Myspace has kicked off what its new owners hope will be its comeback tour.
The site's senior executives joined with creative partner Justin Timberlake in outlining plans Monday to return Myspace to its musical roots. Their presentation for top advertisers gathered at Radio City Music Hall in New York was followed by a VIP concert whose lineup included contemporary artists Far East Movement, Natasha Bedingfield and B.o.B.
The splashy promotional affair came three months after Irvine advertising firm Specific Media bought Myspace for $35 million and touted Timberlake's ability to lend cachet to the once-dominant social network that long ago lost its magnetism. But charisma alone won't bring sexy back to Myspace, which over the last three years has been upstaged by its innovating chief rival, Facebook Inc.
Myspace's rejuvenation will hinge on streamlining and simplifying the site and promoting its key asset: an extensive trove of music and videos from major-label and independent artists and unsigned acts.
"The great thing is pretty much everybody knows about Myspace, but the favorable opinion of Myspace has fallen off," Specific Media and Myspace Chief Executive Tim Vanderhook said in an interview. "For that to happen, it's about the product and the experience."
Social media experts expressed skepticism that Myspace could orchestrate a successful second act — a feat that has eluded other faded Internet titans such as America Online and Yahoo Inc.
"I've been working in online since 1994, and there's no such thing as a comeback," said Jay Baer, president of Convince & Convert, a social media consultancy. "There are reconstitutions, there are name changes, there are strategic shifts. But in terms of somebody essentially committing user-satisfaction suicide and somehow sewing their wound shut, it's never happened."
There's no question Myspace has been bleeding. It attracted 33 million U.S. visitors in August, a precipitous 44% drop from a year earlier and well off its peak of 76 million users in 2008, according to measurement firm ComScore Inc. Revenues are in a similar free fall. Once at the top of the social network food chain with $604 million in global advertising revenue, researcher EMarketer estimates that Myspace will bring in just $183.5 million this year.
"I know there's tremendous amounts of skepticism — if I were on the outside, I'd be skeptical too," Vanderhook said, conceding that such a turnaround "has never been done before."
Yet Vanderhook, who founded Specific Media in 1999 with his brothers Chris and Russell, insists the situation is not as bleak as it appears. He said Myspace's audience of about 70 million worldwide users is larger than it was in 2005, when the social network was on a growth trajectory and News Corp. paid $580 million for it. He said traffic has stabilized, after taking hits from a failed repositioning of the site last year as an entertainment destination and the subsequent damage inflicted by rumors of its impending sale.
Vanderhook said the Specific Media team has taken stock of Myspace's assets and examined ways to repair a user experience that he termed "terrible."
"To find a song is clunky. It's very, very tough to move around. It's an overall bad experience," he said. "One of the things we're focused on is simplicity."
Myspace is working to improve the site's navigation, eliminate clutter and simplify social networking features, such as the ability to comment on a music video. Vanderhook sees Myspace's competitive edge as its ability to marry the elements of community with its rights to stream 42 million songs free of charge.
"Underneath all of that clutter, we have a strong equity in pop culture and an equity in music," said Al Dejewski, Specific Media's senior vice president of global marketing. "We feel fairly confident we can rebuild this property."
Myspace co-founders Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson had the same insights about the social network's strengths in 2008, when they launched MySpace Music — a joint venture with the major record companies that allowed users to instantaneously stream songs, assemble playlists and post them to their public Myspace profile page, where friends could listen too. The initiative failed to meet the labels' expectations.
Turning back the clock on Myspace, to the time when it was the place people went to discover music and emerging acts went to get noticed, is the first step toward recovery. Dejewski said Myspace plans to create original programs rooted in music — say, a dance show that not only demonstrates new moves but also encourages users to submit their videos showcasing their own choreography.
It hopes to entice advertisers with exclusive branded partnerships. PepsiCo, for example, could have the right to promote its carbonated beverage on the site without encountering rival Coca-Cola Co. If Specific Media can prop up Myspace's performance, it presents bigger advertising opportunities. Dejewski, who has held marketing positions at Turner Entertainment and PepsiCo, said Myspace was getting a warm reception from big brands.
"America loves a comeback story," he said.
But digital media veterans said Myspace may once again be arriving too late to the party. Facebook, which reaches 800 million users, announced last month that it had incorporated music services including Spotify, MOG and Clear Channel Communications Inc.'s iHeartRadio into the latest version of the online social network's software.
"Had [Myspace] announced this two months ago, before Facebook did all the integration of music, it would have meant something," said Ted Cohen, managing partner of digital entertainment consulting firm Tag Strategic. "Now they're playing catch-up."