Shields is plotting Bebo's expansion

In January, Joanna Shields was appointed as international president of Bebo. Here she talks to Andrew McCormick about her plans to make the UK's top social network a worldwide force.

Bebo chief executive Joanna Shields
Bebo chief executive Joanna Shields

When News Corp bought MySpace for £333m in July 2005, media owners took note that social networking might not be just another passing fad.

For Joanna Shields, the realisation came a year later when she was involved in brokering the unprecedented deal between Google and MySpace, which will see the search giant pay News Corp at least £472m in guarenteed revenues over three years.

That deal took place in August 2006. By January this year, Shields was installed as international president of Bebo, the UK's most popular social network, ahead of MySpace by a whisker, according to research firms comScore and Hitwise.

Shields says: "Google's deal with MySpace showed that the internet was shifting away from a search-and-discover medium to one where people live their lives online. Working on YouTube and Google Video gave me a unique perspective on new ventures: I could see the traffic shifting to social networks such as Bebo."

At Google, Shields launched Google Video and, as European director of partnerships, was responsible for running the operation throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa, along with YouTube and Google AdSense. It is not often that high-profile Google executives leave the company, however Shields saw an untapped potential for Bebo to build a business model around its 25 million global users.

She says: "When I joined we had impressive user figures and a strong following, but any firm is judged on its commercial success. This involves finding the right content partners and establishing relationships with advertisers and brands."

Meaningful ads
While keen to embrace advertising, Shields is wary of the sensitivities of Bebo's audience, which principally ranges from 14 to 25. "We only put one ad on a page so that the user doesn't feel any intrusion, while we try to target our ads to make them meaningful," she explains.

As well as accommodating Bebo users' desires, the firm's practice of offering personalised ads makes it easier for advertisers to reach their target demographic. When creating a Bebo account, users are prompted to choose the theme of the ad they wish to see, from categories such as sport, cars and finance.

Video advertising is the next major area that Shields intends to develop; she also wants to introduce product placements into productions created specifically for Bebo, such as the recent Lonely Girl drama franchise.

Besides advertising, Shields also intends to make money from music and mobile. In the mobile space, Bebo has signed an exclusive UK deal with the operator Orange and a launch is expected this summer. The deal includes Bebo-branded tariffs and SIM cards that offer cut-price text messaging and video uploading. "Currently, users can browse Bebo on their mobiles, but we're looking to optimise that," says Shields. "We're also talking to potential partners about mobile ad sales."

In the music sector, Bebo has become the first major social network to sell music through its website. By signing a deal with digital music specialist 7digital, Bebo is able to present artistes' music for sale through their individual Bebo profiles. Bebo has since hired ex-MTV executive Angel Gambino to develop its music strategy; in so doing, it has entered an area previously associated with rival MySpace.

Different experience
A new sparring partner for Bebo is US success Facebook, which originally required a university e-mail address for registration, but last year opened to all-comers. Since then, Facebook has made inroads in the UK and plans to boost its presence further by opening a London office within the next few months. But Shields sees the interloper as "a different experience" to Bebo. She says: "We're very much based on media, whereas I see Facebook as a LinkedIn for young people: it's very utilitarian."

When Friendster, one of the first social networks to launch, experienced technical troubles a few years ago, a huge proportion of its users shifted to MySpace and have remained there ever since. While it is unlikely such an event should happen again, Bebo is determined to to beat its rivals to world domination.

"My main role is to commercialise the network," she says. "Then I take that success and replicate it in multiple markets. It is very important to get into markets first because long-term usage and friendships develop from that. We launched in the UK around the same time as MySpace and we're neck-and-neck."

In a previous job as European vice-president for data company Decru, Shields opened 41 offices worldwide before playing a pivotal part in selling it for £122.5m.

Shields and Bebo founders Michael and Xochi Birch have consistently deflected takeover rumours, but if Shields shows similar form in her current role, then - in keeping with recent multimillion-pound deals involving social networks - Bebo could also receive an offer that is too good to refuse.

International president, Bebo 2005 Managing director strategic partnerships EMEA, Google
Vice-president Europe, Decru
Vice-president international, RealNetworks
Chief executive, Veon
Vice-president worldwide sales, EFI (Electronics for Imaging).