By Kate Bulkley
Monday August 13, 2007
When Bebo launched its online teen drama it had blue-chip advertisers queueing for a slice of the action. Kate Bulkley meets Joanna Shields, the woman who has seen the future of networking sites - and it's profitable
When you have been through the rollercoaster ride that is the short history of the internet and survived, then you tend to recognise a breakthrough moment. Joanna Shields had such an epiphany last year when she saw the online drama lonelygirl15 on YouTube.Shields, then managing director of strategic partnerships at Google Europe, was impressed by the huge following that the series had built up in such a short time: it clocked 50m hits across the summer. So when Michael Birch, the founder of the social networking site Bebo, enticed her away from Google to drive his commercial strategy, she knew where she wanted to start.
"A lot of people were thumbing their nose at the lonelygirl15-type of entertainment," Shields says. "But I had seen what was happening on YouTube. Lonelygirl was a phenomenon. I thought that it had so much potential."
Six months later, Bebo has its own teen drama, Kate Modern, created by Miles Beckett, the man behind lonelygirl15, which follows the ups and downs of a struggling art student (the eponymous heroine's name is a play on Tate Modern). Beckett says that both lonelygirl and Kate Modern are stories about young adults struggling against "an overarching evil", complete with Lost-style mythology.
The "evil bits" add intrigue and suspense to the one- to three-minute "webisodes" and also serve as metaphors for growing up and rebelling against parents. It's a mix that seems to work: on its debut weekend this month Kate Modern got 100,000 views with no pre-marketing.
What attracted Shields to the genre was its potential to be more than a virally shared video. "In Kate Modern, Kate can interact with you, and the community can chat about what the latest episode means and engage in a whole new way," she says. And because only a few episodes are shot at a time, there are possibilities for accommodating audience feedback into the scripts.
Shields also saw the potential for integrating advertisers and brands from the outset. When she was developing Kate Modern, Shields took both Beckett, 29, and co-creator Greg Goodfried, 28, to advertiser pitches, explaining that they would write specific products and brands into the plot. It worked: Procter & Gamble (Gillette, Tampax and Pantene), MSN, Orange Mobile, Paramount and Disney/Buena Vista paid £250,000 each for six months of name-checking in Kate Modern.
Beckett admits that writing a plot line involving Tampax was the "most challenging" but says the result is "pretty creative" and that viewers will be amazed at how seamless it is. "The production team in London is working on a weekly and sometimes daily basis with the brands and the brands have been really open," he says. "They don't have veto power, but I haven't run into many problems, I guess because they mostly like the stuff I'm doing."
For Shields, Kate Modern and the social networking phenomenon in general is the essence of Web 2.0: "My feeling is that the web in its first incarnation was getting the technology right, getting the right algorithm and making sure broadband was ubiquitous. But we have sort of come through that and behaviour on the web has shifted from information and search to where people are living their lives out online.
"Especially for the younger demographic, it has become such an integral part that we have started to think of it as a social media. It's really a lifestyle media with so much potential."
But what if it is just a fad? Two years ago the talk was all about MySpace, then it was YouTube, and now Facebook seems to have caught the zeitgeist. Keeping your site at the "cool" end of the interactive spectrum is clearly a challenge.
According to Hitwise, the internet analyst company, social networking and chat sites overtook adult sites in the US in April, and MySpace.com is now the most-visited US website, ahead of Google, eBay and Amazon. In the UK, three of the top 10 websites in July were social networking sites and Bebo topped the net communities and chat category, ahead of MySpace and Facebook.
"Each individual social networking site could be a fad, but the concept of social networking is not," says Heather Hopkins, an analyst with Hitwise. "A different question might be, should social networks attempt to sustain themselves? With business cycles faster than ever - and faster online than offline - perhaps making a quid and moving to the next project isn't such a bad thing. Rupert Murdoch made back his investment in MySpace with the Google advertising deal. Perhaps it doesn't matter if MySpace remains as popular in future."
Whatever the future may hold for social networking sites, after 10 years in the web business Shields is happy to be back in a set-up where there is a short line to the top. "I like being at a company where I can have an idea on Sunday morning and put it into action on Monday morning," she says.
She also wanted to stay in the UK, where she and her young son have lived since she began working for Real Networks, the internet-delivery software company, in 2000: "The opportunity to run a dynamic Silicon Valley start-up in the market where it has the strongest commercial foothold and to build it from here was exciting."
Although her own Bebo profile is accessible only to her "friends", there are comments about Shields on other members' profiles. One calls her "hurricane Joanna", and those who know her say that she has probably met every senior UK-based media executive.
Her title at Bebo is president of international, but she is regarded as the company's third-in-command, behind only Birch and his wife Xochi, who are, respectively, CEO and president.
More than half of Bebo's global staff of 50 report to Shields, and 20 of them are based in London. In fact all but the engineering staff, who are in California, report to Shields. When she joined the company there were fewer than 30 members of staff.
Growth is clearly on Shields's agenda: the first local-language version of the site launched in Poland earlier this month and five more versions are scheduled to go live by September in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland. Bebo is already big in Australia and New Zealand, and Shields says the business is profitable: "It's ad-supported and the numbers really stack up. It doesn't cost a lot of money to run this business, and if you are an advertiser and want to reach this demographic, they don't watch that much TV so this is the way to reach them."
Two more projects along the lines of Kate Modern are in development, Shields reveals, one a drama and another a comedy. "I think that something really dramatic is going on," she says. "The web is a social medium now, and that will change the way brands communicate with this audience, especially the Bebo audience of 13 to 30-year-olds. It will change how people create content for this audience. It's a brave new world."
Education Born and educated in the US. BSc from Pennsylvania State University, MBA from George Washington University, Washington DC
Career 1984-88 sales manager for Canon; marketing manager for National Digital Corporation 1988-1996 Electronics for Imaging, moving up from product manager to head of worldwide sales 1997-2000 CEO of start-up media technology company Veon 2000-2003 vice president of international for internet-delivery software developer Real Networks 2003-2004 vice president and MD EMEA Decru 2004-2006 MD of strategic partnerships for Google Europe 2007- President, international, Bebo