Social Networking is not new, or at least it’s not as new as we think. Back in 2005 MySpace was the ruler of social networks and when News Corporation bought it for $580 million it looked like Rupert Murdoch’s empire had added a powerful string to its bow.

Fast forward six years later and Justin Timberlake is able to snap it up for just $35 million. The question is ‘what went wrong?’ but really it should be ‘what can we learn from it?’. As social media marketers we should be able to focus past the numbers (spectacular as the disparity between buying and selling prices may be) and look at the underlying causes because that’s where the lessons really lie.

In many ways MySpace was the pioneer of large-scale social networking, and back in 2005 its position seemed unassailable. Less than five years later Facebook had taken off and wiped out its value not dissimilar to the way AOL, in 2008, paid $850 million for Bebo (the UK equivalent of MySpace) only to sell it on for less than $10 million just a couple of years on.

So, what can be learnt? At a microlevel analysts tall about functionality, brand identity and critical mass but although these make interesting reading, at the end of the day they are just technical details in the large footnote of the web’s ever evolving technologies.

What made Facebook take off and MySpace fail is the fact that the former managed to latch onto something which the latter failed to even realize in time and that is the holy trinity of personalisation, socialisation and commercialism. Irrespective of functionality, privacy issues, design appeal or apparent popularity, a social network succeeds or fails based upon three hard criteria:

  1. Does it allow you to establish an identity and project your personality?
  2. Is it the kind of place you can turn into the digital equivalent of your local watering hole?
  3. Can you turn your time there into a money making opportunity of you want to?

Facebook answered all three in a convincing enough fashion to establish itself as the pre-eminent social network to be in. From then on, everything else followed.

The criteria is important enough because now Google has also put in place the tools necessary to socialise the web. Google’s approach is always more user-centric than the autocratic Facebook whose DNA harks back to the days when College Sophomores were happy to be dictated to. Google’s reach, potentially, can deliver greater value and more flexibility than Facebook, which might well lead to the MySpace lessons being re-learnt all over again.

MySpace’s failure also points out exactly what social marketers should be focusing on. If social marketing on the web does not: 1. Deliver personality (in terms of a product, brand or real person), 2. Provide value in terms of information or entertainment or 3. Offer some way of profiting, either by solving a problem, offering a deal or enabling a profitable partnership, then it fails to engage, and when engagement is poor, social media marketing is an empty exercise designed to tick all the right boxes rather than provide a healthy return on the time, effort and money invested in it.