Profile - MySpace becomes a lifestyle portal

As the UK arm of social networking website MySpace celebrates its first birthday this month, Harriet Dennys talks to operations vice-president Jay Stevens about making friends and influencing people.

MySpace UK has a lot of friends for a one-year-old: 8.7 million at the last official count, although the number of unique users rises exponentially by the day. In the 12 months since the UK version of the social networking phenomenon went live, the "place for friends" has launched a thousand bands and entertainment brands - and every media agency and advertiser in the country wants to be a part of it.

Jay Stevens, vice-president of operations EMEA for MySpace, and the man appointed with overseeing the launch of MySpace in the UK, says: "The reception from UK agencies and advertisers has been absolutely phenomenal.

"The biggest challenge has been managing the expectations and enthusiasm of our clients. When you have lots of people with a lot of interest in hearing what you have to say, you just can't get to everybody as quickly as you would like."

The MySpace story began in July 2003, when Tom Anderson, now president, and Chris de Wolfe, now chief executive, founded the site under part-ownership by Intermix Media. In July 2005, News Corporation acquired Intermix Media for $580m (£295m) and MySpace.com became part of News Corporation's newly formed Fox Interactive Media unit. By February, MySpace had 94.8 million users worldwide.

No idea

But when Stevens, who began his career as a press aide for the former US president Jimmy Carter, was approached to join the company at the ad:tech trade fair in September 2005, he admits he had "no idea" what MySpace was all about.

Early interactions with the site left him bemused; it was only when he found that his "Luddite" sister in Gatlinburg, a small town best-known as the tourist gateway to the Smoky Mountains, had customised her profile and was routinely blogging on the site, that he became convinced of its potential. "I thought: 'If my sister back in West Tennessee is organising her social life through MySpace, then the application has crossed a great chasm,'" he recalls.

So Stevens, 34, quit his job at e-mail marketing company Silverpop to bring his experience gained from the Silicon Valley dotcom boom to getting MySpace UK "set up and off the ground". The initial EMEA team alongside Stevens included fellow Americans Jamie Kantrowitz (marketing) and Mitch McAlister (content and production).

Since the UK site went live in April last year, the EMEA operation has blossomed at a staggering rate - the London office now employs 50 people and MySpace sites have been launched for Spain, France, Germany and Italy, with a further two for Sweden and the Netherlands due to go live this month.

The secret of the network's startling success, says Stevens, is the communication between consumers' profile pages combined with the wealth of popular culture content that users can explore and modify for themselves. "The 18-24 demographic (the core MySpace demographic) has grown up with digital technologies and this has significant implications for how this group absorbs and digests entertainment media," he explains. "They have moved from being an audience to participants, and this active participation is unique to the web."

For advertisers, the best way to harness the site's potential is to make users interact with a brand and adopt it as their own - the concept of "permission branding", Stevens adds. "We have developed the idea of custom communities or branded profiles. These are extensions of the brand onto the MySpace network that users can link to as their 'friend' - for example, Crest has more than 30,000 friends (globally)."

Making friends

Making friends is the first step. However, the cleverest brands give exclusive content back to their community, such as a new video or a profile background. By placing such content on their own profile page, users act as brand advocates by creating referred brand impressions - so valuable since many users trust the reviews of their peers over those of official critics.

One good example is the campaign for Channel 4 show Skins, marketed via an exclusive preview of the first episode before it aired on terrestrial TV. Thanks to the campaign, Skins has made more than 40,000 friends on MySpace and 1.8 million viewers tuned in for the first instalment on TV - a huge increase on C4's predicted 500,000.

Building more partnerships in the vein of the Skins collaboration and the recent MyMovie MashUp project with Vertigo Films and Film4 is a core part of the business strategy, as is the move into mobile through MySpace Mobile, going live in the UK in the next two months.

In addition, Stevens hints at "a number of other channels already in a line-up that we can't talk about yet", one of which is rumoured to be a MySpace news service along the lines of US site Digg.

"As MySpace has grown, a social community network site is limiting," he says. "MySpace today is as much a lifestyle portal and communications platform."

CV

2005: Vice-president of operations EMEA, MySpace

2003: International programmes director, Silverpop Systems

2001: Vice-president of marketing, Avalon Digital Marketing Systems

1999: Director of marketing and co-founder of Radical Communication

1998: Senior account manager, Alexander Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide

1996: Communications director, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University

1992: Press aide, office of former US president Jimmy Carter.

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