StudiVZ’s answer to Facebook? Change names, go niche

It was no secret that German social networking company VZ Networks was in trouble – just this month, the firm said it was laying off 25 developers, amid anecdotal evidence that suggests its flagship StudiVZ service is a ghost ship on the verge of sinking.
There’s no stopping Facebook these days, and it seems VZ Networks has got the message. This morning the company announced a major rebranding of both itself (it will now be known as Poolworks) and what is now its new focus: the company’s secondary education service, schülerVZ (now IDPool).
“We intend to expand our leading position in the market for social youth networks,” Poolworks CEO Stefanie Waehlert said. “For this, we will launch the new platform in the course of the fourth quarter.”
So what’s happening to the venerable StudiVZ — a Facebook (s FB) clone targeted at college students — and the other service, meinVZ?
“All options are on the table,” a company spokesman told me on the phone. Sounds ominous, if completely understandable.
What StudiVZ is finally realizing is that there’s little need for most people to be on more than one general-interest social network. StudiVZ was supposed to be for students only, which was a huge limitation in itself (as was its German-centric focus), but it also didn’t add much to service its demographic in ways that Facebook could not.
SchülerVZ/IDPool, on the other hand, is for school-age kids, and Poolworks is talking about turning it into “an interest-based content platform for sharing and developing skills”. That’s something Facebook doesn’t do, and it’s telling to hear Markus Schunk, the head of Poolworks owner Holtzbrinck Ventures, saying IDPool “fits very well with our vertical approach”.

Left dangling

It’s hard to say how much of an impact the closure of StudiVZ and meinVZ, which apparently don’t fit with that vision, would have. Poolworks/VZ Networks claims on its site to have 16 million registered users, but the company’s spokesman told me today that the number of (presumably active) unique users across all its sites was only 3.99 million. Let’s be generous and call it four.
Facebook, meanwhile, has just under 24 million users in Germany.
Poolworks won’t break its total figure down to individual services. However, it’s a fair assumption that, if schülerVZ/IDPool is the only platform not to have the phrase “all options are on the table” hanging over it, it accounts for the bulk of the four million.
Personally, I don’t see that many options for the other two. Right now there’s no viable way to compete head-on with Facebook unless you totally clone it (hi there, VK) or have the muscle of Google (s GOOG) behind you (greetings, Orkut and Google+, and even you are no sure thing).
It’s not a healthy situation for the social networking market to be in, but it’s where we are at.