social networking activity took place on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+, think again. There is a preponderance of niche social networks that appeal to nearly every interest and taste.
Niche networks run the gamut from celebrity fan sites to industry-specific business networks to philanthropic groups, and there's good rationale for their existence. Rather than connecting people with family and friends across their social graph, the nexus of these communities is shared interests and passions, or their "interest graph."
Another factor contributing to the growth of niche communities is that major networks like Facebook and Twitter have become incredibly noisy and over-crowded, with much of the content lacking any degree of relevance or depth.
Regarding this information overload, Andrew Koller, cofounder of Sharebloc, a social network for sales and marketing professionals, said, "Without good crowd control, you end up with a mob of content and it becomes overwhelming. This is why we are seeing increased engagement in niche social networks that represent different industries and job functions."
For marketers, having a presence on popular social networks is certainly mandated, but they represent only the tip of the online community iceberg. Even though niche-specific networks contain a smaller subset of customers and prospects, your marketing efforts may prove even more profitable. It's a matter of going deep, not wide.
To give you a taste of what types of niche social networks exist, here is a list of 10 that cover a range of industries and topics.
Recently launched into public beta, ShareBloc is a network for sales and marketing professionals. Members can post links, ask questions and write reviews. They can also rate content through up or down votes and decide what appears at the top of the news feed.
Sharebloc's founders intend to grow their platform to fit any industry or job function, or as they put it, "anyone with a LinkedIn account."
Up to now, the oil and gas industry has been reluctant to jump into the social media fray. That may change thanks to the recent launch of Oilpro.com, a network designed to give industry professionals a place to exchange ideas, share knowledge and expertise, and stay on top of the latest news and trends.
The network has been met with open arms, too. Growth is about 10 times as fast as expected, with more than 25,000 members now participating on the site.
3. Active Rain
Active Rain is a social network for real estate agents and brokers. Unlike the previous two, it has been around since 2006. Numbering more than 326,000 participants, it is the largest and most active network in the real estate industry.
4. Social Moms
Formerly known as Twitter Moms, this network for digitally savvy mothers was started in 2008 by Megan Calhoun as a way to virtually connect with other stay at home moms. Though Calhoun never intended for the site to grow into a business, its user base, which now numbers more than 30,000 women, has drawn attention from both the media and advertisers.
5. Dogster and Catster
No greater group of "passionistas" exist than dog and cat lovers, and they are well represented by sister social networks, Dogster and Catster. Pet owners meet to ask questions, share knowledge, post photos of their pets, and build relationships with like-minded people.
Launched in 2007, Kaboodle is the social shopping site that gives users the ability to discover products, share their taste in style, and communicate with other fashion-conscious community members.
ThirdAge is a social network that addresses topics of concern to Baby Boomers and Seniors. It is representative of a class of networks that includes Eons, Gather and TBD.
8. Patients Like Me
Founded in 2004, PatientsLikeMe has been credited with putting a new face on healthcare. It is a place where patients with chronic illnesses and their caregivers learn from each other, provide emotional support and get the latest information on treatment options. More that 220,000 people make it their healthcare resource home.
Thanks to Pintley, craft beer lovers now have a place to call their own. It's a peer-to-peer network where members write reviews, share recommendations and get together in real-world settings for beer tastings. Craft brewers can also have a seat at the table to gain intelligence from community members that may influence future product development.
The final site to make the list is Care2, a community of people devoted to healthy living and green lifestyles. Founded in 1998, it is also the oldest network of those listed.
Even though Care2 represents a niche audience, with more than 23 million members, the community is by no means small. The site has but one goal: make it easy for everyone to live a healthy, green lifestyle and impact the causes they care about most.