Niche Communities: The Next Big Growth Channel

As Growth Hackers, we're constantly on the search of the next big platform so we can be early movers, establish a strong presence and ultimately use it as a vehicle for our product.

Using an established community to grow your own is one of the oldest Growth Hacks out there. We call it "Piggybacking": Airbnb did it with Craigslist, Instagram with Facebook and PayPal with eBay.

It was easier to do at the time because Craigslist, Facebook and eBay were relatively new. But since quite a while, the emergence of new, suitable channels has slowed down.

That drought might be over due to the maturity of niche communities. The rise of niche communities started a couple of years ago. Now, they hit a stage of maturity that makes them very interesting as growth channels.

Slack channels, Facebook groups, Subreddits, and web forums are the most common platforms for niche communities. They offer many ways to boost the growth of your own product.

I've written about the power of online communities for growth before. In this article we're going deeper on why big communities are failing, why small ones are winning and how to leverage niche communities for Growth Hacking.

Why are big communities failing?

There are five main reasons the theory. But before we dive in, we need to define "failing": Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat & Co are not failing as companies but in terms of engagement.

In the second quarter of 2017, Facebook reached 2 billion and Instagram 800 million monthly active users! [***]

That's the first reason: the big ones have become too big. They have so many users that content has to be filtered by algorithms:

70% of Instagram posts aren’t seen. [*]

In 2016, organic reach on Facebook decreased by a whooping 52% percent. [*] In 2017, it decreased by another 20%! [*]

Less reach yields less ROI from marketing campaigns, which makes it very unattractive for marketers to invest into (organic) social media.

In return, paid advertising on social networks has become more expensive and the price is continuing to climb up. The attention on big social networks might still be underpriced but higher advertising cost and lower organic reach set the bar too high for young startups to use them as growth channels. That's the second reason: the big ones are becoming unattractive for marketers.

That trend wouldn't be possible if "the big ones" weren't monopolies. [*] Facebook either copies from its competitors #Snapchat, or acquires them #tbh. That gives them complete freedom over their own platform.

The third reason is that big social networks are "for everyone" - that's why they're big. On the downside, the discussions and content aren't focused. The top content on Facebook ranges from "Despacito" to an article on Muslims marching against ISIS.

Even on LinkedIn, which I also consider one of the big ones, people discuss many other topics than "career".

The challenge for marketers is to steer a conversation when everything is discussed. It's possible for some topics but not for all. Hence, it's becoming harder for campaigns to go "viral" in big communities, unless you create something that appeals to everyone. Fourth: It has become very noisy. Us marketers, we have overloaded the big ones with too much ~crappy~ non-engaging content. As a result, users are getting "blinder" for marketing content (and ads). That's also why influencer marketing is so big right now: it's more native, more authentic.

The fifth reason is that users are annoyed by push notifications. [*] The big ones are constantly pushing and it turns people off - literally. Anybody remembers how Facebook annoyed us to install the Messenger app? If your growth strategy is to increase retention with push notifications, you're gonna have a bad time.

For users, the big ones have become too crowded and invasive. For marketers, they don't provide enough reach, engagement and "virality" anymore.

Why are niche communities winning?

Obviously, niche communities do right what the big ones are doing wrong:

 

  • Focused on one topic
  • More engaging
  • Less noisy and overcrowded
  • Less invasive
  • Less competitive

 

But those are not the only reasons: users are more passionate in niche communities because of their focus on one topic. You join a big community because everyone's on it and you want to be part of the chatter but you join a small community because you're passionate about something.

As Clay Shirky writes in her book "Here comes everybody", "what makes these communities bond is 'love' of something as demonstrated by members who go out of their way to help without any financial interest."

People on Untappd are passionate about beer (as a German, I sympathize with that).

People on Goodreads are passionate about Books.

People on Dribbble are passionate about design.

That passion is deeply rooted in evolution: Humans thrived because they gathered in tribes. We seek communication with "people like us" because we seek belonging to a tribe. Thus, we're more passionate when talking to people in "our tribe" than talking to "everyone".

This internal drive opens the door for way more engagement with marketing campaigns in niche communities. You can really "touch" people with a good campaign that speaks to a topic they're passionate about. On big social networks that's much harder to do, even though you can closely target people (we'll talk about a solution in the next chapter).

Another result of our tribal nature is higher loyalty to niche communities. The connection users have with the topic strengthens their bond with the platform they interact on. If a brand manages to establish itself in a niche community it can build a very loyal audience.

Some brands have successful created niche communities because they understand these benefits:

  • Hubspot bought Inbound.org, an inbound marketing community, in 2013.
  • Autodesk bought instructables.com, a makers community, in 2011.
  • Fandango bought Flixster and Rotten Tomatoes, both movie rating communities, in 2016.

