What’s Next for Social Media? – The Workplace

By now, we don’t need to explain the value of social media. Social networks have attracted billions of users who log in to participate in discussions, share life experiences, and engage with the content their friends and acquaintances offer up.

In turn, they’ve attracted marketing spend with promises of audience targeting well beyond that found offline. There’s no question that social networks are worth our attention.

The real question is: where will that attention focus next in a rapidly changing landscape?

Most of the discussions around the big social networks — the Facebooks and LinkedIns of the world — mention their scale. You can’t sneeze at 1 billion Facebook users. Theoretically, scale represents a larger potential audience to promote to and the certainty that your brand will find its audience, eventually. In reality though, users have created separation in how they use social networks. For instance, Facebook is used to connect with friends and family while LinkedIn is for connecting with colleagues, sharing content or finding a new job. Scale in this case actually makes it more difficult to promote products and services.

The social media landscape is expanding to address the segregation of personal and professional networks. Many believe this next phase in the social media evolution will address more targeted audiences with very specific interests, primarily in the workplace.

We’re already seeing a blossoming of profession-based, vertical networks catering to the specific needs and interests of business professionals. Networks such as Wave in accounting, TES Connect for teachers, or Spiceworks for IT have become to their industries what LinkedIn means to the HR professional.

Most of these networks have grown up around business applications and tools people need to do their jobs. They help people work better by automating tasks and connecting them with peers for help. This means users are regularly in the communities during the workday and, more importantly, thinking about their work whilst there.

Consequently, vertical networks that form around specific job functions or industries aren’t just message boards or places to host your resume. They’re communities where users are highly engaged and generate relevant content for each other. Yes, they offer some of the same helpful user-generated content offered by traditional social networks. However, vertical networks, with their intimate knowledge of user needs, are better able to create and curate original content that speaks to its users and helps them get their jobs done more efficiently.

This more engaging content and genuine utility in the workplace ultimately means users spend far more time on site. Everyone you know may be on LinkedIn, but how often do they spend time there? Real, measurable time? According to Forbes’ June 2012 cover story, the average LinkedIn user spends 18 minutes per month on the network. For comparison sake, on Spiceworks, the average user spends nearly 3 hours per month logged in. That’s a remarkable difference.

For marketers this is an opening; longer engagement in a focused network means less time searching for your audience and a chance to produce content that is useful to both the brand and the community. Of course, there’s also an opportunity to build relationships with potential customers without being lost in white noise.

None of this is to say social networks like LinkedIn or Facebook are going away anytime soon. Their statures are secure. But how should we think about them and the tens or hundreds of industry vertical networks that are bound to emerge? Networks like Instagram may offer a hint. These networks, geared toward very specific activities, integrate well with horizontal platforms and are generally used in conjunction with them rather than instead of them.

Will industry vertical networks become the Instagrams of the horizontal players, or will another network rise up and take advantage of integrating in a vertical way? While it’s hard to say, vertical networks are clearly offering something unique and new to the 9-to-5 crowd, and for marketers, that means new opportunities.

Jay Hallberg is the co-founder of Spiceworks, the vertical network for IT that connects 2.4 million IT professionals with technology brands.