It was once the place to be seen, but the original social network is trailing in the wake of stickier sites, writes Nicola Clark.
In little over a year, Friends Reunited has gone from being a site that could go on to bigger and better things to a lumbering dinosaur of the burgeoning social-networking scene. Where it was once the first port of call for people seeking to brag about their success or track down old friends or lovers, the likes of MySpace, Bebo and Facebook have eaten away at its market.
Figures from Nielsen//NetRatings show that Friends Reunited experienced a 10% decline in its unique audience between October 2005 and April 2007 to 1.9m. In contrast, in the same period, Facebook's audience has grown 502% to 2.7m.
The fact that the tabloids believed that the future King of England had a Facebook page (under the name of William Wales) shows how far the site has come. In contrast, Friends Reunited, whose celebrity members include Adam Ant and Billy Bragg, appears outdated and lacks the cachet of its competitors.
While many people have registered with, and remain users of, Friends Reunited, the site lacks the 'sticky' elements of MySpace and Facebook, such as photo galleries, groups, videos and constant updates, meaning there is little reason to log in obsessively.
The original Friends Reunited site, which was thought up in a suburban Barnet semi in 1999, was credited with reuniting millions of school friends and even contributing to spiralling divorce rates. By 2005, 12m people had signed up - roughly half of all adults in the UK with internet access.
Friends Reunited's initial growth was based on word of mouth, but since ITV acquired it for pounds 120m in 2005, it has attempted to breathe life into the site by giving over airtime to ads to encourage consumers to sign up. The site has also diversified, with Genes Reunited, Friends Reunited Dating and Holiday Reunited. However, some analysts believe it is outflanked by specialist sites in each of these areas.
Friends Reunited has a subscription service and invites users to 'upgrade' to access more information or send emails to friends. Analysts say that this model, which accounts for 75% of the group's revenue, is a significant factor in its declining market share.
We asked Charlie Redmayne, managing director of teen girls website Mykindaplace, and Clare Baker, managing director of Virgin Radio, how Friends Reunited can turn around its flagging fortunes.
DIAGNOSIS 1 - CHARLIE REDMAYNE, MANAGING DIRECTOR, MYKINDAPLACE
When Friends Reunited launched as the first social network, it left the rest of us kicking ourselves. It was the perfect web application and showed a real grasp of how the web would evolve.
In recent years, it has been eclipsed by the new breed of sites such as MySpace, Bebo and, latterly, the oh so impressive Facebook. Spend five minutes on each of the sites and you'll understand why.
Facebook has character, is engaging and fun and encourages you to interact within the community. It is also free. Friends Reunited is none of these. When people first join they may choose to inform the world they are living in Wandsworth, have two children and work in new media, but they change their minds when they realise they are alone in sharing these facts. I registered in 2000 and the only messages I have received in the past seven years have been from journalists asking me whether I smoked a joint with Dave Cameron (Eton 1984).
Friends Reunited needs to provide a more interesting environment for friends once they have been reunited.
- Create a real personality for the site.
- Add great editorial content. There must be brilliant stories coming out of the site - make the users stars and make this content accessible.
- Learn from rivals. Upgrade the interactive elements and provide tools that allow users to create future-facing networks, not just as a means of looking back.
- Review the membership fee - it may be key to the model, but it will limit growth.
DIAGNOSIS 2 - CLARE BAKER, MARKETING MANAGER, VIRGIN RADIO
Friends Reunited has been out of the headlines recently as people clamber to applaud the huge popularity of the newer, edgy social-networking sites. Orlando Bloom has been vocal about his Facebook page and Lily Allen is constantly blogging on MySpace - but who is on Friends Reunited?A hell of a lot of people, actually; last year it announced registered user figures of 18m - enough to justify ITV's decision to pay pounds 120m for the site.
Number of users, however, isn't the most powerful tool in Friends Reunited's armoury. Officially launching in 2000, it was many internet users' first experience of social networking. While the site itself might seem a bit dated, the brand is up there with Amazon and eBay as an internet brand consumers know and trust.
Expansion into jobs and dating sites is adventurous as they will be competing against large, well-established players; Genes Reunited, however, has a lot of potential because it will have few well-known competitors and the proposition will appeal to Friends Reunited's wide user base.
- Maximise its position as one of the net's most established trusted brands.
- Keep promoting the number of registered users as a real point of difference.
- Look at updating the look and feel of the website without alienating some older users.
- It's already using the relationship with ITV to link to ITV.com and book TV ads. This relationship needs to be utilised to its full potential
Clark, Nicola. "Brand Health Check: Friends Reunited." Marketing (2007): 20. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Oct. 2009.
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