Why Friends Reunited Failed | March 2, 2009

I was recently interviewed by the Independent on Sunday to get a design perspective on why Friends Reunited ultimately failed. However rather than the design of the site, I think the design of the system was ultimately to blame.

Friends Reunited was one of the first “Social Networks” in the UK, long before the term had even been coined. Like all good web applications it made something that was difficult to do in the real world, incredibly easy. You could now re-connect with people from your past and spark up new friendships. It also tapped into two basic human traits; curiosity and gloating. Whether this was through design or by pure accident, the desire to see what had become of your childhood sweetheart or your school bully proved impossible to resist.

Like all social sites, Friends Reunited relied on the network affect, so when membership reached its tipping point the whole site went viral. However a lot of viruses burn through their fuel so quickly they die almost as fast as they grow, stifled by their own success. So with Friends Reunited once you’d registered, seen what your old friends were doing, connected with the ones you’d wanted to and had a laugh at the (hopefully) tragic lives of your childhood tormentors, there was very little reason to stick around.

The design of the site was delightfully amateurish, which was no surprise considering the background of the creators. However it had a low-fi aesthetic that made it feel genuine; something it shares with it’s later contemporaries like MySpace. The truth is, while a better design would almost certainly helped its fortunes, people are willing to ignore bad design and usability if the perceived value is great. With Friends Reunited there were no credible alternatives or competition so people were happy to make do.

I think one big problem was the business model itself. With so many users, Friends Reunited wanted to capitalise on this by charging a membership fee. Now this was during a time when Internet business models were still being tested, so it’s impressive that they managed to charge for the service at all. However charging for a service changes the whole dynamic of a site and causes people to game the system in order to get the maximum return on their investment. So it becomes less of a community and more of a commercial relationship. Like a lot of commercial relationships, once the value runs out, people will stop paying and leave.

Modern social networks do a much better job at keeping their members engaged than Friends Reunited. So Facebook quickly expanded from a way of getting to know people on campus into a way of connecting with old friend and managing new ones. In fact you can now use Facebook in numerous ways, be that chatting with friends, playing games, managing your social life, flirting or micro blogging. Facebook has managed to create a whole ecosystem and become an essential part of peoples social lives. What’s more, rather than charging for this privilege, they give it away for free and make their money from additional services.

Conversely LinkedIn started life as a generic social networking site but quickly specialised in the field of professional reputation management and recruitment. This model has much more longevity than simply “getting in touch with friends from school” and allows LinkedIn to charge for professional services that help their users solve a real world problem.

Product design and business model speculations aside, I think there is also a big element of timeliness and zeitgeist. Friends Reunited managed to capture the attention of millions of people and was very successful in it’s day. However human attention is fleeting and you can only maintain this until the next cool meme comes along. Because of this I’m unsure if any of the big social networks have much longevity and if we’ll be having the same conversation in 10 years time. Is social networking here to stay or is it just a blip on the evolutionary path of the Internet?

Posted at March 2, 2009 1:39 PM

Comments

Steven Livingstone said on March 2, 2009 4:11 PM

Great post. I’ve been thinking hard about the “stickiness” of my site for quite a while now and keep challenging myself to find new ways to bring people back.

I think there is a different between sites you keep going back (call it a “pointer” site) to and those you stay on. One can compliment the other. So long as you have a reason to return to the pointer site. In many occasions as you pointed out above, you simply get pointed and rarely return.

I remain fairly convinced that this loosely related web of applications is more likely to be the future than Facebook and so on with all its applications in one place (to be honest i often get lost when i go on it). Of course, I may be wrong :-)

David Mead said on March 2, 2009 6:09 PM

Another great post Andy :-)

I joined Friends Reunited when I first moved from the UK to the US. Even though I paid the fee, I never really engaged with it.

I don’t know what the reception was like for it in the UK but when I logged back in some months later there was a lot more “stuff”, but still nothing to engage me.

I’ve found more of my friends in the UK are now on Facebook and that makes it easier to connect & share with them.

Maybe that was the thing for me that FR never really offered - a way to pull the rest of my digital life together to share with other people.

AlastairC said on March 2, 2009 6:25 PM

I think Facebook and Twitter will be around for quite a while if they succeed in becoming platforms (and ecosystems?), rather than just sites.

Clive Walker said on March 3, 2009 12:12 PM

I must be behind the game here but I thought FR was still going [albeit with less interest than before]. Has it failed? The original owners might argue that it was a great success because they sold to ITV for lots of money.

