Classmates to the Rescue

If you turn to your alma mater buddies in times of need, why shouldn't United Online (Nasdaq: UNTD  ) lean on its Classmates.com?

"Classmates.com Growth Results in Move to Seattle's Waterfront," reads the headline in this morning's press release.

This is the high school reunion equivalent of renting a European sports car -- and bringing a gorgeous date -- to show up the teasing alums who rejected you in your youth.

After all, it's not just about leasing 58,000 square feet of office space, completing a move out of Renton, Wash., and into tony Seattle early next year. It's about words like growth, move, and waterfront, baby.

Did I show you pictures of my yacht?

Classmates.com has every right to gloat. United Online was going to spin off Classmates Media last year, but those plans were botched. In an embarrassing "they're all going to laugh at you" Carrie moment, United pulled the IPO given tepid interest and turbulent market conditions.

Classmates may have been a pioneer in connecting school chums, but it was a laggard relative to newer social networks with more open standards. Classmates.com itself was also piling up operating losses heading into the IPO filing. Only the company's MyPoints.com loyalty shopping network was bringing home the bacon.

You can teach an old social-networking website new-economy tricks, though. Classmates has spent the past year ramping up its site to appeal to more than just the handful of people -- 3.8 million of its 50 million members -- who are willing to pay for premium access. Classmates.com these days is more open, actually inviting its free members to contribute snapshots and other Web 2.0 bennies to their profile pages. Nielsen Online ranks the site as the country's third-most-popular social-networking site, behind MySpace and Facebook. It's starting to act that way, too.

Killing the IPO was a humbling experience for United Online, in light of its fading Web access business. Rival EarthLink (Nasdaq: ELNK  ) may be growing and hungry for Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) AOL dial-up business, but United probably wouldn't mind selling its Juno and NetZero services if it could. With its pending purchase of FTD Group (NYSE: FTD  ) , Juno and NetZero will account for less than a quarter of the revenue mix at United Online.

So what's wrong with Classmates.com flaunting it? Active accounts have risen by 29% over the past year. The site's makeover worked. It can now invite some of its envious high school teasers to come party at its place after the reunion. Waterfront, baby. All the easier to exact revenge as it tricks them into skinny-dipping in the frigid waters of Seattle, then makes off with their clothes.  

Other yearbook snapshots:

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz wonders if loners embrace social networking. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. He is part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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