Ten-year-old Friends Reunited in need of guidance
Friends Reunited, the UK's first mass-market social networking site, turns 10 years old this month, with a new home and a ready-made extended family to boot, but analysts remain far from convinced about its future.
Friends Reunited: former trail-blazing days now behind social networking site
Within the last decade, Friends Reunited’s image has gone from that of trail blazer for the new social web, to become more of an ageing hanger-on, refusing to leave the party long after the music has died.
The site’s perceived value has dropped from the £175m paid by ITV in 2005, to the £25m it was picked up for by DC Thomson’s subsidiary, Brightsolid, last year.
It now sits alongside more complementary brands than 'The X Factor' and 'The Bill' – with the likes of FindMyPast and the 1911 Census now stablemates – but analysts remain sceptical about its value.
Brightsolid’s online portfolio of sites is all about connecting people and places, but Chris Bailes, group digital trading manager at Starcom MediaVest, is far from convinced.
He says: "Friends Reunited has sat and stagnated so long at ITV, that I wonder if it has any real value left at all.
"There’s an argument that it’s now increasingly middle-aged users could be an attractive proposition for advertisers when compared with Facebook’s younger bias. But I think all recent trends show that Facebook is actually proving very adept and successful at tapping into this older audience as well."
So has the moment passed for the site where timing was once everything? Coming two years before Friendster, three years before the likes of MySpace, and some four years before the term Web 2.0 was even coined, Friends Reunited was rightly lauded as an innovator.
In the summer of 2000, at the height of the first internet boom, Friends Reunited was famously launched from a bedroom in north London by husband-and-wife team Steve and Julie Pankhurst, and business partner Jason Porter.
Its premise was simple: to help people track down old school friends they had lost touch with over the years. By the end of 2000, the site had 3,000 registered members, and this figure snowballed to more than one million by the following summer.
The site’s ensuing success over the next two years led to the launch of brand extensions Friends Reunited Dating and Genes Reunited. In addition, there were Friends Reunited compilation CDs selling in their hundreds of thousands.
As Neil Beston, communications director at internet analyst Nielsen, notes: "In 2003, Friends Reunited was undoubtedly an internet success story. In October of that year, it had an audience of well over three million unique users, representing almost one in every seven people online in the UK at the time."
He adds: "Over the following years, though, it has failed to grow its audience significantly and by April 2007, Facebook – with its global reach and intuitive functionality – came from nowhere to overtake it in the UK."
ITV did attempt to combat the rise of Facebook by removing Friends Reunited’s subscription charges at the start of 2008, and its first national multimillion-pound advertising campaign followed.
The marketing push succeeded in reigniting interest around the brand, and monthly user numbers peaked above four million in July 2008, according to Nielsen. However, as Beston notes: "It was never able to sustain this growth and its audience has since fallen away to just 1.3 million today".
He adds: "Contrast this with Facebook, which now boasts more than 25 million unique UK users, and it’s clear there was always the demand for the right social network."
Chris van der Kuyl, chief executive of Brightsolid, remains confident the site can carve out a new niche for itself. He says: "Social networking and the use of the internet continues to grow, and Friends Reunited has its place as the social network for sharing the important things in life with the people that matter.
"It is also part of the Brightsolid family [where people go to search their past, share their story and connect with people and places], so we are looking forward to working on more new ideas that will shape the direction of this exciting website."
SMG’s Bailes takes a different view: "If I’m really interested in finding out about my family tree, there’s probably more robust data available that I would try first. Friends Reunited and its new owner are simply not top of mind. It’s a shame, but I really can’t see it lasting another 10 years."
Shane O’Byrne, social media director at MEC, also questions the site’s ability to attract major advertisers too. "I have to say that in 10 years of helping clients reach and engage people in the social media space, I’ve never known Friends Reunited to cross my radar," he says.
"As a consumer, I signed-up to it in its early years, but then Facebook came along and seemed to leave the site standing."
He adds: "As far as tie-ups with Genes Reunited and the like – this type of ground is proving popular on TV at the moment and maybe there’s something there. The new owners will have to think extremely strategically to leverage it."
Brightsolid also plans to launch a dating site for the over-50s that will integrate Friends Reunited properties, including Genes Reunited, into its Find My Past genealogy site, as well as launching new branded offerings.
"[The acquisition of Friends Reunited Group] marks another step forward in the future strategy of Brightsolid, widening its offering to the consumer marketplace, in particular by creating Britain’s leading genealogy business," says van der Kuyl.
Paul Vassallo, head of digital trading at MPG’s Media Contacts, questions whether a "pretty-dated" Friends Reunited has enough "significant scale" for Brightsolid to really leverage.
However, he also believes its tie-up with Genes could provide a welcome new opportunity.
He says: "If successful, the idea of an older social network would provide us an opportunity to reach an under-utilised target audience – the over 50s. Clients are increasingly interested in the older consumer, including the likes of Axa and Sun Life Direct."
Van der Kuyl is eager to point out that Friends Reunited still boasts 23.8 million registered users, "more than the population of Australia".
He adds: "The site is completely free to use and we’ve recently added new features, so it’s no longer just about finding your old friends, you can now stay in touch with all of your friends and family.
"You can share your passions with like-minded groups of people and the newsfeed helps you stay up to date with what your friends are up to. We’ve also made changes to simplify privacy settings, something that is very important to our members."
As the rise and rise of Facebook makes the very idea of needing to be "reunited" with old school friends redundant, the original social network’s sights are now set well beyond the perimeter of the playground.
This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk
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