Piggyback

by Allison Fass
June 2006 Forbes Magazine

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MySpace has to fend off more than online Lotharios. A bunch of young programmers are trying to–gasp!–commercialize the networking site.

Sean Percival, who sells customized European license plates, earlier this year hit upon a hot place to expand his marketing: MySpace, the popular networking Web site. He bought software that allowed him to automate MySpace’s process of inviting other members to be “friends.” Percival, 26, says the program, which he calls adder software, helped him make 4,200 car owners into “friends” on a MySpace profile, where he writes about his company in his blog. Business shot up from $2,500 per month to $13,000, as more MySpacers stumbled onto his profile and found their way to his retail Web site. Impressed, Percival went into business with the programmers who created the adder and now sells it himself.

MySpace and its 80 million members are a juicy target for marketers like Percival. So a bunch of small-time programmers with Web sites like Eek Records and Helpumarket have sprung up to sell these adders, costing $25 to $85, to instantly invite a web of contacts. Customers are mostly fledgling bands but also include comedians and the animal-activist group Peta. The technology speeds the process of making friends on MySpace, so that sending invites to, say, 350 people–which, done manually, could take as long as two hours–instead might take as little as five minutes.

Which is just one reason MySpace is furious about this. Rather than connect people through real-life friendships or shared interests, “It becomes more about making a buck off them,” says E-marketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson. The software also interferes with MySpace’s plans to prove it is worth the $580 million News Corp. paid for it last year. MySpace must figure out how to make money itself without commercializing the site so much it sparks a mass exodus. For instance, MySpace charges upwards of $50,000 per month for companies to build and promote profiles. Wendy’s has one for a cartoon character and Toyota for its new car, Yaris. “If there’s a system to be gamed, [News Corp.] wants to control it,” says Jupiter Research analyst David Card.

MySpace has decreed that the automated programs upset the company’s “ecosystem” and “principles.” It set up a technical hurdle called a captcha, which requires a code to be manually entered for batch entries to MySpace profiles. (Several adder sites claim they can bypass this.) It has also been sending cease-and-desist letters to vendors of adder software. “Such programs slow down the MySpace servers and interfere with the ability of the Web site to function,” says a Mar. 31 letter addressed to FriendFetch.com. MySpace filed a federal lawsuit in California alleging trademark infringement against Anthony Lineberry, who sells adders on his site Myfriendbot.com with the slogan “Need fans? Or just want to be popular on MySpace?” Lineberry, 21, says he is not aware of the suit: “That kind of freaks me out, honestly. I’m just a kid.”

Still, MySpace may have a tough time stamping this out. Percival, the license plate salesman, says he was contacted by none other than a News Corp. employee in March looking for adder software to market Fox on MySpace. He says Fox didn’t pursue it further.

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