“Within six months we’ll be the largest social networking site in Australia.” That was the bold claim of Bebo’s Jim Scheinman at the ad:tech conference in February this year.

You certainly couldn’t accuse the man of lacking vision. But whether or not Scheinman’s vision is impaired by blind optimism will be laid bare by August.

In the meantime, the vice president of business development and sales for the ‘new kid’ on the social networking block is steadfastly on a mission to bring his prediction into fruition. And he has a number of notable achievements to fuel his conviction.

Last year, Bebo topped Google’s Zeitgeist list, coming in as the number one search term for 2006, ahead of rival MySpace. According to Scheinman, since its launch in July 2005, it has also become the largest social networking site in the UK, Ireland and New Zealand, with more than 30 million registered members worldwide. And in March this year, web traffic analyst Alexa Internet reported that it had edged out Google and Yahoo! to become Ireland’s top-ranking website. Further adding to its list of accolades, Bebo was recently named ‘Hottest Overseas Technology Prospect’ at the UK Technology Innovation and Growth Forum.

Here in Australia, Scheinman claims that the site has 2.5 million registered users with up to 450 million page views per month. According to Hitwise figures, from September 2006 to March 2007 the site experienced growth of 49 percent.

It’s an impressive trajectory, but will it continue? Scheinman certainly believes so. “I wouldn’t have said this had it not happened in the other markets, but I’m pretty confident that it’s going to happen here,” he asserts. “When you look back about a year ago to where we were in the UK versus where MySpace was, it’s about where we are in Australia now. Today we’re larger than MySpace in the UK. MySpace has a three-year lead on us so we have to play catch-up.”

And if Bebo does actually catch up to MySpace, Scheinman’s not too concerned about the fickleness of the playing space. “It’s really not that fickle,” he argues. “MySpace hasn’t just dropped off in the UK; they’re still competitive, they still have lots of people and we share a lot of users. When you have two dominant players in the market, many Beboers will have a MySpace account and vice versa; it’s just a matter of how much time they spend where.” On that point, Hitwise in the US reported last year that the average session duration on Bebo is 28.58 minutes, compared with 26.26 minutes for MySpace.

As to how the market will ultimately be carved up, Scheinman sees Bebo’s strength in the 13- to 19-year-old demographic. “MySpace’s core demographic is a bit older, so they’ll be stronger at 35-plus and then there’ll be overlap between the 19- to 35-year-old demographic,” he says.

The younger age skew on Bebo may, in part, be a result of its relative simplicity. The general consensus among social networkers in the blogosphere seems to be that Bebo offers users a lower technical barrier to entry than sites such as MySpace, with the trade-off being slightly less creative freedom in terms of programming. As the site’s founder and CEO, Michael Birch, remarks, “To differentiate, we focus primarily on keeping the site easy to use.”

Birch’s first foray into social networking was through a site he created in 2003 to keep in touch with his wife, Xochi, while she was studying abroad. The site, called Mingo.com, was sold after six months, but Birch had seller’s remorse, so he and Xochi decided to create a new site. “We started Bebo as a way to bridge the gap between students like us who shared friends and family ties in both the UK and US,” he says.

Meanwhile, Scheinman was employed by social networking site Friendster to look for companies to merge with or buy out because the site wasn’t growing organically. “I found three companies,” recalls Scheinman. “The first was MySpace – that deal didn’t work out for Friendster. The second one was a small company that no one knew about called Facebook. Unfortunately that didn’t work out either and the third company I found was Bebo.” In March 2005, Scheinman jumped ship from the flagging Friendster and joined forces with Michael and Xochi to officially launch Bebo in July of that year.

In broad terms, Bebo has all the essential ingredients of a social networking site; its foundation being user profile pages containing personalised components such as photos, blogs, video content and a range of other multimedia ‘add-ons’. Users can also borrow content for their own profile pages from other parts of the site, including Bebo Skins (covering everything from colours and hearts to rock bands and footy teams), Bebo Bands (where bands and solo artists are able to create a profile showcasing their music), Bebo Authors (similar to the Bands feature, for authors to showcase their work) and Bebo TV (which is predominantly made up of user-generated video content).

The real point of difference, however, appears to come back to its ease of use. With the combined learnings of Mingo and Friendster behind them, the Bebo trio deliberately set out to create a site that was straightforward to use. “When we launched it we had a core mission – to build a great social networking site,” proclaims Scheinman. “Friendster was designed by an engineer in a weekend; and it showed. It was a great idea, but it wasn’t a great product. MySpace copied Friendster. Again, it was not a great product but it was a great idea and it worked. And to MySpace’s credit they got their site to work when Friendster couldn’t. Facebook copied MySpace – it was all the same paradigm and we thought ‘we’re going to whiteboard this right from the beginning’. Bebo was not built to be a copy of a dating site that morphed into a social network. It’s much more intuitive to use. We have created an environment where you don’t have to spend weeks learning how to code to make the page look like something you’re proud of.”

