It might seem a tad hasty to call 2007 the year of widget advertising. But if a company like Freewebs has any say in the matter, the final ¾ of the year will set the tone for ’08 to be just that.
Founded in 2001 by 3 brothers with a couple grand and 1 server, the Silver Springs, MD-based company has taken the model of Geocities several steps further, allowing the average user to play publisher through unique photo-sharing, blog formatting, and profile-building tools. But in recent years, the service has evolved from a simple, free Web publishing platform and community hub into a new, viable marketing outlet for major brands like Reebok, Paramount, and New Line Cinemas—due much in part to the implementation of widgets.
With widgets, Freewebs is turning its users into brand evangelists by allowing them to embed specific branded applications into their profile pages, providing yet another revenue funnel for marketers. Exclusive promotions for films like “Freedom Writers” and “The Number 23” as well as new Reebok lines have all burrowed their way into the Freewebs community thanks to the emerging platform.
It’s all part of the next phase of advertising, according to Freewebs’ President Shervin Pishevar, who recently spoke at length with ADOTAS about his company’s history, concept and strategy. Named “Bill Gates’ Worst Nightmare” by the Financial Times, Pishevar was both affable and forthright when explaining why advertising power is now in the people’s hands.
Hi Shervin, so briefly tell me about the Freewebs backstory.
The company was basically started with $2,000 and it was running in the basement of one of our co-founders, Zeki [Mokhtarzada]. Haroon [Mokhtarzada], the other co-founder, was at Harvard Law [School] running it off the Wi-fi. I guess it hit a nerve with users around the world because it was providing a really easy way of creating your Web presence, your Web space. That was the beginning of it.
It just started growing virally without any marketing. So at this point now, we’re at 14 million active users, active sites, and we’re adding a million new users every 60 days, which is great. Right now, we’re second after Yahoo’s Geocities in terms of Web publishing, and we’re about to surpass them in terms of page views.
Tell me about what Freewebs is doing with widget advertising.
What we’ve started to innovate and what we’ve invested a lot in is building a platform that allows users to basically personalize their web spaces with widgets. We’ve been able to sell this vision to advertisers and brands that we think banner ads are a very static way of communicating and interacting with users. If they could take on the vision of advertising widgets, they have some kind of utility that has some kind of value to users, that the users themselves will begin to speak for the brand through their own voices by actually tagging their own sites with these widgets. So, all of these widgets have to be shareable and publishable.
What are some of the ways users can deploy widget ads?
One of the things we do is we allow people, with one click of a button, to change their whole website—the look and feel of the template—to take on the persona of the movie or the brand.
Can you explain persona?
It’s actually the whole interface of your site. If you clicked on the “Ghost Rider” [film widget] on the [Freewebs] site and you go to that page, once you create an account, you can actually choose a Ghost Rider website template. You can do the same thing with a bunch of the other brands. Tens of thousands of people have actually changed their entire website template to look and feel like the “Ghost Rider” ones or some of the other ones.
Speaking of the other ones, what about “The Number 23?”
For “23,” we built a whole algorithm to figure out how whatever information you put in about your life, we can compute how 23 is actually connected to your life. Everything kind of adds up to “23,” which is the whole [focal point] of that movie. [The studio] loved it.