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Can niche social media sites take on giants like Facebook and Linkedin?

Feb 14 2013, 14:53   |   By SME Mentor

Khyati Dharamsi

New genre of entrepreneurs puts a spin on social networking; plans to capitalise on this trend in India
There's no doubt social media is a powerful tool for brands and e-commerce sites to reach their clientele. Now more evidence to support this trend - according to a survey by market research company IPSOS, 74 per cent of Indians today follow and engage with brands on social networking sites.
And hungry to capitalise on this huge pie of engagement in the second-largest global market is an upcoming breed of Indian entrepreneur. These start-ups have launched niche social networking sites, which offer unique features to attract specific groups of users. But the billion-dollar question is: will these small players gain enough traction to survive against giants like Facebook and LinkedIn? Will they be able to make even a dent in the local advertising revenue of Facebook?

"As concepts, they're good. But whether they can sustain quality and constantly innovate is to be watched. Social networking sites need huge volumes to succeed and we are waiting to see serious traction on these niche sites," says Sanjay Mehta, Joint CEO of Socialwavelength, a social media advertising and marketing service provider.
Who's Going Social?

Some Indian entrepreneurs who are Eyeing this opportunity have already floated social networking sites with a twist:
* pSocial.in: An 'interest-based open network focused on sharing images and videos'. The site is designed to connect people with similar interests
* Wallpost.com: A photo- and video-sharing site whose security is apparently enviable. It also provides statistical data of all the activity surrounding your profile, a great tool for businesses
* hammerit.com: A iste that is aimed at people who seek instant opinions on questions or photos
* Autobook: A Facebook app developed by Autographix, the decorative car and two wheeler-accessories arm of Classic Stripes

Why The Indian Twist?
In spite of Facebook's virtually unbeatable position, why has this fresh genre of entrepreneurs kicked off a social networking revolution of sorts? "Linked.in's home page was hacked; Twitter was hacked; Facebook accounts have been hacked. Privacy is another niggling issue for users. So, if you update photos, they go to unwanted people," points out Bangar Reddy, CEO, Wallpost.com, which even allows users to enjoy password-protected albums.
Breaking through the ever-increasing online clutter helps users stay focused and on track. Psocial is meant for people not seduced by the herd mentality, says Vineet Budki, founder and CEO of the portal. "People love to connect with their interests and make informed decisions based on other people's opinions." Budki makes another observation. "The online industry is trending towards image-based platforms and examples include Video Wall on IBN Live, EBAY, etc, which have moved from a content-based system to a visual-based system to cater to the reduced attention spans of Internet users," he adds.
Hammerit.com co-founder Amit Khanna, who is also Joint Managing Director of Americos Technologies, which launched the site, heartily agrees. "This community helps users express and source opinions and connects them with people of similar interests."
For Autobook, it was pure business. "Autographix is a 10-year old brand. However, we realised that automobile accessories or graphics enjoy little awareness in the market. We were looking at an initiative to increase awareness about Autographix, and hence Autobook was initiated," reveals Amit Dakshini, CEO, Autobook.

Replication versus Innovation

Constant innovation is key to every great idea. But do these niche social media start-ups have the creative wherewithal to roll out innovations at regular intervals? Also, will the features be strong enough to grow their user base?
Wallpost claims a hacker will take at least 11 years to hack passwords on its site while Hammerit feels its 'For It" and 'Against It buttons will do the trick. "These companies will face tough challenges in terms of constant innovation," says Mehta of Socialwavelength. "Merely replicating a global model here, say, an Indian Twitter, is not a good idea when people have access to the real thing. What would work in India would be, say, a regional language Facebook or a mobile platform which presents real opportunities."

Numbers Game

Wallpost claims it has 2.6 lakh users but merely getting people to register on the site will not help. Getting them to come back again and again is still a far-fetched a dream. "We have close to 7,000 users and have 2,500 visits daily," says Budki of pSocial. Since Autobook decide to ride on the popularity of Facebook, the company says it is expecting to get its first million users quite soon. "And these will be global users," says Dakshini of Autobook.
Advertisers look for repeat visitors and traffic numbers need to pass a credibility test, Mehta points out. "If the site say they have a KPMG audit or a third party has verified their numbers, then there's a lot more credibility."

Revenue Model

Niche social media sites are in it for the long haul so returns will take a while to start trickling in. And they will have to be really innovative even with advertising. "Sponsors will be able to connect with users through their homepage, where either an advertisement will be placed or a 200-character note can be dropped. There will also be location-based, sponsored events based on zip code," says Reddy of Wallpost. On the other hand, pSocial is looking a three-prong revenue stream - ads, product sales and affiliate partnership.
"Although advertising is the default revenue source, other ideas are charging a subscription or membership fee. Yet another idea is engaging in e-commerce through an affiliate programme with, say, Flipkart. They could even monetise images, videos and other content," Mehta suggests.

Advertising Eyeballs

While most of these sites are yet to see advertising revenues, pSocial.in claims to have started product promotions of small and medium businesses already. "We are aiming at 50 lakh users by the end of 2013, post which we will be accepting advertising," says Reddy of Wallpost. 
But Mehta of Social Wavelength points out that every site needs to reach critical mass to garner revenue. "The bigger social networking sites have a 2-digit million figure and some have a 3-digit million number mark. If you have 50,000 users, then the numbers just don't add up, unless it is a very niche group of users that is actively engaged. Then, related businesses and industries would be interested in advertising."

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