From Net gain to cold turkey

Social networking website Bebo has enjoyed a remarkably successful 12 months, but the opposite is the case for troubled turkey brand Bernard Matthews. John Reynolds and Louise Jack report

The past 12 months have seen social networking sites step out of the digital backwater and many experts predict Bebo, rather than its more famous rivals Facebook and MySpace, is best positioned to take advantage of the medium’s new-found popularity.

Bebo, which was set up just two-and-a-half years ago, witnessed another year of phenomenal growth in 2007 with a raft of innovations such as hit online soap opera KateModern. It became the most visited social networking site in the UK in July, according to ComScore, attracting almost 11 million unique visitors.

Henry Ellis, social media consultant at search conversion agency Tamar, says: “Bebo has found its niche this year with the 13to 30-year-old age group. Next year it could make a play to be the biggest social networking site. I can’t imagine it will be happy with just its young market and it would be crazy not to target an older market.”

Like Facebook and MySpace, Bebo is in the vanguard of the second wave of dot-com companies. Although it is aimed at a younger age group than its rivals and its success in the UK and Ireland has yet to cross the Atlantic, observers believe Bebo will make up ground in the US this year.

Anthony Mayfield, head of content and media at Spannerworks, thinks rivals could learn from Bebo’s approach to advertising.

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. He says: “Bebo cares about its users and is at the forefront when it comes to safety. Facebook has got the mass but it’s not got the right people as they are not interested in its users.”

More than 90% of Bebo’s revenues are generated through advertising, and the site has struck further deals with leading brands to enhance its revenue streams. These include a deal with Yahoo! which will sell the majority of the social networking site’s display advertising in the UK and Ireland. It has also teamed up with Orange to give the mobile network’s customers unlimited access to the site for 3 a month. In addition, Bebo recently launched its Open Media Platform, which allows it to work with partners on monetising content.

With Bebo planning a major European roll-out, 2008 looks like being another record year for the website.

Troubled turkey brand
At the opposite end of the spectrum, if already troubled turkey brand Bernard Matthews thought 2006 was his annus horribilis, little did he know that 2007 would bring further, equally serious, problems.

As the company struggled to distance itself from Jamie Oliver’s televised attack on its Turkey Twizzlers, an outbreak of deadly H5N1 avian flu hit one of its farms in February.

Forced to cull 160,000 birds, Bernard Matthews has been battling to rebuild its image, not only from these combined crises but also alleged cruelty by farm workers and a report on hygiene standards that contained some grim findings.

For the first time in its 57-year history, Bernard Matthews has plunged into the red. In November, it reported a loss of 25.9m for 2006, compared with a profit of 22.2m a year earlier.

Just as the company was gearing up for the 2007 Christmas season, its chief executive Bart Dalla Mura quit and then in mid-November disaster stuck with a second outbreak of bird flu. Though none of Bernard Matthews’ facilities were affected by this latest outbreak of H5N1, it hit the turkey industry at the worst possible moment.

The company launched an advertising campaign, created by BLAC, following the first cases of avian flu and ran a 600,000 pre-Christmas ad push, but the consensus in the industry is that it has handled its woes badly and has done little to restore consumer confidence.

Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton points out that it is very easy to get crisis management wrong. “You’ve only got a limited window of opportunity to be listened to and forgiven,” she adds. “They took far too long and created a communications vacuum.”

However, the company says it is “very confident about its future” and has put in place a “long-term plan that envisages a return to profitability”.

Despite another calamitous year, some feel there is still hope that Bernard Matthews can recover in the longer term.

Simon Middleton, founder and director of Norwich-based brand communications agency Turton Middleton, says: “With clever dedicated brand management they can turn it round.

“They have got to admit they got it wrong, then put it right. Be honest, apologetic, human and modernise the whole feel of the brand.”

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