Bebo open media - Social networks prepare for new era

With media owners keen to piggyback on social networks' reach into young consumers' homes, the likes of Bebo and MySpace are working out their video strategies. Andrew McCormick reports.

BSkyB, the BBC, Channel 4, ITN and CBS last week signed up to the beginnings of a new phase of content distribution.

The internet in general, and social networks in particular, are where young people hang out and, increasingly, want to watch video content.

By signing up to Bebo's Open Media project, these media owners are realising a change in strategy - that they provide content wherever the audience is, rather than getting people to come to them.

The deals with Bebo will put their content in front of a predominantly 15 to 24-year-old 40 million-strong global community and, with MySpace TV looking to go the same way, broadcasters are beginning to see online distribution as a key plank of their overall growth plans.

The deals, brokered by a team led by Bebo's international president Joanna Shields, are part of a growing number of link-ups between media owners and online video providers.

Shields said: "What we've seen from social networks so far has been Act One. What we're opening up is Act Two, where people use media and entertainment as a means of self-expression."

Making content available free of charge and outside their own media outlets is not a well-trodden path for traditional media companies, but the model on offer from Bebo promises to reward broadcasters for adopting such an open strategy.

Revenue offer

Instead of offering content owners an ad-share deal, Bebo has promised them 100% of ad money generated from their content.

Bebo says that its prize is gaining more users, spending more time on the site.

For Casey Harwood, senior vice-president for digital media at Turner Europe, the deal is not just about making money through Bebo, but part of a wider plan that still has TV at its centre.

"It's about acquiring customers, getting them to share content with others, earning revenue from that process and hopefully bringing them back to the TV show," he says.

Bebo has so far failed to convince everyone to come on board, however. Talks were held with ITV, but no deal was struck in time for Bebo's grandiose launch last Wednesday. However, social networks, it should be noted, are not entirely reliant on existing media companies to provide a compelling entertainment offering.

Indeed, social networks have moved into content creation as well as distributing material that is already out there.

James Fabricant, European director of entertainment and video for MySpace, says that players such as his company have just started their journey on the road to professional content.

"What we're going to see more of is original web content with product placement or integrated brand experiences, as they are now being called," says Fabricant. "But success for this strategy depends on how subtly you can integrate them into the plot."

Peter Cowley, head of interactive at Endemol UK, echoes this view. Less stringent advertising guidelines for internet shows mean that websites and production companies are working together to offer advertisers opportunities that aren't available on TV.

"The range of commercial opportunities through product placement and sponsorship that can happen in these shows, means that Bebo can attract the very best sponsors and offer a wider range of ad opportunities to them," he says.

Plugging in

Brands looking to take advantage of new opportunities on social networks have also been given a boost through the announcement of the Google-led project OpenSocial.

Previously, separate applications would have to be built for every different site, but OpenSocial means brands can develop applications that can plug into sites such as Bebo, Friendster, Hi5, Orkut and MySpace, though not Facebook - thereby reducing resources spent and increasing reach.

Katrin Ribant, head of research at digital media agency Media Contacts, says that interest from clients has already been strong.

"The announcement of Open-Social means the end of the walled garden between social networks," says Ribant. "We've had a lot of interest and questions from clients about building applications since the launch of OpenSocial. They all feel they can add something to the space, but while the interest is definitely there, there are very few examples of what works best.

She adds: "We are looking at applications for clients and I'm sure other agencies are too. Travel seems to be a sector suited to these applications. The success of TripAdvisor on Facebook has made travel companies very interested in these opportunities."

For now, however, Bebo offers an attractive audience that broadcasters can reach and gain a decent amount of ad money. With MySpace TV set to follow a similar path, broadcasters are positioning themselves to take advantage

THE CONTENT PROVIDERS

The list of media owners signing up to Bebo Open Media includes CBS, the BBC, Channel 4, ITN, BSkyB, Next New Networks, Crackle, JibJab, FabChannel, SumoTV, Last.fm and Premium TV

- These media firms will have full control of what content is distributed on their individual Bebo channels. They will also collect all revenue generated from ads around their content and will carry their own advertising through their own media players

- Bebo is banking on more users spending more time on the site as a result of Open Media. It is hoping to increase the already high time users spend on the site, from the current 40 minutes per user per day, according to research company comScore

- YouTube has struck content-sharing deals with media owners and more are likely to follow, with MySpace lining up some partners for its video site MySpace TV.

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