Media Forum: Can new MySpace flourish?

The site is putting music at the centre of its proposition.

In some media circles, it has almost become an article of faith that MySpace will fail. Many members of this militant tendency are, of course, the old-style political conspiracy theorists who loathe anything and everything Rupert Murdoch does, motivated (superficially at least) by the notion that the Digger is a serial subverter of our democratic system - and is, therefore, a very bad man indeed.

But there's a whole other group of people who don't give a monkey's about politics and couldn't care much either way about News Corp's successes or failures in newspaper publishing, satellite TV or feature films - and yet who are thrilled by bad or even indifferent news on the MySpace front.

For some, the apparent demise of MySpace will be a sign not so much that the revolution is complete but that it is as brutally unequivocal as they've always predicted. And for many in the digital space, a sense of revolution or generational change is, emotionally, hugely important.

It's important for them to believe that a patriarchal soon-to-be octogenarian at the head of a media concern that's more than a century old cannot possibly get to grips with the terribly difficult intellectual challenges posed by digital media.

Unfortunately, though, for many in this camp, the watching and waiting is proving long and wearisome.

MySpace helped define the social media space when it launched in 2003 and it kept growing like Topsy for two years after Murdoch's News Corp bought it for $580 million in 2005. But then Facebook hit it like a train, membership growth stalled, ad revenues flattened and it began to lose money.

And yet it's still with us, dammit. Last week, News Corp even had the nerve to relaunch it for what seems like the umpteenth time. New functionality has been added to make it more mobileand app-friendly and it has been redesigned to put content (especially music content) "centre stage".

Some commentators predictably characterised this as a "last ditch" attempt to save the site. And, of course, they may well be right. Just how perilously placed is MySpace?

Ajaz Ahmed, the founder and chairman of AKQA, reckons that the prognosis isn't looking good.

He explains: "People migrated from MySpace to Facebook in droves because of better design and planning, with access to a more cohesive and organised ecosystem. Facebook has managed to attract millions who would never have been interested in the idea of a social network before. In short, Facebook displaced MySpace because it's built on a more modular, more stable platform." And he adds: "Until something completely new arrives, if anyone is going to have success with a dedicated social network for music, it's Apple with Ping or the evolution of Spotify."

But Norm Johnston, the global digital leader at Mindshare, cautions against being too hasty in writing it off. Users, he points out, have a relatively rich engagement with MySpace - deeper than you might find in other parts of the social media forest. He adds: "They're doing much more than dropping 140-character updates on what they had for breakfast. This deeper engagement around content is what makes MySpace different from Twitter and Facebook. People go to MySpace for self-expression, discovery and promotion around passions and, in particular, music.

"MySpace has given its users a variety of tools not only to publish content but also to manage their relationships with fans across the internet. Furthermore, it has become expert in helping brands develop innovative associations and marketing programmes with artists."

However, Damian Blackden, the president, digital, of Omnicom Media Group EMEA, reckons that MySpace still faces a highly uncertain future. He states: "I don't think it could have continued in its existing format. Making the site easier to use and turning it into more of a vertical music proposition will give it the focus that a lot of other News Corp assets have. So it's a logical move. It's still an interesting asset with a decent audience and the means for advertisers to target them. On the other hand, it's not going to keep its users if it goes more niche."

And Eva Keogan, the head of social media at LBi, tends to agree. She concludes: "I think niche music has always been where MySpace is at. So I think it makes sense to focus on that - in the short term, at least. The revamp looks interesting - and an overhaul was needed. But the problem is that in this fast-paced social media world, things change from month to month. The question, really, is whether it's the next Bebo."

MAYBE - Ajaz Ahmed, founder and chairman, AKQA

"MySpace has gone from being culturally important to nowhere, while Facebook has gone from being a niche site for universities to an indispensable operating system for people's lives."

YES - Norm Johnston, global digital leader, Mindshare

"MySpace has more than 90 million unique visitors spending on average nine minutes on the site. So, while it has gone through an identity crisis, it now finds itself in a stronger position going into 2011."

MAYBE - Damian Blackden, president, digital, OMG EMEA

"The music audience is fickle - look at what happened to Bebo. And there aren't many people making money out of music generally. So MySpace will be around for the medium term. The longer term is more questionable."

MAYBE - Eva Keogan, head of social media, LBi

"I've been surprised that the revamp announcement has not created more impact in the social media space. From a buzz perspective, that must seem disappointing. So the question is whether it's the next Bebo. I'm really not prepared to judge at this stage."

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