Madison+Vine: Friendster uses imaginary pals to lure real ones

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Social networking site, which has gone from hot to not in the past year, is turning to Hollywood for some much-needed luster.

Under its new CEO, Scott Sassa, the former president of NBC Entertainment, has cut two deals with movie studios to put profiles of fictional characters on Friendster from Sony Pictures' "Little Black Book," and Dreamworks' "Anchorman." The deals are Mr. Sassa's first stab at using his show business background to make Friendster's advertising model profitable. But analysts say it will take more than pretend friends to stem sliding membership levels.

The film profiles, though quite tongue-in-cheek, don't identify the friends as imaginary. Burgundy, who is played by actor Will Ferrell, lists his interests as "broadcast news, the ladies and personal grooming." Anchorwoman Veronica Corningstone, played by Christina Applegate, writes: "I need someone who will take me to Pleasure Town and know what to do when we arrive."

`anchorman' links

Friendster members have played right along. About 500 of them have linked as friends to Ron Burgundy, the lead character in "Anchorman," said Friendster spokeswoman Lisa Kopp.

Considering that Friendster, which is free to members, reports membership of 7.2 million, 500 links are not a lot, said Nate Elliott, associate analyst at Jupiter Media. "They are making a good effort to harness viral buzz, but it's taken a while to catch on and `Anchorman' is one of the most popular movies in America," he said.

The idea is to reach the select few influencers who will spread the word, said Ms. Kopp. "Our users tend to be people who know about things ahead of the rest of the population." They will create a wide-ranging buzz, but it will take time, she said. "It's only been up a week."

Promotion for the profiles was limited to banner ads on Friendster. Profiles also ran on networking site and the official "Anchorman" movie site. Sony began promoting the Friendster profiles for "Little Black Book" on the film's Web site and its network of sites last week.

An executive at Dreamworks said the listings are a good way to catch the eyes of the 18- to 34-year-old men who are the core audience for "Anchorman," and prod them to gab to their friends. (Sony Pictures could not be reached by press time.)

The challenges are steep for Mr. Sassa. The year-old Friendster is currently sustained by $13 million in financing from investment firms and former Internet executives, and membership seems to have dropped below 7.2 million. "We've seen the site running at just over a million visitors per month for the past four months [in the U.S.]," said Graham Mudd, senior analyst at comScore Media Metrix.

fading wow factor

The networking sites-including Tribe, Rise and Orkut-have all struggled to come up with a profitable model. And unless users are seeking dating opportunities, charging subscription fees won't work, Mr. Elliott said. A Jupiter study on what people are looking for on social networking sites showed that romance rated last behind nine other actions. The wow factor of networking sites may be fading.

Mr. Sassa, who turned down interview requests, may possess enough star-drawing power to develop innovative advertising and rekindle user interest.

But the movie character profiles tread a fine line between cool and, well-phony. The site has consistently cracked down on members posting invented profiles, Mr. Elliott said, "Then two minutes later they are letting advertisers put up fake profiles."

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