The edge of the social crowd

Bebo is one of the most popular global social networking websites with a large number of UK users, but it has come under fire more than once for its advertising policies. By John Reynolds

Bebo has had considerably more ups than downs in its two-and-a-half-year history but many believe its position as one of the world’s most popular social networking sites is under threat from increasingly vociferous calls for more stringent restrictions on advertising on the site.

Campaigners argue that the Government’s clampdown on junk food advertising has failed because brands are diverting their budgets online to sites such as Bebo, which is aimed at 13 to 30-year-olds. Users have to declare they are at least 13 before registering, but critics say much younger children use the site.

Brands such as Pepsi and Vera Wang perfume have used Bebo to promote their products and confectionery brand Skittles has paid a six-figure sum to set up a profile on the site. Bebo, like rival social networks, is highly dependant on advertising and has launched a media offensive to counter claims that the Skittles deal deliberately targets children (MW last week).

Bebo claims the Skittles campaign, created by TBWA/London, aims to “foster creativity” and is not “brand push in the traditional sense”. It also says that it adheres to Ofcom and Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) guidelines and works closely with the Home Office’s internet taskforce for child protection.

Observers, for the most part, say that Bebo has been cautious in its approach to advertising, pointing to its decision not to sell adverting alongside users’ pages. A host of leading brands, including Vodafone, COI and Halifax, pulled ads from rival Facebook’s site last week after their campaigns appeared alongside pages promoting the far-right British National Party.

Anthony Mayfield, head of content and media at Spannerworks, says: “My perception of Bebo’s approach to marketing is that it fits into its networks and does not detract from what you are doing on the site.” He points to a campaign for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), which used the site to raise awareness of child abuse.

Bebo was set up by British-born Michael Birch and wife Xochi in 2005 to allow friends to communicate with each other. It has now developed into an online community, where users can write blogs, post pictures and send messages to one another.

Like MySpace, Bebo is at the forefront of the second wave of dotcom companies, although it is aimed at a younger age group than its News Corporation-owned rival. Its success to date has been predominantly in the UK, with Nielsen figures revealing Bebo had 4 million unique visitors in May, second only to MySpace with 6.5 million. Users tend to spend more time on Bebo than other social network sites and it has had particular success in Ireland, where it claims to be the “number one internet site”.

However, its success in the UK has not been mirrored in the US, where it trails a distant third behind MySpace and Facebook. Observes believe its late entry to the US market, coupled with greater competition across the Atlantic, is one of the main reasons it has struggled.

Henry Ellis, social media consultant at Tamar, says: “The reason you hear more about the likes of MySpace and Facebook is that the people writing about the sites are actually users too, unlike Bebo.”

Founder Birch has so far resisted sizeable offers for the company, saying that he would rather float than sell the company. Offers from the likes of BT and Viacom are believed to have been turned down, while search engine Yahoo! is though to be working on a proposed $1bn (£500m) takeover.

Ellis believes that MySpace lost credibility when it sold to News Corporation for $580m (£228m) two years ago, and that Bebo faces a similar risk should it sell out. He says: “MySpace lost its cool and credibility and Bebo, likewise, could risk losing its charm.” He admits, though, that Bebo’s younger target audience may be unaware, or at the very least unconcerned, about who owns the site.

Social networking sites, including Bebo, have been criticised for attracting cyber-bullies and paedophiles, while police have been monitoring the sites after claims they have been used to organise mass brawls.

But despite the criticism, observers believe Bebo’s story so far has been a largely successful one. Today it offers users the chance to read about the latest books, view film content by aspiring film directors, upload music or watch the popular internet video soap KateModern. Viewers can help shape the soap’s storyline and Bebo hopes its success will allow it to attract higher ad rates.

Bebo’s UK and Ireland head of sales Mark Charkin says the site is about “communications, entertainment and self-expression”. He adds that Bebo is also looking at similar propositions to KateModern, as well as creating mobile partnerships so users can access Bebo on the move.

Spannerworks’ Mayfield adds: “The key to being a successful social network is continually developing new features and adding bit.”

Facts and figures – Bebo

  • Bebo was founded in January 2005 by Michael Birch and his wife Xoshi
  • It was set up with the help of $15m (£7.5m) of venture capital money from Benchmark Capital’s London-based fund
  • In the UK, Bebo has overtaken MySpace to become the most popular social networking site, according to Nielsen, but globally it only has about 25 million users compared to MySpace’s 100 million 
  • Bebo is visited by 12% of Britons online, compared to just 1% of the US online population 
  • Bebo launched a music download service – Bebo Bands – this year, which allows users to download music from the 450,000 bands registered on the site
  • More than 90% of Bebo’s revenues are generated though advertising 
  • Yahoo! is thought to be working on a $1bn (£500m) bid for Bebo, which is understood to have previously turned down approaches from BT and Viacom.

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