Could Facebook Become the New MySpace?

A common perception among media buyers is there are two types of social networks. The original social network properties are popular among teens and college kids keen on making and maintaining friendships. Many newer properties, meanwhile, are categorized as vertical or niche networks and speak to more mature audiences and their social and political interests.

According to Hitwise, the top 20 social networking sites accounted for 6.5 percent of all Internet traffic in February, with U.S. market share of traffic increasing 11.5 percent over January. Despite the array of social networks to chose from, advertisers and consumers consistently chose just one.

For years, News Corp.’s MySpace has been the undisputed leader in the social network category, topping all others in terms of both users and traffic. MySpace users run the gamut in age, lifestyle, and household income. (ComScore Media Metrix reported late last year that over half of MySpace users are now over 35.) The site appeals to advertisers seeking a community atmosphere minus the teen crowd.

Comparably, privately held rival Facebook has always skewed young. Just over two years old, Facebook was once exclusively available to students with a college or university e-mail address. Eventually, high school students were invited to participate. The result is a very young user base; comScore reports a third of Facebook’s members are 18 to 24.

Almost simultaneously with the release of comScore’s report, Facebook did something that could turn its reputation on its head: it opened membership to the general public.

The first thing that happened? Traffic soared. In January, the site ranked 31 on the comScore Media Metrix list of 50 top properties by unique visitors, with almost 19 million. Last summer, prior to opening its doors to the public, traffic hovered somewhere around 6 million.

The second thing that happened is Facebook drew a new type of user: me.

As a result of open membership, post-college Internet users (the very audience Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg reportedly hoped to attract with more lenient membership rules) are signing up in droves. So are 30-something professionals. What’s the difference between us and our matriculated counterparts? Our profile shots depict a couple of kids instead of a couple of beers.

I’ve witnessed this expansion firsthand. When I joined a month ago, I couldn’t find a soul I knew in my age range. Within a few weeks, old classmates, friends, and coworkers swarmed in, as if collectively awakening from social networking hibernation.

It’s hard to pinpoint the appeal. In contrast to MySpace, Facebook is clean and clutter-free insofar as content and advertising are concerned. Because it only recently became available to the public, it’s also still a novelty. That said, users who now log in several times a day to check the status of friends and view newly posted photos may see their interest and dedication taper off in months to come.

As I feed my own Facebook addiction, what’s most interesting is how this youth community site is growing up. Certainly, its evolution promises to change the way advertisers view it and incorporate it into media plans.

Ad spending on social network sites is on the rise, according to eMarketer’s Social Network Marketing: Ad Spending Update. It’s expected to grow from $350 million in 2006 to $865 million in 2007 to reach an astounding $2.15 billion by 2010. Although MySpace currently holds 60 percent of the social networking ad dollars and is expected to generate $525 million this year, Facebook and other sites are expected to attract a cumulative $200 million in 2007.

Will Facebook’s new faces shift the social network into another category and put it head-to-head with MySpace? If the site can demonstrate an ongoing ability to attract young adults and young professionals, it won’t be so easy for us to continue to consider MySpace the default social network for our clients’ campaigns.

Meet Tessa at Search Engine Strategies April 10-13 at the Hilton New York in New York City.

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