Ten years ago I was on the core team helping Sony envision and develop an innovative online service for Europeans. Sony Interactive Services launched “FriendFactory” in the UK and Germany as a pilot in 1998; they hoped to get enough traction to work the bugs out of the business model and then expand into other countries. It was an amazing innovation for its day — most likely the world’s first social media marketing platform — but way too early.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can see that it was an early precursor to Twitter, but also offered personal blogging, community building tools, and other aspects of social media.
It was way ahead of Web 2.0 — in fact it was one of the first-ever Java-based web apps — so the dev team had to invent all of the services, a massive engineering feat. Meeting the designers’ and product managers’ requirements for user experience was incredibly demanding: no Flash, no Ajax, no Flex or Silverlight… (Our lead interaction design architect went on to a leading role in user interaction design for Yahoo! and Yahoo! Mobile.)
We’re All Connected
At a time when the “AOL walled garden” was the norm for consumers’ online experience, FriendFactory offered personalized services based on user preferences (implicit and explicit). There were tools for self-published home pages, as well as community building so like-minded people could meet and share interests or activities online.
Its core benefit was the people-to-people messaging capability, which we called “eNotes.” (The PC client interface appears here.)
eNotes enabled “friends” to exchange brief messages, either via instant messaging, PC-to-PC, or SMS, PC-to-cellphone. It also provided real-time status information about other friends who were online. The PC-to-SMS messaging was a real hit among early members.
The home page featured a dynamic activity indicator to help people see what was going on in the community — both in general and specific to each member’s interests.
We planned to offer capabilities to notify members when their friends were online or had recently updated their personal home page or community page. (I don’t remember whether development on that functionality was completed before Sony ended the pilots.) We also planned to enable members to find new friends based on shared interests or other things they had in common (profile-based matchmaking).
Pioneers Are Sometimes Too Early
Based on early opt-in notions, it enabled marketers to send targeted messages to people based on the consumers’ expressed interests and profiles.
Some pioneering brands and agencies were quite interested in this concept. But the timing wasn’t right. Because there were so few interactive marketers working for agencies (or within European firms) at that time, there was a real shortage of talent who could imagine how to make use of this opportunity. This made it challenging for Sony to recruit a critical mass of B2C direct or brand marketers. Sony’s prospective partners may have “gotten” the vision but they couldn’t find the talent to act on it.
Even Sony’s own brands were still trapped in the broadcast, mass-market model and had trouble envisioning how to leverage this opportunity to expand their business. (We tended to view them as still caught in their old “analog habits of thought.”)
Europeans had just enacted their first data privacy laws, so the business team had to expend a lot of resources educating legal counsel and trying to figure out how to comply with the regulatory environment without comprising the core value proposition. (Few lawyers could even figure out how to advise us!) Because the concept and its ramifications were so new, there were few comparable models for them to look at.
Most European consumers were going online via dial-up or very slow ISDN lines, so not all were able to benefit from this graphically rich, interactive experience. A few lucky devils lived in places that were getting early cable provisioning. Those who had fast connections loved the service.
One of the fatal flaws in the business model was the assumption that European telecoms would deregulate faster than in fact happened; that bandwidth would increase quickly to surpass dial-up; and that the prices consumers would pay to go online would fall much faster than they did. The slow and expensive online access challenge proved to be its Achilles’ heel. For the European Internet infrastructure of that time, it was too early to market.
As a service concept it was way ahead of its time. No one — partners, media, participants — really knew how to categorize this offering. They knew it wasn’t a “site,” a “portal” or an ISP, which were the usual ways to classify Internet services in the late 1990s when FriendFactory made its debut.
In 1998 it was a breakthrough concept, a true service innovation. And that’s not always a good thing.
Today we’d call it a social media platform, combining aspects of Twitter, blogging and online communities for like-minded consumers. Ten years later, we’ve figured out the benefits of services like these.