Now that imeem has secured rights to music from all the major labels, as I reported earlier on this blog, the social media network is looking to expand its offerings in the video department. Its announcement today indicates that it has already gained significant headway in meeting this new goal by partnering with MTV Networks. Starting in February, imeem will offer clips and episodes of shows from MTV Networks' brands, including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon.
As reported a few months ago here at Fast Company, more television networks have made their programming available on the Internet through streaming, as opposed to paid downloads (the iTunes model). For the most part, though, cable networks have shied away from this trend. MTV Networks' move is significant in that it sets a precedent for other cable networks to follow as video on demand continues to grow.
Imeem certainly hopes to act as the key perpetuator of this trend. "We hope that this will be one of several deals that we announce," says Matt Graves, imeem's VP of marketing communications, with whom I spoke earlier today.
The impact of this deal, of course, is even greater for imeem. First, imeem hopes that the deal will boost its already rapidly expanding user base. The site boasts 20 million unique users each month, with growth in the millions from month to month, and it was named the fastest growing social site by comScore in September and October 2007. While MTV Networks' offerings should please users from imeem's core 14-24 year-old demographic, the company hopes it can reach more people outside this group.
"We have aspirations of growing, and in order to do that, we need content that appeals to a wide variety of people," says Graves. "MTV Networks offers a wide body of video. With [Comedy Central's] 'The Colbert Report,' maybe you'll have 25-35 year-olds, maybe 35-45 year-olds. Then down the chain, you have [Nickelodeon's] 'SpongeBob' appealing to younger users."
More significantly, in addition to expanding its demographic base, the partnership with MTV Networks bolsters imeem's presence in online video. Prior to this deal, imeem had only offered music videos from each of the major record labels as well as individual titles from TV and film studios, but it had no formal long-term partnerships with the latter. Although imeem describes itself as a social media network, its primary focus has been music; its video offerings have been much more scant.
Imeem is following the same script for video as for music. As imeem built relationships with record labels, it transformed itself from merely a file-sharing network to a premium content provider — minus the fee. In a previous post, I considered what imeem's position might be among subscription-based services like Rhapsody. Now that imeem has secured its first video partnership, it's time to consider its position in that field.
According to Graves, imeem's ability to differentiate itself from other services is simple. "Imeem operates as a networking space, so we have express capabilities that others don't have," he says. Also, he adds, "Other sites offer just music or just video. We combine the two."
While the one-stop shop argument is compelling, users specifically looking for video can find other sites with social features. Joost, for instance, allows users to talk to one another while they're watching (through built-in instant messaging) and to rate shows. And then, of course, there's YouTube, where users' ratings can boost clips into ubiquity through viral sharing.
The content quality, however, is likely the key differentiator here. Although the most celebrated YouTube clips are often user-generated, most users flock to YouTube to catch clips from their favorite programs or televised events (like award shows) — at least before they're pulled for copyright violation. If imeem couples legitimate offerings of licensed video content with its social features, then it can position itself as the go-to source to catch whatever episode you missed last night.
Indeed, having licensed content is essential to imeem's long-range business goals. "YouTube is certainly a strong player in the space, but its content is primarily user-generated. They have limited premium content," explains Graves. "An advertiser is more likely to place an ad around premium content than user-generated content."
This advertising model in turn will attract partnership deals with more networks, who also benefit from the revenue stream. In fact, this has been networks' main issue with YouTube and the main reason they began offering video on demand in the first place.
If imeem acquires the same strength of partnerships in video as in audio, it may very well position itself as the go-to media source — a central destination for amusement. Offering all things media would place it as a significant counterpart to social networks like Facebook, which offers many diversions that may seem frivolous. For many people, old-fashioned music and television are more worthwhile amusements. Apps are great, but they probably don't ignite water-cooler buzz.
Television networks, however, may react quite differently to imeem's offers than the record labels. While the music industry is desperate for any platform that can help it capitalize on the Internet space — given its ongoing battles against piracy — the television industry doesn't really have that type of anxiety. (Right now, they're worried about finding scripts.) And NBC's spat with iTunes a few months ago demonstrated that networks have plenty of leverage in online distribution. It will be interesting to see what other cable networks plan in light of these circumstances. Is imeem's next deal waiting in the wings, or will the cable networks take VOD into their own hands?
We'll stay tuned and see.