Advertising on Bebo

Another way Bebo claims to differentiate itself is by offering a less cluttered environment for advertisers. In particular, Bebo has a policy of not running ads on user profile pages. “Almost every page has an ad except the profiles because that’s the Beboers’ personal space,” says Scheinman. “On MySpace they have ads on profiles – we think it’s not really the way to go for brands. It’s one of those things where we’re losing some ad revenue, but we think it’s a much better product experience. What we hear from a lot of agencies is that MySpace is too cluttered with the type of ads that they have and with too many ads on the page.”

Bebo also endeavours to give users more say in the advertising they receive. Beboers have the option of filling out an ad profile when registering or they can click on a ‘choose ads’ link at the bottom of banner ads on the site. “On all of the pages that have an ad unit, they’ll say choose your ad and you can click on that link and it goes to a drop-down menu of about 15 types of ads – entertainment, arts, automobile, health, travel, uni, sport… It’s a model where Beboers can tell us what sort of advertising they want to see because we don’t want to show them irrelevant stuff,” says Scheinman. Apparently there are 500,000 users who have taken up this option, with the incentive being solely to cut out irrelevant ads. “They understand that we don’t charge for Bebo so we have to make our revenues on advertising,” adds Scheinman. “They don’t complain about having advertising on the site. They understand we’re going to be showing them ads, that’s not an issue. The question is whether we can get more relevant ads.”

While display ads are still a popular option, Scheinman argues that the most powerful opportunities for brands is in what he calls ‘engagement marketing’. “Web 1.0 advertising – flashy banner advertising – is gone, that era is gone. We’re talking about engagement marketing, especially for this demographic,” he says.

At the heart of engagement marketing on Bebo is the sponsored profile. Just as users create their own profile pages, brands can also create profiles using any of the multimedia components available on the site. For example, a sponsored profile for a movie may use the video component to run a movie trailer or outtakes from the movie. Brands can also invite users to submit their own videos such as in the form of a sponsored video contest. In addition, the sponsored profile can incorporate games, quizzes, blogs and podcasts as well as featured bands and ‘widgets’. A widget is a Flash-based web application, such as an interactive game. Another component that can be used as part of a sponsored profile is the whiteboard, a rudimentary drawing tool that Beboers can use to draw pictures and send them to friends.

Each of the components on a sponsored profile can be added to a user profile with a couple of mouse clicks, allowing the brand to take advantage of the viral nature of social networking and gain exposure to a wider audience. And if a Bebo user particularly likes a sponsored profile, they can join as a ‘friend’. This means that visitors to their profile will be able to see that they are a friend of the brand’s site. It can also act as a powerful database-building tool, creating a one-to-one marketing relationship between the friend and the brand. “Often 10,000 Beboers will join as friends,” says Scheinman. “That’s incredible data for a marketing manager because you can learn about the demographics, their age, gender, where they live and their email addresses.” According to Scheinman, the sites that get the most friends are predominantly movies. Although, a clever competition can also draw in the crowds. Scheinman cites an example from late last year by Coke in Ireland. The company ran a ‘Shadow Man’ contest, asking Beboers to send in photos of their shadows while they were holding Coke cans, with the prize going to the most creative entry.

Another option for advertisers on Bebo is to sponsor a section of the site. For example, on Bebo TV there are thousands of user-created videos broken up by categories such as sport, music and comedy, but above these are featured sponsor videos. As an extension of a sponsored profile, an advertiser may also choose to have a sponsored skin on the Bebo Skins section. As well as raising awareness of the brand, these options can help to drive traffic to the sponsored profile.

For brands that are really out to make a splash, there is the option of a ‘takeover’ of the Bebo homepage. This strategy was used to promote the recent launch of the Ben Stiller movie Night at the Museum. For one whole day, Bebo’s homepage was completely branded in line with the movie’s sponsored profile.

Globally, Bebo is attracting some big name advertisers; among them Nintendo, Coca-Cola, Nokia, Pepsi, 20th Century Fox, NBC, Pixar, AOL and Hasbro. The multimedia functions of sponsored content sites have proven particularly effective for entertainment brands. “The biggest part of our business is working with movie studios, launching new movies and launching DVDs,” says Scheinman. “We also work a lot with the TV stations launching TV shows, music, clothing, acne medicine and brands that are critical to the lives of 13- to 24-year-olds.” Even automotive brands have dipped a toe in the water, says Scheinman, although he concedes that this is more in the UK and US markets.

In the end, the success of advertiser content on Bebo – and any Web 2.0 site for that matter – comes down to how enticing it is to the users. “Web 2.0 is about getting relevant, funny and engaging content that encourages the Beboer to become a brand advocate and spread that message virally to all their friends,” says Scheinman. “That really is the core of what Bebo engagement marketing is all about.”