Friends Reunited, one of the UK’s Internet stars, announced yesterday that it will be closing in a month’s time.
In the UK, Friends Reunited was the Internet version of Woolworths – it’s a site which we all had some affinity to, but didn’t use, and are sad to see depart. How could this household name fail to succeed?
There are five reasons why the site couldn’t compete with later social networks.
1. The design was awful.
Yes, designs are fashionable and they come and go, but 15 years after launch, Friends Reunited looks like it’s still 2001 – unpolished and amateurish. Intrusive adverts appear everywhere (perhaps as a latched ditched attempt to maximise the little traffic it had). There’s no mobile apps, and the website doesn’t support mobile devices (it’s not responsive or adaptive). Again, it’s stuck in 2001 – 6 years before the iPhone launch.
2. Lack of constant contact.
Social networks thrive on the fear of missing out (FoMo). This works in two ways – the first is using a tiny spare moment in time to check a social network what is going on with friends, their cats or anything before missing out. The second is how social networks use notifications to let us know we’re missing out. These notifications can be emails, app notifications, text messages – Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn use a combination of at least two of them to encourage us to check what’s happening.
3. A lack of scale.
Friends Reunited was too localised. The site is only available in English. This meant it was solely focussed on the UK, Australia and New Zealand. A lesson: if you’re a social network, unless you’re Weibo or Renren in China, you need to think globally.
4. It sold out too early.
Friends Reunited earned a bucket load of cash (£120 million, plus target payments of up to £55 million) from its first sale (to ITV). But that was the deathbed of the site. The owners left during the sale, and the site began its demise. Compare this to Snapchat walking away from the $3 billion offer from Facebook. The new Friends Reunited owner, ITV, is a traditional broadcaster which has a different culture, skill set and approach to running this kind of site. It’s a repeated mistake – for instance AOL and Time Warner, News Corp and MySpace.
5. Too narrow focus.
Friends Reunited was caught between being a social network and a specialist membership website. There’s nothing wrong with either, but you can’t play in both camps. People use Facebook for anything, from local news to baby announcements to private sales. People use Geni for family history (and incidentally use all the above techniques – a nice design, constant contact, good commercial models and focus). Unfortunately Friends Reunited didn’t know whether it wanted to be a social network or specialist utility.
It’s a shame that Friends Reunited is shutting down. Friends Reunited has stirred similar emotions as Woolworths shops closing down… we all like these household names, yet each of us clearly didn’t use them or they wouldn’t have shut down.
Their problems stem from failing to stay up to date with new entrants on the market, whether that’s Facebook or Poundland.