Last year, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation paid $580 million for the social networking phenomenon MySpace. It may turn out to be a bargain-basement price for what the geeks bible Wired recently dubbed "the most disruptive force to hit popular culture since MTV".
But while MySpace is undoubtedly the biggest outlet for youthful self-expression on the internet, until recently it has been a largely US phenomenon. Local versions of the website are rolling out and Jay Stevens has been recruited to develop its European sales operations.
Stevens is an old hand at new technology. In the 90s he was a press attache to the former US president Jimmy Carter before joining the hi-tech PR company Alexander Ogilvy. Today he is recognised as one of the best interactive marketers in the business.
- You once worked as a press aide to Jimmy Carter. How was it?
I was there between 1992 and 1996 when he negotiated peace talks in Bosnia, oversaw the withdrawal of a Haitian military dictatorship, and met with North Korea's then leader Kim Il Sung, to discuss nuclear disarmament. It was my first job, but it's the kind of thing you can only do when you're young and don't have a family.
- You started in interactive marketing in 1998. Did you feel like a pioneer?
In fact, I had my first e-mail account with Compuserve in 1988, when I was still in high school. Then when I went to university I didn't have so much time to mess around online, so I let it slide. It was only after I'd graduated, when Netscape went public in 1994, that I began to see the full potential of online.
- Immediately before MySpace, you worked at Silverpop. I don't know what that is. Can you fill me in?
Silverpop is the leading provider of e-mail marketing software services. If you want to reach, say, men in London who've bought a tie recently, they slice and dice their database, execute the e-mail and monitor the results afterwards. The potential for this kind of marketing is only just being realised.
- When Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace, everyone assumed it would be immediately relegated to the graveyard of the unhip. But that doesn't seem to have happened. Do your user figures bear this out?
When Mr Murdoch bought the company about a year ago, it had 50 million registered users. That figure has since grown fourfold. In the UK there are 3.6 million registered users - those are this morning's figures. Right now in the UK we're growing by about 15,000 users every day. We had a 19.8 per cent growth between June and July. The great thing is that Mr Murdoch has let the site grow organically. He hasn't tried to change it and there haven't been any directives from on high.
- Is the MySpace demographic mainly teens and young adults?
If you're talking about the core audience, you could say it appeals to 18-to 24-year-olds. You could, in fact, widen that to 16- to 30-year-olds. Interestingly, in the UK we've just discovered that 69.8 per cent of the registered users are older than 18.
- What is being done to reassure advertisers anxious about the uncontrolled, rock 'n' roll nature of the content?
To put this in context, we are a small company with about 350 staff around the world. Some 100 of them are constantly sifting through the material, and if we find things that are inappropriate, we take them offline. Having said that, there's no way that we can effectively police 100 million pages, so to an extent we rely on members of the community to alert us. A certain lack of control is inherent when you're giving people the chance to create their own content.
- It seems like the perfect media product: user-generated content, viral marketing, loyal user. But I hear it's not so easy to sell to advertisers. Why should one advertise on MySpace?
When you look at the time people spend on MySpace, it blows your mind. The average user spends 22.8 minutes per day, five days a month. That comes to about two hours per month. And that's just the average user. If you want to reach this demographic, you're better off on MySpace than running a 30-second spot in the middle of Coronation Street.
- Who have been your most supportive advertisers?
In the US we've had a lot of FMCG brands, wireless carriers and automotive companies. And it looks as though the same pattern will emerge here in the UK. Big clients at the moment include the film distributor UIP, clearly to drive its sales at the box office, and O2, which is also a strong supporter.
- What innovative methods can advertisers use to imprint brands on the consciousness of MySpace users?
Advertisers can create their own customised pages. Visitors to the pages are self-selecting, so it's essentially "permission marketing". It enables brands to find out who their brand champions are and engage in dialogue with them. For instance, if you go on to the site you can see the Honda Element has more than 43,000 "friends".
- I notice Univillage has just launched in the UK as the equivalent of Facebook in the US, which is aimed at college students. Then there's Piczo, which seems to be doing a good job of targeting teens. Might MySpace users not gradually be lured away?
MySpace seems to grow at the same rate regardless of competitors. Personally, I think that the competition confirms social networking is here to stay. We're all part of the same movement.
- How do you see MySpace evolving? Can you keep users hooked for four, five or ten years?
The thing that really separates us is the concept of discovery. More than two million bands have profiles on MySpace, from Madonna right down to the most obscure garage band. People are coming to discover all this talent. In the US we have film channels and comedy and books - and all of this is coming to the UK. We give people a chance to present their work and have it judged by a collective. Lily Allen is a great example of somebody who has leveraged MySpace as a platform to gain attention. We'll be seeing a lot more examples in the future.