The Dark Side of WOM: Beginning Word-of-Mouth, Part 6

Word-of-mouth is a beautiful thing. Here at Maximum Customer Experience, we’ve spent the last few posts talking about how you can blast your sales into a new orbit with word-of-mouth referrals, online and offline.

In case you missed any of the series:

Start where we began, with A Line Out the Door.

Read Craig Newmark’s secret to learn about the early growth of Craigslist.

What makes someone talk about you? (Read this one and make sure you’re worth talking about.)

In these busy days, your growing business needs to master the essentials. 3 Ways To Make Talking About You Easy gives you tips you can put to use starting today.

Last time, we packed computer- vs. sandwich-buying advice into a lunchbox-sized-post. Whether what you sell is simple or complex, you’ll find something there to chew on.


It’s been great discussing word-of-mouth with you, dear reader. After all, WOM really is a beautiful thing—that is, except when it turns ugly.

Exhibit A: MySpace.

MySpace, known as “a place for friends” when they launched, and morphing quickly into a place for friends of music, was once the darling of every young hipster and wannabe hipster on the www. From their founding in 2003, they were almost a case study in viral word-of-mouth referrals.

People flocked to the site to socialize and to discover new ways to be hip. MySpace helped them achieve their own aims, like Craigslist helped buyers and sellers in its fast-growth phase. MySpace helped their users to look like heroes, not only when recommending that a friend join (which they did in droves, in old-fashioned face-to-face conversations and online), but also when recommending new areas of the vast site to be explored.

What did MySpace have that made them grow so fast?

In their first years MySpace had a dreamy online cocktail of novelty, ease of use (or, better said, ease of customization…), speeding tangled webs of communication (it’s hard to recall now, but from 2003–2005 MySpace really did de-clutter some users’ online worlds), and helping their users to increase their authority with friends.

The site was originally popular with early adopters fleeing dying online stars like Friendster, and with teens and college students—for a site that always wanted music to be part of the social mix, these heavy music listeners and buyers were a great target market. With teens’ intense desire to demonstrate their social relevance with peers—and with the inside word on so many bands—word of the site grew like wildfire.

Word-of-mouth mushroomed. More and more folks who didn’t want to be left out continued to join—parents of the early adopters, Gen X and Y who wanted to know what all the fuss was about, the technologically semi-savvy, and new music seekers in slightly older age groups, as well.

In December 2006, they were for a shining moment, the biggest site on the web, with an estimated 60 million unique visitors per month.

(The irony is that this number—combined with their total pageviews per month—was hailed as a watershed at the time; as I write this, in April 2011, their “uniques” are in about the same place, once again, but it’s considered their death knell. Why? Because the web has become a much more trafficked world, and because the mighty folks at MySpace have gone for such a hard spin. Oh, and then there’s these other guys on the scene… but we’ll get to them in a second.)

It’s been said that with their ease of “getting under the hood,” they made everyone into a bit of a designer. (As a designer, I might beg to differ, but that’s for another post.) MySpace truly was everyone’s very personal space.

The good: I get to show you what my bedroom or locker walls might look like.

The bad: Everyone gets to show you what their bedroom or locker might look like, and you wander endlessly from one bedroom/locker to the next.

The bigger they got, the more confusing the Experience. MySpace was losing brand identity almost from Day 1, but this malady was overlooked because they kept posting those incredible growing numbers. Had I written this post in late 2006, after a year in which they saw 200% growth even with already-staggering stats, I would have been laughed out of existence.

Soon, spammers found it just as easy to use and made it a worse mess than millions of design-happy users could. Huge financing burdens made the company succumb to just about every advertiser’s whim, to drum up more eyeballs and generate more clicks. Bad Experience began, very slowly, to kill the enjoyment of the site, while growth in new countries hid the truth.

Was it suicide or something more sinister?

Finally—those other guys.

Whispers were that a clean, simple, not-very-customizable, newer, lesser-known place called Facebook had become the cutting edge.

Early adopters were easily picked off.

