Friends Reunited failure shows insight still matters for digital brands

Friends Reunited finally folded last month. It was one of the pioneers of social media, offering the possibility for people to re-discover and re-connect with friends online. It launched in 2000 (below), a full four years before Facebook entered the market. And it was bought by broadcaster ITV for $250m in 2005. ITV sold it for a paltry $35m in 2009, and a few laters the pug has been pulled, as reported here. In contrast, Facebook now has a valuation of $245billion, despite launching almost half a decade after Friends Reunited. So, what went wrong for Friends Reunited?

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1. Weak insight = weak proposition

The way brands connect with consumers has obviously changed beyond all recognition. But the fundamentals of brand strategy remain the same, I suggest, with consumer insight being the foundation. And this is where Friends Reunited was fundamentally flawed. The insight for the brand was around the desire of people to look up old school friends. Let's not beat around the bush. What you hoped to find is that the kid who bullied you, or the boy who jilted you, has turned into a fat, unemployed slob, right? The problem with the service proposition flowing from this insight is that it lacks "stickiness". Once you've checked out the people from your class and left a message for them, then what? Why go back? As founder Steve Pankhurst explained in this interview, "I realised that of the 10 million users registered, a lot had done so over a decade ago and their contact details were out of date."

2. Strong insight = sticky proposition

In contrast, Facebook is much stickier, and hence its users visit it much more often. This is because the real insight on which Facebook is built is not about connecting with friends, its about showing off. And the desire for many people to show off and get attention is insatiable. Just look at what people post. Pictures of perfect kids picking up prizes at posh schools. Loving couples expressing love and devotion on Valentine's Day (those really are vomit inducing). Front row photos from the hot concert ("Look where I am! And where you are NOT!").

The same thing applies to the pages you like on Facebook, as my nephew and social media consultant Teymour Bourial explained in this post. "In young peoples' minds liking a page follows one main question: will this help me to show off? The pages one likes are visible to others, and by doing so young people expect to show their tastes and their lifestyles".

And if you don't believe Teymour and myself, check out the study from Western Illinois University, reported here: "People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook and updated their status updates more regularly".

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3. Lack of rejuvenation

Even though the initial insight for Friends Reunited was flawed, the company still had a four year head start on Facebook to fix it. And remember, they got a quarter of a billion dollars from selling to ITV in 2005. There was a failure to use this funding to learn, renovate and re-launch; in today's jargon, they needed to "pivot" and update their proposition to make it more relevant. However, this did not happen. Look at the website from the late 2000's below. Apart from looking pretty clunky, its still flogging the same message of "What are old friends doing now?", which has limited stickiness, as covered above. 

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In conclusion, digital brands may look, act and connect differently to physical product brands. But strip away all the hype, tech-speak and feverish fund raising and your success of failure depends on having a true insight on which to build a relevant, distinctive value proposition.