I received an email from United Online's (Nasdaq: UNTD) Classmates.com the other day, informing me that a high school friend had signed up.
This news inspired me at first, because I tend to forget that I even registered for Classmates several years ago. Since this particular classmate wasn't on Facebook, News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS) MySpace, or even LinkedIn, I figured I'd go see what Classmates is up to.
Why did I even bother?
My high school pal was registered on the site, but I couldn't send him a message, note, or email without becoming a "gold" paying member.
There was also someone who had written on my guestbook in March. It's intentionally blurred out, though I can find out who wrote me if, once again, I become a paying member.
I'm not a cheapskate, and the offer for a "golden" year of membership for $9.95 -- 75% off -- is tempting. However, why would I pay to join a cobweb-riddled community site when I can share notes, photos, videos, and more for free -- and to a much larger audience of friends I grew up with -- through Facebook?
I've been kind to United Online in the past, because it didn't create Classmates. The company behind Juno, NetZero, FTD, and MyPoints.com simply inherited the social-networking pioneer. A failed spinoff attempt later, it's still collecting dust.
In United Online's latest quarter, its Classmates Media subsidiary (which consists of Classmates.com and the MyPoints.com loyalty network) saw a 2% increase in revenue over the previous year. That may seem acceptable given the dot-com calamities elsewhere, but this is a baby step at a time when Facebook is adding millions of new users every month.
So my patience has worn thin here. United Online has had a few years now to mold Classmates into a social-networking site. It will never be Facebook or even MySpace, but if there's room for second-tier social-media players -- Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) Orkut, Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX) Bebo, and whatever Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) will open and shutter next -- why not Classmates.com?
It arrived unfashionably early to the party, only to wear the wrong clothes.
There isn't a market for premium social-networking sites that want to reach the masses. If your target audience can be easily reached through free Facebook and its peers, installing tollbooths will only keep mainstream users away.
© 2009 UCLICK, L.L.C.