The appointment of former Facebook COO Owen Van Natta to replace co-founder Chris DeWolfe atop MySpace has numerous Web pundits buzzing over the same question: What does the News Corp.-owned social networking site have to do to rebuild its buzz and its business?
On the former point, MySpace is clearly losing to Facebook and even, to a certain extent, Twitter. Though it's hardly that small, it is now to Facebook what Friendster was to MySpace a few years ago.
On the latter point, News Corp. is having a tough time justifying its $580 million purchase of the site, especially now that its approximately $300 million search deal with Google (the site's main monetization tool) is set to expire next month and unlikely to be renewed at anywhere near the same rate.
"The company then has a potential black hole in terms of profitability," Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Michael Nathanson told the New York Times.
News. Corp's new chief digital office, Jon Miller, was obviously brought on in large part to help figure that problem out. And his first move is apparently new management brought in from MySpace's biggest competitor.
So what should MySpace do? What strengths does it have to build on?
Caroline McCarthy at CNET News argues it should increasingly become an entertainment company. Two of its most compelling features currently are social gaming (which she says help explain why MySpace's pageview lead is so big even though its unique user lead over Facebook is rapidly shrinking) and its well received new music offering, which joins together social networking with streaming tracks.
"If people can be confident that MySpace is a reliable hub for finding insidery information about the latest in entertainment--fresh new bands, movie previews, the fall TV season, great Web video--that could be enough to get its momentum back," McCarthy writes. "It might've started out with the tagline "a place for friends," but maybe the attitude should change to "a place to be cooler than your friends."
Meanwhile, Jason Calacanis, CEO of Mahalo.com, founder of Weblogs Inc. (since sold to AOL), and my former boss at Digital Coast Reporter / Silicon Alley Reporter, has a suggested list of ten priorities for Van Natta. Some seem a little wacky, like buying a search engine to to keep some of the traffic its losing to Google (those of us with a Google bar in our browser will still search the way we want to) and buying or building a network of content sites (because content is such an easy way to make money online these days? As Jason admits, much of Weblogs' value lied in its technology, not its consumer-facing product). But others seem very savvy:
-Focus on mobile: The future of many online tools is mobile. Social networking is already a largely mobile phenomenom in other countries like Japan. Nobody has really made social networking work on mobile in the U.S., though, and MySpace could take control.
-Integrate better globally, in part by using News Corp. assets and in part through mobile. As the world shrinks and people become more global, a more global social network makes increasing sense.
-Build a huge social and casual gaming business. MySpace's social platform could be used to create an absolutely killer gaming platform of the type many others are trying to create right now. MySpace already has the community. Now it just needs to buy or build more games so it becomes the destination. That fits in perfectly with McCarthy's advice to become an entertainment hub.
-Build a new platform. This is risky and as Jason argues should probably done while simultaneously maintaining and improving the current one. But if MySpace wants to retake the lead, it needs to make a leap beyond Facebook and Twitter and everyone else. The only way to do that is to invest in a new and radically better version of social networking that blows away the competition. Facebook has already shown that MySpace can't just tweaks its technology and rely on its community to keep it no. 1.