Small Businesses Race to MySpace Market

CRAYTON HARRISON
The Dallas Morning News Via Arbiter Online
Boise State University

She’s able to keep in close contact with loyal customers, who instantly spread the word to their friends. When she wants to promote an event at her Dallas specialty shoe store, Passport Exhibit Gallery, she can immediately distribute information to hundreds of people.

“It’s been a huge benefit,” Cardona said. “Because we’re a small business, we don’t have a lot of money allocated for marketing.”

Cardona has discovered the lucrative promotional secrets of MySpace.com, a site that enjoyed its first wave of success when bands used it to spread word about their music.

Since Passport Exhibit Gallery set up a MySpace page in December, hundreds of customers have visited the store after discovering it on the Web, she said.

As it has become one of the most popular Internet destinations for young people, MySpace has also attracted legions of small businesses _” restaurants, bars, clothing stores, tattoo parlors _” trying to reach an audience with tastes outside the mainstream. All of them use the site for free.

Now MySpace is part of corporate America. Media conglomerate News Corp. bought its parent company in July for $580 million.

News Corp. executives have made it clear they want to boost the site’s ad revenue, inviting large companies to advertise on the site.

Thus MySpace stands at a crossroads, with major corporate brands trying to figure out how to reach its young, hip audiences while small businesses pioneer the art of reaching customers with help from customers themselves.

Users have created roughly 70 million profiles on MySpace, and the site had 47 million unique users in February, according to its own statistics. It’s the second-most trafficked destination on the Web next to Yahoo, according to comScore Networks.

Each MySpace profile page contains space in which users can post photos, write messages to friends and list links to their friends’ pages.

Setting up a MySpace page requires only the most basic computer skills, an asset that has helped the site attract so many users. It’s also appealing for business owners.

Gretchen Frizzell, proprietor of Dallas vintage clothing store Dolly Python, set up her own page despite being “not real computer-savvy,” she said.

“My page isn’t all that fancy. I have a background on the Dolly Python page, and I post pictures every once in a while. Whatever time allows me, I’ll work on it,” Frizzell said. “It kind of gives the store a little bit of personality.”

A MySpace user can stay in contact with friends by agreeing to receive bulletins from them. The user can also make “friends” with businesses that send out bulletins as well.

When a bar has a Friday night party, for instance, it sends out an image of a promotional flier to all its friends, who can then spread it to their friends.

“It’s like a virus,” said Cardona. “If one person signs up, you have access to all the people that they’re connected to.”

Web companies such as Amazon.com Inc., Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. have of late been trying to attract businesses such as Cardona’s store to use their free listings and _” eventually _” to advertise.

Those Internet titans have been trying to develop more effective ways to let users search for companies and products available in their neighborhoods.

MySpace’s no-frills, laissez-faire approach appears to have already produced a version of this local search idea, allowing users to find businesses they’ll like through a Web version of word-of-mouth.

In some ways, it’s better than having a regular Web site, said Chris Howell, a Dallas filmmaker who has used a MySpace page to promote Sweet Science, the boxing documentary he’s making.

“With this, you have a little bit more control as to affecting your demographic,” he said. “You can go out and see people’s interests. You can go to groups of documentary filmmakers or film critics and make yourself known there.”

It’s also cheaper to have a MySpace site than to pay for the design and Web space of a professionally rendered page. And it’s a free alternative to a marketing and advertising budget.

Big companies are dipping their toes in MySpace’s waters. The square patty on a Wendy’s hamburger has its own MySpace page, which includes “movies” in which the meat sings.

The Honda Element’s page conducted a contest for the best background designs for MySpace.

Ad sales are jumping at MySpace. News Corp. is trying to move up the price for ads on its home page to $750,000 from $100,000, an executive told Fortune magazine this month.

MySpace has also been cleaning up its pages to make itself more attractive to squeamish advertisers turned off by its unfiltered content.

Last week, the company announced the hiring of Microsoft Corp. executive Hemanshu Nigam as its chief security officer, putting him in charge of overseeing users’ safety after media reports of concerns about pedophiles using the site.

MySpace also recently eliminated more than 200,000 profiles that didn’t fit its standards.

Those moves may make big advertisers more interested, but they could turn off users, said Jonathon Feit, editor and publisher of Citizen Culture, a Web magazine for young professionals.

MySpace thrives “on cultural appeal,” he said. “You can’t clean them up and still have them be rough around the edges, which is where all their appeal comes from.”

There may be a workaround, a way to use MySpace’s power without becoming associated with unsavory content.

Jim Sibert didn’t want the legal liability associated with the old MySpace page dedicated to his bar, the now-defunct Xpo Lounge.

But regulars liked the idea of having a way to connect online, and he allowed them to use the bar’s name without officially endorsing anything.

“It’s amazing to me that other businesses don’t do that to develop a community customer base rather than customers who just pay their money and leave,” Sibert said. “My concept was to give everyone ownership in the business.”