Now, to move the conversation off of sexual predators, MySpace is launching ad campaigns that urge users to be aware of the dangers of giving away too much personal information online, and it's begun to clean up profiles, taking down those that are too racy or that belong to kids under age 13. Banner ads from a 2-year-old campaign from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children are now appearing regularly on MySpace. This week the company hired a safety czar, Hemanshu Nigam, a former Microsoft executive focused on consumer security, to help police its network. All smart PR moves, and all admirably responsible. The danger, of course, is sending the message that MySpace is no longer a community, but a corporate entity. The fragile thing about social networking sites is that they need to keep their street cred, and corporate cleaning up for advertisers and law enforcement might just be the thing that takes away the buzz. News Corp. is walking on a tightrope right now, and we're all watching to see if they make it to the other side to reap the ad-revenue rewards.
Mostly, social-networking sites seem to work well raising awareness for movies and music, the type of products that have always depended on buzz and word of mouth to get people to plunk down actual dollars. A promotion for Universal Pictures' horror film "Slither" lets MySpace users "slitherize" their personal pages with creepy effects, but that doesn't seem all that groundbreaking considering movie companies have been way ahead in figuring out how to use social networks. In 2004, when Friendster was all the rage, Dreamworks created profiles for the characters in "Anchorman," including lead Ron Burgundy played by Will Ferrell. (Burgundy's interests were listed as "the ladies" and "grooming.") The promotion raised awareness for "Anchorman," but not necessarily in a good way, since much of the coverage focused on whether the members felt it was a sell out of their private space. That was the year Friendster had hired former NBC exec Scott Sassa as CEO to help it become an ad-supported success. Less than a year later, he was out and Friendster had lost a considerable amount of its buzz.
Another promotion just last year that was touted as a great success by the marketer behind it was the Friendster blog written by the Pamela Lee character on Fox's own "Stacked." At the time, Fox touted it as one way it built buzz for the show, but it ultimately didn't build "Stacked" into a breakout hit, and the show got canceled.
Word of mouth can't be forced. Ultimately, it depends on the product or the experience. Similarly, community can't be built from the outside. MySpace has grown because users have found it works for them. If MySpace users start to feel that they can't do what they want, there's nothing to stop them from moving on.