MS Podcast#61


The 61st MediaSnackers podcast explores with its cofounder Michael Birch.

(WORLD) The MediaSnackers podcast focusses on individuals, organisations or companies who are simply impressing us and which are crying out for more discussion.

Michael Birch is the co-founder of popular youth social networking site Bebo.

0.00—0.16 intro
0.17—1.00 about Bebo
1.01—1.54 the numbers and scale of Bebo
1.55—3.17 why Bebo is so popular in the UK/Irish market
3.18—5.06 how they have stayed fresh and relevant
5.07—4.47 the impact of the users
6.26—7.52 widgets/authors
7.51—10.24 the issues and problems relating to misuse of the site
10.25—11.27 the future of Bebo
11.28—11.38 outro

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Michael Birch: My name is Michael Birch, CEO and co-founder of

DK: Okay. Well thank you Michael for giving up your time today. If you could give us, for anybody who’s been living under a rock, a bit of a flavour about what is.

Michael Birch: Bebo is a social network. It’s predominantly popular in the UK, Ireland and New Zealand and currently the fastest growing market is the US. And we launched about a year and a half ago which is very late for a social network to launch. And we saw phenomenal growth within the kind of less developed markets of the UK. And our strategy really is to try and gain as much traction as we can in the US and take on that better known but larger player run by Murdoch.

DK: Okay. And I know you don’t give out specific numbers but could you give us maybe an indication of the usership and you say you’re big in Ireland and stuff. Is there a percentage you could give us so people know about your scale?

Michael Birch: So total worldwide membership is, I think we just passed 30 million actually.

DK: Wow.

Michael Birch: Thirty Million registered members. In Ireland, in terms of per capita, is our strongest market. And we actually just passed a one million mark of registered members in Ireland. This is the Republic of Ireland and the population of Ireland is 4.2 million, so in terms of penetration it’s phenomenal. And it does ski slightly younger, it’s about half are under 20 and about half are 20 and older. So in terms of a younger market I believe it’s 90% penetration in Ireland. And the UK is about a third of that per capita, I think.

DK: And why do you think that is? Why do you think your, like you say, you came late to the market in that regard, so why do you think it’s so relevant to the UK or Irish market or New Zealand market? Why is that?

Michael Birch: We did come late to the market. We actually did another social network in 2003 which was actually very early to the market and we only ran it for three months before we had three offers to buy it. It was at the time the second largest to Friendster which was the site that really started the trend. So when we launched Bebo, though we were fairly late, we also had quite a lot of experience in social networking. And when we launched we launched a very mature product which kind of overcame a lot of the pitfalls that people, including ourselves, did when you first attempt a social network.

And when we did launch, the UK and Ireland and most markets outside the US tend to be a year or two behind the kind of new trends in the US. And so the UK was gaining a lot of traction with a lot of the established social networks but it was by no means saturated. So launching a very mature product in a market where there was still room for new competitors, enabled us to grow just phenomenally quickly and catch up with the leading players in a very short space of time. And about two months ago, we officially came by many measures the largest social network in the UK.

DK: Wow. Could you tell us a bit then, you touched on trends there and there has been, since you’ve launched, as I’m sure you’re aware, an explosion of “social networking sites.” How do you plan to stay relevant and how have you stayed fresh? Because it’s such a fickle demographic with young people and the variations in the markets in the countries you operate in. How do you kind of keep that relevancy?

Michael Birch: Yeah. The number of social networks that launched back in 2003 actually in the US, where it was all kind of started happening, I think we counted in 2003 over 100 start-ups doing social networking. And now we’re in 2007, so there’s been many more since; I’ve kind of lost count. So there’s a hugely crowded market and also the vast majority don’t gain much traction. And in order to stay relevant is just really keeping a finger on the pulse and listening to what the community is saying, watching the trends, not only in social networking but outside of social networking and seeing if you can bring those trends into a social networking environment.

And one of the things that’s always excited me so much about social networking it’s that if you think of any new trend on the internet, it just tends to fit naturally into this social network. So videos became very hot really throughout 2006. And as soon as we saw videos were gaining traction, it’s just like this has got to be a major part of any social network. And it just fit straight in and as soon as we launched it, it became certainly one of our most popular product features. So it’s really too of watching the trends, listening to what the community is saying and what they’re asking for and the majority of our features and improvements do come from the community, not necessarily from us.

DK: Yeah, I was going – sorry about that – I was just going to say, how much impact then does the community or your usership have on where Bebo goes and where it is steered to?