MySpace watchers on the outside wouldn’t even have noticed how sick the sleeping giant looked, until the whispers suddenly erupted. Facebook began to reach critical mass, and the whole world seemingly left in droves.


Word-of-mouth is much more than the key driver in all this. WOM plays an almost cruel part in the last two years of MySpace’s history. At the time when techies and the media first began to write that MySpace was another casualty of the fickle Internet—mid-2009—those critical “uniques” were at (depending on whose stats you like) between 80 and 125 million per month. In other words, the site had grown since the days when it was hailed as king—but at only half the size of Facebook, it was considered finished, or on its way.

What did FB have?

MySpace’s teens had aged, so they were the people FB was aiming at.

Facebook was created by and engineered for a slightly older demographic, college students and recent grads. WOM funneled kids and kids-at-heart to FB.

There’s an allure—for younger teens and for older folks, edging out into their 30s—in hanging out with the 20-somethings, that “let’s go hang out with a bunch of teenagers at MySpace” can’t quite match. And MySpace had allowed themselves to be seen that way.

The place was all that MySpace never was—clean, to-the-point, smooth-running… efficient. No slow-loading locker-walls. No crashes. No confused navigation. You could use it at work and probably get away with it.

And then the ball started rolling downhill. The viral WOM that gained MySpace their huge following in the first place turned against them. Friends told friends it was time to move on. Not necessarily because a lot had changed with MySpace—in fact, change isn’t something MySpace has ever been very good at, so whether it was to your liking or not, little had changed—but when the media announced the death of the old king and the crowning of a new one, good WOM for Facebook ended up being bad WOM for MySpace.

Even if no one was specifically dissing MySpace (which they were…), word-of-mouth in favor of someplace new had completely—and probably irreversibly—changed the game.

But perhaps the very darkest Dark Side to WOM is the illness that began before the negatives of MySpace or the positives of Facebook began to be clear to this group of dedicated referrers:

The Backstreet Boys Effect: The Dark Side of Word-of-Mouth

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.
—Yogi Berra

Any of these leave you with a touch of exhilaration and a twinge of regret? (Definitely not in date order):

  • Backstreet Boys
  • slap bracelets
  • fanny packs
  • Cabbage Patch Kids
  • Jordache jeans
  • Tamagotchi
  • the Macarena
  • henna everything
  • jelly shoes
  • mullets
  • Silly Bandz (is this over yet? I don’t want to break it to The Kid, but I hope it is)

Oh, they started as the “in” things, each of them.

“I remember when I was the only person on the planet who had/loved… [insert your own thrill here]… then all of a sudden, everyone had/loved it.” That statement is the essence of The Dark Side.

—It’s cool when they’re your own little secret and you’re the super-hip one, sharing the secret with those you deem worthy. “I know someone I’ve just got to tell about this…”
(MySpace, 2003–early 04)

—It’s cool when enough people know what you’re talking about, so you don’t have to start at the beginning and explain everything every. single. time. Some people even start to view you as an authority, which is also… cool.
(MySpace, 2004)

—For a little while, you feel validated when the world catches on to how wonderful your early find really is. You still know more about it than anyone else, there’s still some room to be the hero to new people…
(MySpace, 2005)

—But it is getting kinda crowded, isn’t it? I mean, when everybody loves the Backstreet Boys, what’s the point in knowing each guy’s middle name and favorite food by heart? And why have they abandoned their early fans and gone so commercial? It feels like I’m being sold out. Not cool.
(MySpace, 2006)

—I’m looking for someplace where I can be a cowboy again. A pioneer, discovering the new “in” thing, telling only those who are worthy.
(MySpace, late 2006–07)

—That old thing? That is so lame. Who wants to do what everyone else is doing? This new thing, though, I’ve just got to tell someone about this…
(MySpace, 2007-08)

And by 2009, they’re the Backstreet Boys. By early 2010, anyone who’s not in a band and will admit to having signed on to MySpace in months must be completely clueless. Throughout 2010, realizing that all they’re left with is completely clueless people, bands are shifting to other scenes, too.

In 2011? Without divine intervention, MySpace looks like it’s about to be MyGhostTown.