How do you Growth Hack a community?

There are four distinct ways to make use of the rise of niche communities for Growth:

1) Acquire the community

It's super blunt but effective.

Gary Vaynerchuk bought the wine community Cork'd in 2007 to grow his business (Wine Library). Even though Cork'd closed shop four years later, we all know the story of how Gary grew Wine Library from 3 to 60 Million Dollars revenue. [*, **]

Amazon did the same with Goodreads, the community for book readers, and Twitch, the community for gamers. For the latter, the big A put one billion USD on the table.

2) Piggyback on another platform

In the beginning of the article, I mentioned how well-known startups used existing communities to grow in their early days (a.k.a. (Piggybacking).

The Piggybacking tactic exists on a spectrum: On the aggressive end, you automate cross-posting to another community, like Airbnb on Craigslist.[*] You intersect the offer + demand satisfaction process by becoming a middleman with better distribution. [*] The reach on your platform is multiplied by posting content to another one. On the passive end, you become part of an existing community and when you have enough attention, you slowly start to advertise your own product/platform.

Passive Piggybacking is much less invasive but takes more time. Aggressive Piggybacking yields faster results but can backfire immensely. One example of overdoing it comes from Glide, a video chatting app, that exploited its users' phone address book to auto-send texts. [*]

Using a community for growth doesn't mean to exploit and replace it. The smartest route to go is to seek a complementary community to your platform/product to build on.

Another form of Piggybacking is to provide the option to share content from your platform to another platform in a less invasive way, e.g. by adding a button to your content that allows users to share it with specific Subreddits or Facebook Groups. This way, users can share with like-minded others, which improves the reach and engagement of your content.

3) "Implant and spread" to the niche community

"Implant and spread" is a growth hack that involves sending your users to another platform (implant) to advocate your product (spread).

Don't be afraid to lose your users to another platform. People are usually part of several social networks and communities, nowadays, not just one. Also, you promote a complementary platform to your own users, not a competitor. That provides value to them and lets you build a presence on that platform at the same time.

So, say you sell a SaaS product and own a Slack channel with 500 users around the topic "team productivity". At some point, you promote a Subreddit on the Slack channel about the topic "team communication", which is a sub-topic of "team productivity". It's a complementary topic, not a replacement. Because you promote the Subreddit, some of your users might subscribe to it.

Then, you can go ahead and share some of your blog content on that Subreddit. The Subreddit members who came from your Slack channel then advocate it, which will give it more attention from the other Reddit members. That allows you to multiply your reach. This is just one example of many ways to use this tactic.

The "spread" part happens organically: When people are passionate about something, they talk about it. So, it's just a matter of time until your advocates mention your product and authentically spread it to others. Group dynamics and social proof are very powerful!

You can help the second step a bit by "spinning a web" of perception around the platform you Piggyback on. Pay already established power users to give your product and your users social proof. Ask them to start a thread about your product or join one that's already open and advocate your brand.

4) Advertise on the platform

I already mentioned it in the last paragraph but want to go a bit more in-depth: advertising on a niche community is much more fruitful than on large platforms. It's cheaper and more targeted. The only downside is that you might not get the same analytics as on a large social network like Facebook and you have to manage ads on each platform separately.

On Reddit you can target specific Subreddits.

On most web forums you can run ads:

On Goodreads, for example, you can run ads, promote your book or do a giveaway.

On Dribbble, you can reach millions of designers and creatives with ads.

Of course, Slack doesn't provide advertising and on Facebook you can't target groups.

Yes, the ad targeting on Facebook is very refined and segmented but you cannot advertise in a closed environment as you can on a web forum.

Two more things to keep in mind, when advertising on niche communities: First, customize your ads to the community to increase clicks! Eat24 did that brilliantly on an adult site. [*] Second, make sure your web analytics catches people who click on those ads to correctly calculate the ROI.

Seek out the right community to grow on

The opportunities to leverage niche communities for growth are vast. Increasing dissatisfaction with big social networks drives people to smaller communities. That trend should be on every Growth Hacker's radar.

When going after an established community, do not try to aggressively exploit it. Instead, become part of it, show people the value of your product and raise brand advocates. Authenticity goes a long way. Workarounds for "passive Piggybacking" are the acquisition of the community or advertising on it.

70% of communities are destined to fail. [*] The biggest community killers are outdated content, low engagement and missing pathways to build relationships with other members.One health indicator is the amount of comments per thread. If it's slowing down over time the community might be at the end of its life-cycle.

So, before picking a community for growth, make sure it's alive and thriving.

PS: my favorite niche community is "Stache Passions", a dating network for men with mustaches.

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