Interview: Joanna Shields, President, AOL People Networks: Audience First, Profit Later

imageA few weeks after AOL (NYSE: TWX) denied it would hastily offload its $850 million Bebo acquisition, the social network is trumpeting a whole roster of new products offered not just through Bebo, but through AOL itself, AIM, ICQ and AOL’s mobile products, each of which is harmonizing user profiles. Designed to position the service as an onramp to the whole social web rather then merely one part of it, these are the features the social net promised its new owner as part of its dowry. As President Joanna Shields and SVP/GM David Liu told today, it’s all part of AOL’s wider strategy for Bebo: audience before profit, broaden the demographic.

Before we can get to that, though, let’s knock the Bebo-for-sale elephant out of the room. Shields told me: “The CEO of Time Warner handled it best in the conference call when he said it wasn’t on the table.” As for an earlier admission by TW CEO Jeff Bewkes that AOL “may have overpaid” for Bebo, Shields said: “You know what? If you look at the market over the last year and how much it’s changed — there isn’t a CEO in this entire country that probably hasn’t overdone something.”

More after the jump

So how does Bebo prove itself in a down market? With Facebook Connect and Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Friend Connect vying to underpin users’ web-wide experiences and with FriendFeed, Facebook and Twitter having proved the appetite for stream-based info, Bebo, too, has plenty to gain by aggregating supposed rivals. Shields: “FriendFeed is a good product and they’re on the right track but they don’t have a network behind it. Facebook is only feeds from your Facebook friends.” Liu: “What’s really important is what’s happening with your friends, not necessarily what network they’re on. We have a competitive advantage, compared to anyone in the world, because of the scale we have on the web, in mobile and other areas (via AOL).”

For example, Liu said his grandmother may not herself use Twitter, Flickr or even Bebo itself, but she can receive family members’ feeds through her AIM client. These connecting tissues will also be offered to third-party destinations. Liu: “Even if a person is on a publisher site, they should be able to have those conversations.”

How will any of this make money? Shields’ answer suggests AOL isn’t sweating for an immediate return on its Bebo outlay, waiting instead for the promise of a real payday: “That’s always a good question — the most important thing for us right now is to build our audience, to offer these technologies to people wherever they need them … as soon as that’s built, we’ll work on that. This year is about audience for us; it’s all about getting more users and engaging them for longer periods of time on all our properties.” Liu: “If you look at the other sites, we’ve done a fairly decent job of monetization. This isn’t about picking up dollar bills here and there — we really want to build the property. We want to monetize, of course, but we have to make jumps in our reach — as soon as we do that, we’ll be there.”

With forecasts for social network ad spend being cut and recent speculation on how much money Bebo can really generate for AOL, isn’t Shields, who has long advocated the promise of “engagement marketing,” concerned about the outlook? “Bebo has always been one of the most successful networks out there in terms of monetization. People are applying web models to social networks — it’s just not the same. (Social networks) give you opportunities to deliver new forms of advertising. It’s not going to be about the banner or the MPU.”

More than just British teens: The team seems eager to broaden Bebo’s traditional 13-24, British/Irish/Australian audience, especially in AOL’s homeland, while not abandoning its user base. With the new features pitched, like much of Bebo to date, as a way for bands to keep young fans updated, is the focus still on the youth market? Shields: “No, not at all. Every user’s different — some people just want to get status updates, other people really want to tell their story; I don’t think that’s age-dependent – I think these products have a much broader demographic appeal.”

Will Bebo commission more product placement-supported interactive video dramas, like Loneygirl15 spin-off KateModern and Endemol’s Gap Year reality travelogue? Shields suggested they wouldn’t go down so well with U.S. users: “We’re looking at that more in terms of specific markets. You’ll see quite a few, but it depends on the market and demographic. In the U.S., we’re focusing on a much broader play.” Engineering VP Darius Contractor, also on the call: “We’re trying to focus on building things that everyone needs; we do need to be broad in the U.S.. Everyone needs a lifestream; FriendFeed is a fantastic service; is it the easiest service? Not everyone can make it easy like we can with AIM on the client.” The trio used again used grandparents and young mothers as example beneficiaries.

About those new features: Built using AOL’s SocialThing acquisition and rolling in to Bebo’s already-released Social Inbox aggregator, Lifestream is a FriendFeed imitation that gathers friends’ activities from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and Delicious, with more to come. Lifestory is an embeddable timeline for users’ profile history. Launching next month, Stories will “pick up where blogs left off”, letting users collaboratively author a multimedia publishing space. Beta-launched quietly in December, the Social *Discovery* Engine leverages profile data through algorithms to recommend related music, videos and people.