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Bebo no longer the cool teenager’s BFF

Like most things teenagers become passionate about – boy/girlfriends, favourite bands, acne – interest wanes. Bebo is passing its use-by date. The social networking site aimed at teens now finds itself alone at playtime, dumped by former friends and searching for relevance. Maybe it should team with the Labour Party.

The social networking site suffers the same problem all child-focused businesses do: kids grow up. All child-focused businesses face this issue but, sadly for Bebo, it’s not the only problem it faces.

Older-skewed sites are muscling in on its territory. This is good news for Facebook, which is attracting kids of increasingly tender years. It’s a real problem for Bebo, whose market is limited to start with, and is being eaten into by every new tool that comes along, such as Twitter.

TVNZ used to have a strong advertising relationship with Bebo until the two parted ways in September, but has since used Bebo as part of the delivery for its web-drama Reservoir Hill.

Owned by AOL, Bebo is also facing internal problems as AOL and TimeWarner complete their split after one of the worst marriages in recent US corporate history. AOL is shedding a massive one third of its staff (already down to 12,000 from its 20,000 high a few years back) as part of the split.

TimeWarner paid US$850 million for Bebo but, like other social networking sites, it’s failed to turn a profit in the absence of a clear business model. Facebook itself, the 800 pound gorilla of English-speaking networking sites, suffers the same problem, although it remains – for now at least – the dominant player.

Mixed messages have been coming out of AOL in the last few days. The Sydney Morning Herald reported Friday that the Australian operation was to close by Christmas, although Bebo denied this, saying, “Bebo.com will continue to have a presence in Australia.”

Staff in the Sydney office are being laid off, and although Bebo also said it would continue to operate in NZ (which is arguably a stronger commitment than continuing to have a presence), the future looks bleak.

Once the news of impending doom reaches youngsters, the migration is like to speed up. It would take a brave person to bet on Bebo still being here in 12 months time. It would take an even braver organisation to enter into any new business dealings with the site.

Do we care?

Bebo offered a more targeted approach to younger teens, which – had it had a business model beyond the on-site advertising that turned off a lot of its target market – could have made it a useful partner for organisations targeting teens, such as TVNZ.

Bebo also had a deal with Telecom, including a Samsung phone with a Bebo button, but – as Vodafone has a larger share of the teen mobile market – it was never going to be a big winner.

As content delivery extends to ever more platforms, perhaps the disappearance of one isn’t a great worry in the bigger scheme of things (unless you’re wondering how to recoup the US$850 million purchase price). However, Facebook offers both a larger market a harder market to penetrate. Bebo also offered a safe environment for kids, as far as any online environment is safe, which makes its loss a concern for parents.

Parents, smart ones at least, know that trying to control teenagers’ behaviour is more difficult than herding cats. Any concern expressed is likely to fall on deaf ears, a parental stamp of approval being the kiss of death for most teenage activities.

As a delivery mechanism for content and building communities, Bebo never matched Facebook’s reach. Facebook’s previous competitor, MySpace, reinvented itself as a music-focused environment after losing its battle with Facebook. YouTube already has the video market cornered.

It’s difficult to see a way back for Bebo so, while obituaries might be premature, they are being prepared.