MySpace positions for a comeback

With new leadership at MySpace, the social network that lost relevancy in the face of Facebook's popularity has a renewed opportunity to call attention to the progress it made to its service since last year's reorganization.

With new leadership at MySpace, the social network that lost relevancy in the face of Facebook's popularity has a renewed opportunity to call attention to the progress it made to its service since last year's reorganization.

After steadily losing users, in 2009 MySpace did a major restructuring at many levels, including staff-wide layoffs and new management. The company also brought on Weber Shandwick, its first AOR since taking its PR in-house in 2008. By all accounts, it seemed the network has achieved some stability but then last week, its CEO Owen Van Natta stepped down after less than a year on the job, replaced by two co-presidents.

This, once again, shed attention to the site's ongoing struggles – but the shakeup also gives MySpace a chance to clarify its direction and, ultimately, its utility for users.

“MySpace was a pioneer in the social media conversation but has lost that edge,” says Anthony Johndrow, MD and partner at the Reputation Institute North America. “They need to ask, what about them got people excited when they first started. And without completely reinventing themselves, can they remind people of what that was?”

After its 2009 reorganization, MySpace did just this by putting more resources into its entertainment content, especially around music. While this strategy modestly paid off -- at the end of last year, its user base stabilized and MySpace Music grew 92% year-over-year, according to ComScore – the overall brand still hasn't won back its momentum.

Lou Hoffman, president/CEO of the Hoffman Agency, worked with Friendster, a once-popular social network that MySpace eclipsed in the mid-2000s.

“We took on Friendster close to when they were rock bottom,” Hoffman recalls, noting the agency worked on that business from 2007 until last year. “MySpace is dealing with that same dynamic, albeit on a bigger scale. I do think they're smart to focus on what they can own. But in some ways, I think entertainment is too broad. They should just try to own music because that's where they still have a bit of cachet.”

However, a source inside MySpace tells PRWeek the slight market gains the site has enjoyed with its music product has given its parent-company, News Corp, confidence that the site is moving in the right direction – and ready to expand its focus on music to other entertainment sectors.

“While it isn't a reason to have a parade, any kind of stabilization or modest growth is a good thing,” the source explains. “We've been consistent on music delivery and getting users excited about music. Imagine that strategy and apply it to movies, games, and TV.”

MySpace is also planning a site redesign “as fast as humanly possible,” says the source. The company has modified its language, too. While it once referred to its site as “an entertainment portal,” it has taken to the word “discovery,” as in artists, DJs, writers, and bands being discovered on MySpace, as well as users finding new artists they like.

The communications team is now gearing up to mine these stories to make “discovery” a salient association with MySpace.

But Hoffman maintains that MySpace should stay fully focused on one issue like music to allow this messaging and reputation to build and completely sync in the minds of customers.

“Music is what they can own and defend,” Hoffman says. “And music is very emotional, so there must be some kind of intrinsic ‘mojo' they can create from this association.”

The Reputation Institute's Johndrow echoes this sentiment: “They need to identify what that kernel of their history can be brought into the future – it's more about identifying that resonance point.”

So far, MySpace is taking last week's turmoil as a chance to be more nimble on its strategy – and also to try and show the public it has turned a corner.

“People think something really bad happened if the CEO left, but News Corp has confidence in the new direction,” the source points out, adding the company's mindset is shifting to become more like startup. “One of the big things going forward is a really heightened focus on internal communications and building a rally cry for our employees.”

This started on February 18 when MySpace held an all-hands-on meeting with employees to talk about the company's direction.

“We were being very modest from a press perspective in the last months,” the source says. “We had to pull back. I'm not saying in this moment we are ready to be bold – but we are ready to be more transparent.”

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