Screwing up MySpace: A News Corp. How-to Guide

Some Insights From Media Guy to Corporate Suits on Their Way to Pebble Beach

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Next month, Rupert Murdoch's top dogs are descending on the legendary greens of California's Pebble Beach Resort. It's the News Corp. annual executive retreat, and while there are plenty of things for Rupert's boys to discuss, perhaps the biggest question at hand is: What the hell do we do with MySpace?
Skatepunk MTV star Bam Margera is able to get away with doing a Right Guard commercial because he's explicitly selling out -- which is seen as subversively cool in a get-The-Man-to-fund-your-anti-The-Man-lifestyle sort of way.
Skatepunk MTV star Bam Margera is able to get away with doing a Right Guard commercial because he's explicitly selling out -- which is seen as subversively cool in a get-The-Man-to-fund-your-anti-The-Man-lifestyle sort of way.

News Corp.'s $600 million acquisition -- which some analysts now say is worth several billion -- has an astonishing 86 million members. It doesn't yet throw off a lot of cash, though, because the social-networking site mostly consists of exuberantly amateurish personal pages put up by teens and 20-somethings -- content that's not exactly easy to monetize.

As my colleague Scott Donaton, Ad Age's associate publisher, joked when we were discussing MySpace and Rupert's upcoming golfklatsch, "That's the way to beat the creative spirit out of anything: with a golf club!" Because really, that's the other 600-million-dollar (or three-billion-dollar) question: Will News Corp., in making MySpace into a real business, destroy it? And will users who love it for its DIY anarchy ultimately abandon it, just as they've abandoned any number of other once-hot youth-culture brands?

Maybe, maybe not. But because I'm a helpful guy, here are some thoughts on how to beat MySpace to death:

Attempt pseudo-subliminal advertising. A recent New York Times piece described plans by Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive Media, to turn "advertisers into members of the MySpace community, with their own profiles, like the teenagers' -- so that the young people ... can become 'friends' with movies, cellphones and even deodorants." Yeah, great idea! My name is Bobby Thompson, and my best friend is deodorant! Geez Louise.

When it comes to ad messages, Gen X/Yers want to be able to take 'em or leave 'em, on their own terms -- not discover that the shilling has been clumsily mixed into the gruel they've been fed.

Skatepunk MTV star Bam Margera is able to get away with doing a Right Guard commercial because he's explicitly selling out -- which is seen as subversively cool in a get-The-Man-to-fund-your-anti-The-Man-lifestyle sort of way. But the second MySpacers get a sense that a critical mass of products have "friend" status and MySpace is becoming a stealth infomercial, watch out for mass defections.

Syngergize! Plenty of analysts are saying that one way to unlock MySpace's value is by using it to push other News Corp. products --from "The Family Guy" to Fox News -- but keep in mind that there's already plenty of fear and loathing among MySpace users in regard to the site's new corporate overlords. The second a critical mass of MySpace users think "their" site is being rebuilt to shill Uncle Rupert's other properties, watch out for yet another mass defection.

Add lots of bells and whistles. Remember Delphi Online, News Corp.'s big mid-'90s bid to compete with AOL? It was a joint venture with MCI, and it was a total train wreck. Three years after Murdoch bought into it, he sold off his portion in a fire sale. In my earlier career as a "director of interactive content" (dorkiest title ever!) for a big-media brand, I had the displeasure of dealing with some Delphi suits. Arrogant bastards all thought they could do absolutely anything and everything right away, including broadband content in what was still overwhelmingly a dial-up world, simply because they were News Corp. Delphi crashed because it overpromised, and its execs didn't actually understand the technological limitations they were up against.

Rupert, just remember this: MySpace grew so fast in part because it's insanely easy to use.

Do a deal with Bill Gates. News Corp. COO Peter Chernin said last week that "we will probably look to auction off our search business to one of the Big Three search players, Google, Yahoo or MSN." Do a deal with Google or Yahoo, and you'll be fine. Do a deal with MSN -- i.e., enter the dark world of Microsoft, with its closed standards and decidedly unhip rep in cyberspace -- and you'll risk alienating potentially millions of users. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to access MSN content only to be told, "This product requires Microsoft(c) Internet Explorer 6 and Microsoft(c) Media Player 10..." Screw you, Microsoft -- I prefer Firefox and Flash or QuickTime. Seriously, the last "friend" MySpace needs to add right now is BillG.

E-mail: dumenco@gmail.com
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