Media Lifeline: Friends Reunited

A pioneer of online social networking, the website is determined to win back long-lost users.

July 2000: Husband-and-wife team Steve and Julie Pankhurst, having noted the success of the US website Classmates.com, launch Friends Reunited from their terraced house in Barnet. Its focus is on helping former schoolmates get back in touch with each other - and, by the end of the year, the site has attracted 3,000 members. By the end of 2001, this figure had rocketed to 2.5 million.

May 2002: But it's not all sweetness and light. The site is accused of breaking up marriages by helping bring childhood sweethearts back together again. And its content has to be increasingly stringently monitored as former pupils begin accusing teachers of psychological and physical abuse, alcoholism and even hints of paedophilia. One teacher sues one of his former charges over comments posted on the site - and wins.

December 2005: There had been talk going back to 2003 that the site would be sold. Surprisingly, as subscriber levels pass 15 million, it's ITV, under the stewardship of Charles Allen, that buys it for £120 million cash, plus an additional £55 million dependent on performance.

October 2007: Friends Reunited had been (without fully realising it) one of the pioneers of online social networking - but it now looks and feels well off the pace (registered user numbers have fallen to nine million) compared with free subscriptions sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Following a review, ITV's executive chairman, Michael Grade, now announces that Friends Reunited will drop its £5 annual charge.

May 2008: And as it prepares for a full rebranding, with new features aimed at the over-30s and an emphasis on Facebook-style networking, the site appoints Hurrell Moseley Dawson & Grimmer to handle an £8 million relaunch campaign across the summer.

Fast forward ...

July 2009: But, while subscription levels have stabilised, traffic figures remain disappointing. In what is seen as a final throw of the dice, ITV implements a strategic U-turn and launches a new television dating show sponsored by the site. Called Flames Reignited and aimed at a divorced-with-kids, over-35s audience, it features Cilla Black attempting to get childhood sweethearts back together again.

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