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On Brightkite, ladies' night never ends

Girls-cell-phone

Two teens listen to music and send text messages on their cellphones in a coffee shop. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.

When Jonathon Linner describes his social networking website Brightkite, he sounds more like a savvy nightclub owner than the chief executive of a bleeding-edge Bay Area start-up.

Whereas most new technologies tend to favor the early adopter -- a generally male-skewed, try-everything, fad-friendly crowd -- Linner is focusing on a different audience: hot girls.

"Guys will go where the hot chicks are," Linner said over lunch a few months ago. "The target demographic is a girl in college," he reiterated in a recent phone interview.

How do you get girls in high demand to cozy up to a social network that asks users to pull out their phones and check in multiple times a day? Linner employs what he calls "the ladies' night approach."

"Bars do things to make women come there -- reduced-price drinks or free drinks," he said. "So we do things in our system to make it more inviting to women."

Brightkite's landing page is bubbly and colorful with cute cartoon characters and an emphasis on words like "simplicity."

Compare that to competing location-based network Loopt, with its shiny, sleek buttons and big map overlaid with widgets. Or the smaller but much-hyped website Foursquare, which is quick to highlight that it plays nicely with high-end smart phones.

When adding new features, Linner and his 32 or so employees have to take care not to tick off Brightkite's pioneering female users.

For example . . .

. . . Foursquare has a very popular feature called "mayors." If a user checks in on Foursquare from a place repeatedly, he or she can be crowned "mayor" of that bar or restaurant or store. But when Linner workshopped the idea for Brightkite, girls shrugged at the competitive aspect and worried that if they truly got into the spirit of the game, they would shun friends in order to discourage them from checking in at the same places.

Recurring focus groups are key to these types of insights. "Our focus groups are almost entirely based on having women come in," Linner said. "I'm sitting with underage girls all day."

Jonathon Linner, CEO
Brightkite CEO Jonathon Linner. Credit: Brightkite
Of course, Brighkite isn't made up entirely of some small "Mean Girls" clique. The site has more than 5 million users and 2 million active monthly. But about 60% are female, so pleasing the ladies is key.

In the end, "the biggest and heaviest users are women," Linner said. (He means women are the most active, not the fattest.)

DailyBooth, a photo-sharing social network, unintentionally grabbed a majority of female users, which its founder Jon Wheatley says is "working out really well." About 67% are women.

"Apparently females like taking photos of themselves," Wheatley wrote in an e-mail. And "if there's lots of pretty girls to look at, men are more likely to sign up," he wrote.

But when a site isn't targeting the cutting-edge crowd, adding or changing features can be a slow and dangerous process.

When Brightkite was rolling out version 2.0 recently, the team planned to add a relationship dynamic similar to Twitter's, where friendships aren't necessarily mutual. But the company ultimately decided to call them "fans" rather than "followers" -- the latter, it found, has a particularly creepy connotation, especially for a location-focused social network.

Brightkite attracts college students by recruiting on-campus reps (two each at USC and UCLA) and by sponsoring sorority parties with Brightkite-branded ping-pong balls (naturally, for beer pong).

But it has a fine line to walk with privacy. The company simplified its privacy features in the newest version. Facebook is working on a similar revision.

"We let 13- to 17-year-olds use the service," Linner said. "But you can't search for them. You can't really find them."

Since launching in January 2008, Brightkite is still struggling with what it internally calls "Hot Girl Syndrome." Linner has heard numerous complaints from attractive girls whose profiles have attracted some unwanted followers -- er, fans.

But the new, simpler privacy controls hope to give users added power. "It's the bouncer in the bar," Linner said.

-- Mark Milian
twitter.com/markmilian

 
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