Buying back in

TomCross_ScreenshotYears ago, when I was living and working in Sydney, one conversation that would often be repeated in the bar after work was around the merits of the social networks MySpace and Bebo. As MySpace was the first social network that I truly embraced*, I obviously fought its corner and was somewhat sceptical of the arguments of some of my fellow British colleagues in favour of Bebo. It was around the same time that another relatively unknown site began to be talked about, and tentatively explored by both sides of the divide; a site which would ultimately render our discussions futile. That site was called Facebook.

Earlier this week it was reported that the founders of Bebo, a couple called Michael and Xochi Birch, had bought the company at auction for $1m having sold it to AOL in 2008 for $850m. Since that original purchase in 2008 a lot has changed. Not only has a global financial crisis crippled the world’s economies, but in the social media space Facebook has increased its hegemony over rivals, whilst slightly more specialised sites such as Twitter and Instagram have also grown massively and changed the way people share information.

Arguably it was a huge stroke of luck that the Birches sold the company when they did, particularly given what subsequently happened to the global economy. Buying back a company for $1m when you have sold it for $850m clearly represents somewhat of a coup from a purely financial standpoint, but if the intentions are really for Bebo to take a stab at attracting people back to its site, or more realistically to attract new members, there are a lot of challenges to be met.

In early 2007, logging onto either MySpace or Bebo required the prerequisite of first turning on your laptop or computer. For many people nowadays who are accessing social media sites, all that is required is a swipe of their smartphone screen, wherever they are. Clearly the success of social media today is quite closely linked to the increasing prevalence and sophistication of smartphones, and so any resurgence of Bebo must include an intuitive mobile platform. Sites like Twitter and Instagram have tapped into the idea that smartphones have facilitated a new, spontaneous form of digital communication and sharing.

The other challenge is how Bebo can get a foothold in a market so clearly dominated by Facebook. The answer may lie in the recent success of sites such as Snapchat which has been relatively successful in attracting younger users who want to be doing something new that cannot currently be done on Facebook. At its most successful Bebo attracted a lot of younger users, particularly in the UK, and it may be that they could try to do the same again by positioning themselves as something very different from Facebook in terms of its offerings.

If the relatively short history of social media tells us anything, it’s that no site can afford to be complacent, even Facebook. There will always be the possibility of a site gaining popularity if it seems to be offering a slightly niche approach, particularly when attracting younger users. Clearly though a social media site’s success is now dependent on an intuitive mobile platform as more and more people reach for their smartphone in order to connect. It will be interesting to see how Bebo positions itself if it does try to gain a foothold again in the social media space.

I did end up creating a Bebo profile back in early 2007, despite my leanings toward MySpace. If the site does take off again, I’m all set to join in. One of the last comments on my page is from an old colleague in Sydney:

‘I knew you’d see the light and join Bebo in the end! You need to change your profile picture though!’

Good advice.

*Strictly speaking it was Friends Reunited, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s exclude it as it wasn’t a social network as we recognise it today

Tom Cross is Research Manager at Ipsos MediaCT.