Michael Birch: I mean huge, huge impact on us and we also use the site a lot ourselves. We see the comments people are leaving on, we have a blog, a personal blog that people comment on. We have a customer service centre in Austin, Texas with 40 people working there responding to queries. And that does all filter back up to us if that’s seeing consistent complaints about a certain product feature or the way something works and that does filter back up to us and then we’ll certainly listen to that and take action. And it’s important to continually evolve the website.

You can’t each year do – you can’t have a long product release cycle. You can’t once a year say we’re going to launch a lot of new products; you’ve got to try and do it very frequently. And our current objective is once every two weeks to launch a noticeable product feature. That’s not to say it’s got to be a huge product, some of them are very huge products like the bands that we launched a couple of months ago. And some of them are just important improvements, but an improvement that everyone will notice who’s a regular user of the site and say, Bebo just got a little bit better again.

DK: Every two weeks; that’s mad. I know there’s been a couple of recent additions have been picked up like the Bebo Widgets and the Bebo Authors I know now. Could you just give us a flavour of them?

Michael Birch: Yeah, so the Widgets is interesting and it’s the first time we’ve allowed really third parties to kind of become part of Bebo. So a lot of the social networks have kind of active communities outside of their social network developing products then spread virally within the community. And there are certain security implications of doing that which was one reason that we’ve held back. And the other issue is if you allow that to happen and then try and start enforcing control, which most social networks end up trying to do, then it’s a very unpopular move with the community in that you’re now restricting what they can do.

So we had a very closed door policy and then now we’re white-listing certain third party companies that are the best of the breed and allowing them to work with us. But more tightly integrated maybe than many third parties would be on more open social networks. So you can actually go to their website and then directly post to Bebo from the third-party website. So it’s a very nicely integrated experience. The Authors hasn’t actually been officially launched. We’ve kind of done some experimental profiles but we’re launching a fill-on product for Authors, hopefully the end of this month or early February which will have many more features relating to books and authors.

DK: Okay, keep an eye out for that one then. Could we kind of tackle the issue about the negativity? There’s a lot of press around young people posting pictures of themselves and a lot of inappropriate photos and leaving themselves open to abuse or even putting personal information up on these kind of sites because they have access to them. Now obviously MediaSnackers we kind of see it as a very positive thing in terms of empowering young people to have that global voice and blah, blah, blah, making real connections you know. But obviously you provide this platform; you must be in the line of fire directly. How do you kind of placate that growing swell of fear and criticism that’s out there, kind of from the uninitiated as well?

Michael Birch: Yeah. It’s always been a major issue, certainly with the media. Most of the press we got in the early days was really negative press about what we were doing as a company to address these issues. And we’ve always taken a very active role in trying to build a website that can be as safe as possible and ultimately be as fun as it can be for members. It doesn’t make a site fun when people are bullying other people or uploading imagery that you don’t necessarily want to be looking at on your browsing social network. And so we’ve put features in place that allow people to control who can see their information. If someone is being mean to them, they can block them so that they can no longer interact with them.

We do have report abuse links and we have from day one that we launched, report abuse links on every person’s profile. So if something’s inappropriate or someone’s inappropriate in their actions, then you can report abuse on them and a customer service rep will actually investigate each case and take any action that’s necessary. You can report abuse on photos and the like. And so certainly if there’s anything that’s pornographic we’ll instantly delete the photos and instantly cancel any account associated with that. So it’s an ongoing thing and it’s something that we spend a huge amount of our development time trying to address these issues. It’s a tough issue to address.

I mean you’re trying to create a network that’s open and fun and lets people do what they want to do and express themselves and if naturally abusing people express themselves in ways that we don’t necessarily want to be expressed. But we just have to stay on top of it and we very much noticed a broken window syndrome with that is that if we’re not on top of it, it really does snowball out of control. And when we are on top of it, people don’t really post that much bad content because they don’t see it on the site.

DK: Interesting.

Michael Birch: They know they won’t get away with it.

DK: Yeah definitely. I just want to wrap this interview up with just one question about how you see the future in terms of not just but also social networking. Where’s the next stage for you guys?

Michael Birch: It seems that we’re so early on. We have a huge product list of the two-week products as we call them or fortnightly products which no-one in America understands the word fortnight, so it confuses people. So we have this huge list of product features which we keep fairly closely guarded as to the direction that we’re going in. And the key is just to keep focusing on making the product better. And it’s ultimately going to be about the product and evolving it in a way that the community react well to it. And we’re not that focused on what other people are doing necessarily in the market. I very, very rarely ever look at any of the other social networks. We’re just trying to focus on building our product to be as good as it can be.

DK: Brilliant. Well, I just want to thank you for giving up your time Michael to speak to MediaSnackers. Thank you very much.

Michael Birch: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

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