How Tagged sidestepped Facebook and stayed alive

When Facebook came to the scene and crushed every social network in site, Tagged was able to pivot and avoid destruction. Here's how the founders kept it alive and, more importantly, kept it successful.

Tagged founders Johann Schleier-Smith and Greg Tseng.
Image: Tagged/Mitch Tobias

Tagged never set out to be the one social network to end all other social networks, and that actually turned out to be a very good thing.

Don't let the lack of a top chart position fool you. Tagged boasts 300 million users worldwide and 11 million unique monthly users. What's more impressive, however, is the fact that Tagged was an early-2000s social network alongside Myspace and Friendster and they weren't crushed by Facebook as it rose to prominence.

Not only did they survive, but they remained profitable. In fact, according to co-founder and CEO Greg Tseng, the company's revenue has grown every year since 2004. So, how did this veteran social media outfit keep the party going?

The answer: A strategic pivot and a renewed focus on what their users wanted.

Tagged's story is unique, and it's a valuable case study for would-be founders. Here's how Tagged evaded certain death in the social media space and remained profitable in the process.

Back in the day

The first half of the 2000s was a strange time in the US. Songs like Destiny's Child's "Independent Women" was on the radio, Friends was still on TV, and social media was exploding on the internet, which was just beginning to transform industries.

Jonathan Abrams launched friendster in 2002, Myspace was close behind in 2003, and Tagged planted its flag shortly after Facebook did in 2004. Just as Facebook was originally a college-student social network, Tagged was originally geared toward teenagers.

"I've always been interested in connecting with people online, back to the days of BBSing and USENET and, in 2003, [Tagged co-founder and CTO Johann Schleier-Smith] and I could see social networking becoming possible and launched Tagged in 2004 as a social network for U.S. teens, the same year Facebook launched for U.S. college students," Tseng said.

In the early days, it was every site for itself, so to speak. Everyone had their target audience and user cannibalization wasn't a huge threat. As the sites began to converge, the one thing that became increasingly clear was that users wanted one social network to connect with all of their friends more than they wanted to be connected with specific demographics or specific functions.

Around 2007, Schleier-Smith recalls, when Facebook began its rise to prominence was the time that Tagged had to evaluate its model and make a decision.

"We saw Facebook's growth trajectory picking up in 2007 following the launch of Facebook Platform. It became apparent to us that the space was theirs to lose, and unless they made big mistakes, their momentum would carry them to dominance," Schleier-Smith said.

So, the Tagged team set the plan in motion to change direction.

Making the change

Tagged began the transition process by turning to their users. They polled users and found out two very interesting pieces of information.

"We recognized that a lot of our users were both on Tagged and other social platforms (e.g., MySpace, Facebook), so we asked them what they were getting from Tagged that they weren't getting from others. A common response was, 'I get to meet new people,' and in this we saw the opportunity to do something more," Schleier-Smith said.

That opportunity, as Tseng put it, was to pivot, "from social networking (maintaining existing relationships) to social discovery (forming new relationships)." Tagged changed its model to better accommodate what its users were already doing -- meeting new people. Obviously, dating is a part of this, but it's not what the site is focused on.

The idea was that Tagged didn't have to compete with Facebook and could, in fact, work as a complementary site. By shifting direction, Tagged saw increased engagement and increased site traffic. According to Schleier-Smith, the site saw ten times the traffic that it had seen before the pivot and he had to scale the infrastructure to accomodate.

The most recent need the Tagged team has seen is a better mobile experience. Increasingly, Tagged users are accessing the site from mobile devices so the team has turned their attention to the product experience on mobile platforms, including completely rewriting their iOS and Android apps.

Despite all of these changes, Tseng said that ultimate goal of Tagged hasn't changed.

"Our mission is to help everyone feel love and belonging, which is a core human need we all have. That will probably never change but how we achieve it will change, e.g. our current shift from web to mobile," Tseng said.

What startup founders can ultimately learn from Tagged's story is that being able to see the writing on the walls is one thing; but being able to change direction to avoid catastrophic failure, and keep your mission intact, is another thing entirely. Listen to your users and don't be afraid to change course.

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