September 14, 2009

Direct Marketing Gave Myspace Something No Other Social Network Had

You’ve probably passed Stealing MySpace in the bookstore a dozen times. Every time, you probably glanced at the title and moved on.

Which is too bad; it’s a terrible title for a terribly interesting book. Essentially, Tom Anderson and his merry band of spyware masters were able to build a site that, until quite recently, was the largest and most successful social network. They didn’t have a vision, they didn’t have any expertise, and one of their most compelling features started out as an unexpected accident.

Myspace had one huge advantage, though: while it’s founders weren’t spammers, they were about as close as you can get. Before Myspace, they pushed hidden cameras, ebooks on dating, and lots and lots of spyware. Myspace itself might have been an attempt to go legit, but it might well have been a campaign to harvest new emAil addresses that somehow got out of hand. Whatever the reason, Myspace’s direct marketing heritage made it a social site like no other.

1. They were conscious knockoffs. Most social networks at the time claimed they were trying to do Friendster, but do it right. Myspace didn’t bother: they were trying to do Friendster over again, get some small fraction of the userbase, and use that to get some small fraction of the profits.

2. No Big Idea. Friendster introduced you to your friends’ friends. Facebook mimicked your existing social graph. Now, Twitter gives you a real time peek At what your friends are up to. So what’s the big, unifying idea that made Myspace what it is?

There wasn’t one. It was just another social site for a while, until it became, by accident, the just-another-social-site of choice for B-list through D-list celebrities and their fans.

3. Ignore users. Listen to data. Everyone thinks popups should be less obtrusive, that pitches should be less screamy, and that opting out should be much easier than opting in. That’s what they said, but as nearly-spammers, Myspace’s founders knew otherwise. They rarely gave users what they asked for, but one of their biggest selling points—the infinitely customizable profile—was a bug that tested well enough to graduate to feature status.

4. They knew when to quit. Nobody falls out of love faster than a direct response marketer. Once social networks started selling, they sold to Murdoch. He got what briefly looked like a great deal (hence the “stealing” in “Stealing MySpace“), and the remaining founders and shareholders got cash.

The same legacy that helped Myspace grow is now killing it. It’s a high-overhead site whose users don’t love it, and there’s no obvious way to stop the decline.

At this point, Murdoch might as well unplug the servers and call it a bust—but not before selling all the user data to some young, ambitious Tom Anderson type with a gleam in his eye and a few semi spammy subject lines he’s anxious to try out.