We started today with a tricky premise:

WOM is a beautiful thing, except when it turns ugly.

Sure, there were other factors in taking down one of the creators of “Web 2.0” as we know it. Dozens of ‘em. Lots of businesses struggle, even big businesses, but rarely at such epic speed. The Dark Side of Word-of-Mouth is the only factor that caused MySpace to spin out of control this fast.

Nobody goes there anymore, because it’s too crowded.

Combine the Backstreet Boys Effect with the negative press, negative WOM, and positive WOM for FB, and you have the makings of a true disaster, from which the formerly-sleeping giant may well not recover.

So what can you do to avoid The Dark Side?

Use the force—of Maximum Customer Experience, of course!!

>Control growth—A good part of MySpace’s problem was their meteoric rise.

Their skyrocketing numbers eventually led to not being perceived as even remotely exclusive (hip), contributed to their identity crisis (impossible to be all things to all people), and degraded the Experience for hardcore and casual users alike (ugly, navigation insanity, spammers crowding out real communication…).

If you should be so lucky, you will discover as they did that it’s hard to appreciate the negatives of such a rise (or to want to control it—greed, and the fear it won’t continue or return, are powerful motivators) when you’re watching your revenues soar, but controlling/managing growth is exactly what will help you stay around for the long haul.

>Ear to the ground—Monitor what’s being said about you.

Hear (and heed) the rumblings of the early adopters, who are happy to be your champions. As you grow, stay nimble enough (as an organization) to capitalize on what you learn, instead of resting on your laurels.

>Make friends. Stay friends—MySpace didn’t have the one-man-at-the-helm that Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook have, but they did have devoted and caring founders—who too soon lost their grip on the company.

Within a couple of years of their start, a company that wasn’t ever very well known for their personal touch (or even for their personalities) become faceless.

It’s far easier to leave a faceless company (and to bash them, trash them, bad-mouth them, even on their own site…) than to desert/ trash your friends. If MySpace had (as a company or as individuals within the company) kept closer relationships with early adopters who had the biggest megaphones, and maintained some more diffuse connection to the rest of their users, this could have translated into a lot more help when they were down. Maybe, it could have stopped them from getting so far down that they are easy to kick, too.

I’ll go out on an MCE-limb and hazard a risky guess—from the research I’ve done, MySpace’s top people (and people at NewsCorp, their parent company since 2005, as well) may have actually had some disdain for these “kids,” their best and most fanatic users, leading them not to try for strong customer relationships. If so, the kids showed them what-for. Don’t let that happen to you!

Final thoughts on The Dark Side:

Be careful what you wish for. Like MySpace, you just might get it. (But since you’ve read our word-of-mouth series over the last couple of weeks here at MCE, you’re a lot more prepared than they were. May it bring you a line out the door of your own!)

No one wants to be the last guy left in the building when it burns down. So don’t wait until other folks can see the smoke before calling out the fire brigade, or your business will be an empty shell when you finally get The Dark Side of Word-of-Mouth under control.


Grow (virally!) and be well,

Kelly Erickson


P.S. I hope you’ve enjoyed all the posts in this series. If you’re ready to make your website WOM-worthy, check out our Web Audit and Web Experience Solution, and we’ll get busy crafting a winning solution just for you!


For more on MySpace’s Customer Experience, and their epic, word-of-mouth fueled-rise and fall:


TechCrunch: It’s Official(ish) – MySpace Is the Biggest Site on the Internet


The MySpace Shrinks as Facebook, Twitter, and Bebo Grab its Users

Los Angeles Times: How MySpace Fell Off the Pace

Harvard Business Review Blogs: Will the Real MySpace Users Please Speak Up?

Fast Company: MySpace – A Place for Friends No More


Daily Finance: MySpace’s Dwindling Traffic Looks Even Worse From the Inside


New York Times online: Hot Social Networking Site Cools as Facebook Grows

Tech Crunch: Amazingly, MySpace’s Decline Is Accelerating

Reuters: Special Report – How NewsCorp Got Lost in MySpace