Clive Walker said on March 3, 2009 1:20 PM

Perhaps the failure lies with the development of the site since ITV took over?

Andy Budd said on March 3, 2009 1:49 PM

That depends if your definition of success lays purely around sale value. I think FR was at it’s zenith when it got bought out by ITV. It recently got valued at about a third of it’s sale price and that’s only likely to fall.

Marcus said on March 4, 2009 11:38 AM

The only thing friendsreunited had going for it was that it was a very early mover in the area of social networking - it was many years ahead of it’s competitors - especially in the UK. The application itself was very poor and they failed to improve it over time. Coupled with this, they failed to adapt the business model (and remove the 5 charge) until facebook really started making in-roads - at which point they were basically screwed.

The sale to ITV was amazing because at that point the decline had already started. ITV’s handling of the site from that point on was typical IMHO of that of a large old-media company. SLOW and non-responsive.

Nick Rinylo said on March 5, 2009 9:19 AM

The ITV buy out has been a disaster for them, The social network never lived up to expectation and ITv lost millions and now the recession has caused ITV to cut back on some of there most popular shows.

mattyk said on March 6, 2009 12:40 PM

Although FR never became as popular as facebook it still has lots of users. I think its a generational thing - My parents use it but my friends use facebook.

Anonymouse said on March 7, 2009 12:07 PM

The FR design was deliberately amateurish. They felt this kept them “accessible” and didn’t intimidate their users, many of whom weren’t internet-savvy. FR were approached by agencies offering to redesign “for free” (PR) but turned them down. They should take credit for getting a large percentage of the UK population using an online social network for the first time, and for making a fair sum from subscription revenue. Even under ITV when revenues were falling, in 2008 they grossed 10m in 6 months.

As for ITV buyout, there were aspirations for a TV show tie-in. I don’t know how relevant these were to the purchase by ITV, which was at a very high valuation. I think the BBC got there first with a program called “Class Of…” with Zoe Ball.

Nathan Pitman said on March 11, 2009 9:51 AM

Failure depends on the perspective I guess. For Steve and Julie Pankhurst who developed the site and then sold it to ITV for 120 Million in 2005 it was a huge success!

Amelia Vargo said on March 13, 2009 9:13 AM

I think that social networking is here to stay, but it will certainly evolve. It’ll have to, evolution is life.

Matty K has a point here, my parents use FR but not facebook (thank goodness!).

Matt said on March 18, 2009 12:27 AM

What a great post. It basicly sums up FR for me. I keep my FR profile up-to-date(ish) but not as much by a long shot as my Facebook profile, or for that matter Twitter which has taken over my life so far.

I would say FR could make a come back if the money and time was spent on it. Firstly free service, some pay-as-you-use options, but mostly free. Form chats in a Facebook style would help, plus interaction with other social networking site/platforms like Facebook, Bebo, and Twitter.

These are all just thoughts, and the likely course of action for ITV is a quick sale or simply to leave it to fade away into the digital history of archive.org.

I find this post very informative for me as I continue to develop my own social networking/promotion site. It has given me food for thought of things I should avoid, and others I should address.

Thanks Andy,

Matt

PS. Love your CSS Mastery Book. It is my CSS bible.

Matt said on March 18, 2009 1:18 AM

On another point, to put Friends Reunited and Facebook into perspective.

When Friends Reunited sold in 2005 for 120 million, Mark Zuckerberg had only just (6th August) purchased the now legendary domain facebook.com, from previous owners AboutFace Corporation, who had owned it since 1998.

He also still operated as “The Facebook a Mark Zuckerberg production” until 28th August 2005, when he dropped the “The” to become “Facebook a Mark Zuckerberg production”, and adopted a new site design similar to what you see today. But it wasn’t until April 27th 2006 that it became avalible to not just schools and colleges.

In comparison, Friends Reunited started life on 17th August 2000 and the original design of the site looked like it had been built in Frontpage 97. Luckily this was changed by 6th December 2000 to the more familiar blue design of its time.

Money wise, the site was running for 54 months until it sold on 6th December 2005 for 120 million, so it’s value grew by about 2.23 million a year. Not bad.

But what is interesting is, that when it was sold in 2005 as part of the sale agreement, ITV said it would pay an extra sum of up to 55m in 2009, according to Friends Reunited’s performance.

Very interesting.

Matt