Innovator: 'It's not just about sex'

Jessica Powell, chief marketing officer, Badoo
Jessica Powell, chief marketing officer, Badoo

Jessica Powell, chief marketing officer at burgeoning social network Badoo, is not shy about the site's risque reputation, but is determined to take the brand into the mainstream.

With 125 million active users worldwide, it's a wonder that Badoo, which has its headquarters in London's Soho, doesn't have a higher profile in the UK. Perhaps it's because only one million of those users live in the UK, or that the network has a reputation as a place to meet people to have sex with.

Badoo wants to improve in both aspects and has hired Jessica Powell, the former Google executive, as chief marketing officer, to set the record straight. Powell is an energetic American with such enthusiasm that if she were an electronic device, she would have an extra battery.

The company's operational headquarters (its financial base is in Cyprus) is a typical dotcom-style office, with customary beanbags, fridges full of energy drinks and a number of employees who look like they could still be at school. All of which is a big change for Powell, who three months ago switched jobs, cities (moving from Tokyo) and lifestyle.

"I was sitting over in Asia dealing with Google's public affairs. When Badoo came calling I hadn't heard of it. I thought they were talking about Baidu, the Chinese search engine," she says.

Everything to play for

Having made the move, Powell is getting stuck in to the new challenge. "There's something thrilling about being in a company when there are too many things to do. If you're in a company that gets too large, people stop talking to each other. So the unique opportunity for Badoo is to build from the ground up."

Her remit covers consumer marketing, affiliate marketing and PR. Her first task, she admits, is to work out what Badoo stands for. "We have to define what the brand is. If you say we're a social network, we're the fourth-largest in the world. If you say we're a dating site, we're the largest in the world. If you actually look at the site and start playing with it, it's neither of those things."

Logging on to Badoo is an experience in itself. Pictures of pouting women and topless men greet you on entry, confirming that the site has at least some sexually suggestive element. With location-based functionality, there is also the option to make the experience more than just suggestive.

"With any location-based service, are you going to have a night of passion and so forth with people meeting up? Sure, just like you do in real life. What we also see in Badoo is the different ways people use the site, organising parties. Most people use it for meeting new friends. There's a fundamental desire to meet new people. It's a lot less prescriptive than a dating site," says Powell, who does not shirk away from the site's reputation.

"If you're not out there telling your story, someone will tell it for you," she says, referring to Badoo's lack of marketing and PR activity to date. "As a journalist, I would pick the sex angle," she adds. "Badoo did grow wonderfully without marketing and PR, but has given us a classic case study of what not to do when your product can be misconstrued. Now I have to prove to you and other people that it's not just about sex."

It's not only journalists whom Powell has to prove this to, however. Advertisers are next on her to-do list.

At the moment, Badoo makes money in two ways. First, paid-for subscriptions give users increased site functionality. Second, users can pay Badoo to promote their profile for a limited amount of time. These two methods have helped Badoo break the £100m revenue mark, according to Powell, but it is the third method of making money that may prove more of a challenge. Brands are always looking at new ways of advertising, but are increasingly conscious of ensuring ads appear alongside appropriate content.

Powell's task will be to convince them that this is the case.

"Badoo has not even begun to tap into what we can do with games and advertising," she says. "I think there's a lot we can do with advertising, so we're not just slapping ads up there. We need to make sure we're not doing anything that's right in your face and annoying."

With a Russian founder, a hardcore base in Southern Europe and Latin America and headquarters in London, Badoo is not the archetypal web start-up that tends to originate in Silicon Valley and grow from there. "It spread virally, based on location, and started in a spiral and went further north to Northern Europe, the UK and Germany. It also spread to South America, due to the language," Powell says.

The big sell

Currently, Badoo has a relatively small active base in the UK, but Powell is building up a team from scratch to cover consumer and online marketing, affiliates and PR. Of course, her enthusiasm makes it sound like marketing Badoo will be an easy sell. "Revenues of well over £100m with no marketing spend. When you're in that kind of position, you realise there's a huge amount we can do. There's a lot on the product side that we need to do, and on the monetisation side. And then there is the advertising side too, taking the message to consumers."

Suddenly, it feels like the middle of the last decade all over again. A burgeoning social network looking at 'monetisation' models seems to be a throwback to the early days of Friends Reunited, Bebo and MySpace.

With Facebook winning in the social network stakes and numerous dating sites flooding the market, Badoo will do well to find a niche in the UK, if not further afield.

Powell will, if nothing else, concentrate all of her impressive energy on trying to propel the site to greater success.

"I've never had any idea what I want to do in my career," she says. "If you focus too much on the future, then you don't concentrate enough on the present."

Reality

August 2011 to present: Chief marketing officer, Badoo

2006-2011: Several positions at Google, rising to senior director of communications and public affairs, Asia-Pacific

Virtual reality

Favourite city: Tokyo

Hobbies: Swimming, surfing, hiking, baking, reading

Last holiday: Indonesia

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