Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Buyer's Remorse or Not–AOL Is Not Considering Selling Bebo

Yesterday, TechCrunch’s U.K. blogger Mike Butcher spun the tale of buyer’s remorse run amok with a report that Time Warner online unit AOL was “seriously considering selling Bebo, the social network it acquired for $850 million only a year ago,” citing poor performance and a bad advertising market.

Later, AOL went on the record saying “there is no truth to this rumor,” although Butcher–in a third update to his piece–insisted otherwise from his sources.

In my favorite hedge ever, Butcher noted: “I’m not saying Bebo is formally on the block, but I am saying that a sale is something under consideration.”

Well, actually, no.

What is true, which Butcher did do an excellent job outlining, is that AOL most certainly overestimated the prospects for Bebo as an advertising and growth vehicle, hoping that Bebo’s interesting new media offerings–like its “KateModern” online series–combined with a social network, were the magic bullet.

It did not hurt that Bebo was then being sold to advertisers by its very deft top exec Joanna Shields, who is now head of AOL’s People Networks.

Thus, AOL woefully overpaid for it, especially if you look back from the current dire economic environment and also now realize that social-networking advertising is a little bit harder to get going than promised (a shock, I know).

No inside sources you talk to at AOL or Time Warner (TWX) will deny any of this today, and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes has even said so publicly.

This was not exactly a secret then either. As I wrote right after the sale last March:

What’s AOL getting for its $850 million in cash to purchase social-networking site, Bebo?

A very attractive social-networking service and a very experienced exec who has been running it.

But, perhaps more importantly for those who focus on pesky numbers, not a whole lot of revenue and negligible profits, judging financial information I got a gander at, courtesy of sources at several companies that looked at funding or buying Bebo.

And the rest of the overall outlook for Bebo? A small but growing business, with nice user engagement with strong page views and minutes spent per session, but little traction beyond Britain and Ireland, and too small a presence in the critical U.S. market.

(Bebo is also strong in New Zealand, but BoomTown does not have to point out that that country is not exactly the kind of game-changer that AOL CEO Randy Falco mentioned in his email to the troops about the purchase.)”

And in another post I did at the time:

Thus, I am still trying to figure out why AOL–which was built on the pillars of community, communications and connectivity–has consistently not been able to leverage its still-valuable assets.

I suppose it is sexier to do a big, splashy deal, of course, which takes focus away–for a while at least–of the essential need to take hits, while doing the slow block-and-tackle work it will require to really build a strong ad and social network.

Buying Bebo, the third-ranked social network, for so much and trying to turbocharge it is a very lofty goal, of course, but the real problem with the acquisition is that it feels like an answer in search of a question.

While Bebo President Joanna Shields–who will enter the AOL exec team as part of the deal–and the Birches have clearly built a very interesting property, the weight of Falco’s calling it a “game-changer” on which AOL’s future rides could turn out to be much too much for Bebo to carry.

That is, especially with that heavy bag of Time Warner cash it is also shouldering.”

That’s why it takes about two seconds these days to uncover much residual anger within both AOL and Time Warner about the huge slug of cash that the company handed over to get Bebo, which mostly went to its quirky founders (who, many sources told BoomTown, thought they were underpaid!).

But, even so, that does not mean Time Warner is going to pull yet another stupid Internet trick–remember this was the company that sold itself to AOL for a song back in 2000, in what is now considered one of the worst merger deals ever–and sell Bebo for bupkis.

In fact, spending even more effort, it has been trying to use Bebo as the main vehicle to renovate all its communications assets, including its unsung AIM and ICQ instant messaging properties.

The center of the People Networks, run by Shields, Bebo is the third leg of the “new” AOL, as it has been recently touted, with its Platform-A ad unit and new niche content studio called MediaGlow as the other parts of the stool.

Will it all work? Will Time Warner change its mind? Will Shields give up? Will even the AOL brand continue?

“Who knows?” is the right answer, of course. With Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo (YHOO), Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG), as well as Twitter and FriendFeed, all vying to be the consumer’s dashboard to the Web, no one actually does.

And, if Time Warner is truly interested in selling off AOL whole, as it has been trying to do mightily, you might wonder if it would suddenly change course and dismember it now, causing even more confusion, when it is already facing so many other more pressing complications–all for a lousy price in the current weak economic landscape?

I called it “insane” when AOL bought Bebo for so much last year. I’d be dubious if it would get crazier still.

But if you want to see Shields in action–be careful, as she apparently so persuasive she could probably sell a big bailout to a Republican–take a look at this video I did a while back before the AOL acquisition:

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