A recent new start-up in the social networking space is Toronto-based Sneakerplay who are in invite only beta. The site aims to be a networking hub for the sneaker obsessed. Although I’m not part of the target demo I can appreciate the passion for sneaks driving the project – and that will go a long way in building cachet in a niche market if the other standard barriers can be over come.
The site is built similarly to the SN standards (user profile pages, tagging, friends lists, image uploads, etc.), with added niche features such as “the Battle” where users upload pictures of their sneakers and the community votes a winner. The Sneakerplay team maintains a blog which updates the community on new features and functionality, which continues the best practices of Web 2.0 start-ups, however, the decision not to add comments is one I don’t endorse. The company blog in my view, particularly for 2.0 beta’s, should be a forum where the membership can interact directly with the team building the product to share feedback & is also an excellent ‘front door’ for potential users to quickly get a sense of the benefits & culture before joining.
That being said, the issue I see with NSN sites is one of long term ROI and sustainability. Sneakerplay for example is entering a highly competitive market with Niketalk holding court at over 52k users, 600 million visits, 8 million posts, and a corporate structure that can support a free access model. The advantages Nike has are evident, least of which is the ability to purchase the shoes under discussion. The site also has a classifieds section, showcase & art sections, price & fake checks, discussion threads for other brands, and regional discussion boards.
Can Sneakerplay survive in an environment where sponsorships, ads or membership fees will end up being a necessity? Will their core community accept any of those models? Would Nike sponsor Sneakerplay when it would cannibalize their own venture? Or is the ultimate goal a buy-out/ merger?
Profitability is an on-going issue for the largest of the SN sites, as MySpace continues to try to turn one and has just inked a huge partnership with Google. At this stage it is difficult to see how independent NSN sites can succeed without unique technical, cultural or behavioural selling propositions. The ‘freemium’ model of service related Web 2.0 companies (i.e. Flickr, 37Signals, etc.) doesn’t apply in a social networking environment (at this point in time it hasn’t, there may be instances where it could be appropriate). It will be interesting to see where ventures such as Sneakerplay net out and how much of a niche they can carve out of the niche.