Are Social Networks the New Networks?

I vividly remember the first time I saw the boys from “South Park.” It wasn’t online. It wasn’t even on Comedy Central. It was on a VHS tape that a friend of a friend of a friend had given to me.

I also remember the first time I saw the crew now featured in the “Jackass” movies and TV series. They, too, were also on a VHS tape that eventually made it to me.

Since the VCR disappeared into irrelevancy, numerous new things have become part of our daily lives. One includes the emergence of social networking Web sites. Whether it’s MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn, Plaxo, or any of hundreds of others, these sites have become major forces in the battle for consumer attention spans and are changing the ways we communicate and connect.

Advertisers have taken notice, as they must. Any property that can boast over 50 million active users has to be taken seriously — and any property with a business model built on advertising revenue needs to take advertisers seriously. So both sides are rapidly trying to create and monetize ad inventory to reach those engaged consumers.

We now realize these social networking sites can be bona-fide media properties, not just utilities (no matter what Facebook would have you think). And as with any media property, you have the opportunity to display an advertising message to millions with the right placement. Furthermore, by sheer nature of being media properties with significant reach, these properties can also be distribution channels for media content.

Recently, it was reported that U.K.-based social networking site Bebo will act as a free channel for media/content companies and producers to distribute content; companies and producers will get to keep advertising revenue generated as result. This raises the obvious question: why not keep even just a little for yourself, Bebo? Bebo says it expects all the content sharing between users and potential users will help the property grow. It’s already proven it can launch a successful online series (“KateModern”). Now it needs to provide a platform for others to do it themselves.

And that idea is so crazy, it just might work.

By giving copyright holders rights to 100 percent of advertising revenue and, thus, control over their content, Bebo eliminates a major stumbling block that properties and copyright holders have during negotiations: how to split the pie.

But above all, Bebo’s decision is positioned for success, as it is dependent on a basic aspect of human behavior continuing to hold true — the desire for people to share an experience. In this case, it’s good video content.

We didn’t need the Web to teach us this behavior. It’s been around throughout recorded history, and I’m fairly certain it was like that before recorded history. But more recently, it was like that when my friends turned me on to “South Park.” And when they startled me with Johnny and Steve-O’s “Jackass” antics. Once I saw the appeal of those two pieces of content, I turned others on to them as well.

And while I didn’t have Facebook, MySpace, or Bebo to facilitate my recommendation of that content to my friends, I still had a social network. A site itself is not a social network. You and the people you know and influence are the network.

Of Bebo’s announcement, Gartner Research analyst Andrew Frank said, “This is another step in reinforcing the idea that social networks are emerging as a new channel for media distribution.”

Social networks have been responsible for the distribution of content long before my “South Park” seventh-generation VHS copy made it through my social network. It’s that social networking sites take advantage of that innate human behavior.

Social networking sites are uniquely positioned to allow more consumers to share more content with more people than ever before. Plus, they present a great opportunity for content owners to monetize content in ways that we couldn’t have imagined in the days of those bootlegged VCR tapes. Behavioral, demographic, or any other targeting can deliver the right message at the right time to the right people — watching the right video content.

Video content owners, social networking Web sites, and advertisers would be wise to keep an open dialogue to continue the evolution of video distribution, recommendation, and monetization models. Not only will it prove to be a great way to make money from video content, but a great way to help video content succeed.

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