As Facebook released its earnings last week, pundits focused on the company's troubled mobile strategy. But Facebook may face an even bigger problem: The social networking behemoth must compete with the nimble startups poised to capitalize on the trend toward social discovery. 

(This is Part 3 in a series of articles about social discovery. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here.)

The people at Powerhouse Factories, a brand strategy consultancy, point to recent statistics that show people are spending less time on Facebook. The change isn’t massive - yet - but Powerhouse social media expert Taylor Wiegert believes that the trend reflects people splitting Facebook time with more specialized social networks like Pinterest, Tumblr and Deviant Art. All these sites focus on social discovery: finding new connections, ideas and products through social media.

The concept behind social discovery is nothing new, but it erupted at the South By Southwest Festival in March 2012. If this is the first time you’ve heard the term, it certainly won’t be the last. Web companies are trying to figure out how best to integrate social discovery  and help people easily find what they want based not only on their own preferences, but the preferences of their social-network contacts.

“It’s not in place of Facebook - it’s in addition to,” Wiegert said. “People are still spending time on Facebook, but they’re also going on these niche social networks where they can connect around their passions.” 

Wiegert and his colleague, Emily Worstell, say the niche social networks help marketers find the early adopters and influencers. Reaching those people with targeted messages via social discovery is much easier than wading through the masses on Facebook. Worstell said, “We’re tapping into the very potent numbers. It can give a brand a very good idea about who their influencers are.”

Adding Local to Social Discovery

Sometimes those influencers aren't on Facebook but just down the street. Nextdoor, a social network for people who live in the same neighborhood, is an engine of social discovery based on household problem-solving. (For more on Nextdoor, see our earlier profile). With Nextdoor, neighbors (who may not want to share personal information among each other the way they do with Facebook friends), ask questions ranging from “Know a good electrician?” to “Why are there fire trucks down the block?”

“Has Facebook dropped the ball by not integrating local social discovery?" Nextdoor CEO and founder Nirav Tolia asked. “I don’t think so. Different social networks have different uses. Facebook and Nextdoor are miles apart.”

But maybe not for long. Following last week’s earnings release, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg hinted that Facebook may be contemplating a local push into a potentially lucrative market segment. "The problem is local businesses are not very tech savvy," Sandberg told earnings analysts. "Something like 40% don’t have any Web presence." If Facebook can entice them to set up shop on the social network - which, after all, is easier than setting up a custom URL and homepage - the company will have a good shot at covering the local end of social discovery.

Social Discovery Is Not Private

Social discovery is most effective if it can draw on large volumes of personal information, which increasingly includes physical location. Especially as people use mobile devices to discover who and what is around them, they may start to wonder whether they're sharing too much. 

“Consumers have to think about what they are comfortable with sharing and if they want people around them to know about them,” said Jeff Tinsley, CEO of MyLife, a service that unifies messaging from various social networks. We’re “living in a world where people are a lot more comfortable sharing information, but [social discovery] can certainly test the limits.” 

And given that Facebook has repeatedly tested those limits with frequent and often intrusive changes to its user agreement, it may not be the leading candidate to make users feel secure as social discovery comes to play a larger role in their choices.

“People have started to become increasingly dissatisfied with Facebook because of the ads and because of privacy concerns,” Wiegert said. “These niche platforms are starting to chip away at Facebook as people reevaluate what they’re getting out of Facebook.”

ReadWriteWeb’s Dave Copeland will be speaking at the SocialDiscovery.org’s next Social Discovery Conference on Aug. 6-7 at the Fairmont San Francisco. ReadWriteWeb readers can get a discount of more than $1,000 if they register by August 3.

To read more about social discovery, see Social Discovery is Pushing Search & Social Closer Together and Hooked Media Group Uses Social Discovery to Fine-Tune Game Recommendations.