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Bebo's Hot to Trot in Mobile

MONTE CARLO, France –- Mobile Entertainment Market 2007 –- Bebo's international president Joanna Shields can hardly walk through a conference auditorium these days without being swarmed by telecom executives eager to introduce themselves and swap cards.

Here's why: Bebo is one of the fastest growing social networking sites on the Internet. After less than two years, it now has 33 million users in six countries, 8.8 million of which are in the U.K. Six more countries will be added this summer. In the U.K., there are 23,000 daily registrations. And the average amount of time U.K. users spend on the site is 40 minutes.

In the next few weeks, Bebo will go mobile in the U.K. through a partnership with Orange UK . The two companies are finalizing the service bundle and working on "aggressive tariffs," because the price of the service will be key to user takeup, according to Bebo. (See Orange, Bebo Team Up and Bebo Turns Orange.)

"We need to encourage usage. We don't want price to be an inhibitor," says Shields. Bebo's demographic is 13- to 24-year-olds, who are typically pre-paid mobile customers, she explains.

"We have to be very creative on the tariffs," she says. For example, Orange might send "special treats" to users such as discounted music festival tickets. "By offering aggressive tariffs … we can [encourage usage]."

Orange will offer the Bebo service in two ways: users can subscribe to a "Bebo bundle" data package or go for a co-branded Bebo/Orange SIM card in a pay-as-you-go offer. The two companies have a revenue share deal on these offers. Shields says there will also be an advertising element, as there is on the Internet, but the models "just aren't there yet."

And what about a Bebo branded handset? When asked whether Bebo was talking to mobile operators about offering a branded phone, Shields said, "I'm not, but I'd like to. It's a powerful proposition."

The mobile version of Bebo will not be limited to Orange in the U.K., as Bebo plans to make its service accessible from any mobile network in the countries where the online service is available.

"The most important thing is to make Bebo accessible," says Shields. "We're making sure every Bebo page is accessible on a mobile phone. We want to ensure you can continue Bebo-ing wherever you are," says Shields, somehow managing to retain a straight face.

NewBay Software is doing the rendering of the social networking site's Web pages to make this possible.

Bebo won't be Britain's first social networking site to go mobile, though, as Vodafone UK launched MySpace mobile two weeks ago. But the mobile version of MySpace focuses just on the communication elements of the service, such as mail, blogging, friend requests, adding friends, and creating profiles. (See Vodafone Takes MySpace Mobile, Vodafone, MySpace Partner, and Eccosphere Creeps Into Social Network Scene.)

"We haven't been seduced into putting everything" onto the mobile, says Jean Paul Sanchez, vice president of mobile at MySpace. "Only the most used and useful tools."

"This has the potential to be the new Blackberry for the MySpace generation," he says.

Vodafone's MySpace service costs £1.50 (US$3.00) per month or 50 pence ($1) per day to try it, which is in addition to subscribers' data package tariffs. In the U.S., Cingular Wireless launched MySpace earlier this year and charges $3.00 per month.

While MySpace views mobile networks as good for extending the communication part of its service, Bebo wants to bring entertainment to the mobile phone. The company is working with the creators of the videoblog drama lonelygirl15 to produce an original program called KateModern for the Internet site.

Bebo users will be able to participate in the storyline and the mobile phone will be an integral part of the story. For example, when the character Kate sends a text message in an episode, Bebo mobile users will receive that text. There will be four to five episodes per week and six sponsors are already lined up for product placements in the show. One product is a mobile phone.

"We're using a social networking platform to enhance a storyline," says Bebo's Shields.

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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