Web destinations with a track record and a bright future.
With Google now part of the S&P 500, online ad dollars growing each quarter, and TV properties like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" leading old media online, it's easy to forget that the Web still has plenty of growth ahead. Everything from content distribution to gaming and search continues to evolve.
Online content distribution companies are only in the gear-up phase. Weblogs and personal video are being promoted to consumers online and syndicated to traditional outlets looking to resell that content.
The Web is also increasing the reach of existing media. Most cable, broadcast, and local media is available anywhere online with the right search tools. The Web also is becoming the virtual FedEx for established media. Everything from fart jokes for the morning drive time to storm footage for the broadcast evening news is delivered online. Video games are only just beginning to fully embrace broadband capabilities. Immersive experiences, virtual battle zones, and casual gaming sites are more addictive than ever. Now even banks have virtual financial islands.
The Web's current evolution is well-backed. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers' MoneyTree venture capital survey, nearly $1.1 billion was spent on software in the fourth quarter of 2005 alone, with most of that capital going to Silicon Valley-backed ventures working on new Internet applications.
Interestingly, many of the Web's best up-and-coming destinations aren't new. They are survivors of the online jungle. For now it seems, the Web offers the best of both worlds: enough of a past to assure security and enough of a future to find growth.
Here are 10 cool sites worth tracking.
Blog Me, Baby
First came independent records: Musicians took their guitars into the bedroom and recorded music. Now bathrobe-clad writers have taken their laptops and joined them. The blogging revolution is, of course, the prime example.
Blogburst.com is our pick for making the most of blog promotion. Blogburst, the latest offering from Pluck Productions, makers of the Pluck RSS reader, hopes to blur the line between traditional media and independent Weblog content. The Blogburst service tracks hundreds of blogs, finds content worthy of resale, then brokers a deal for the written piece with an established media company.
What gives Blogburst its edge over other Web content syndicators is the customers it has signed. No less than The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Austin American-Statesman, and the Gannett Co. do business with Blogburst.
Blogburst could be trouble for advertisers. After all, who is sponsoring what? If an advertiser buys space on a Blogburst blog, the content gets syndicated, and the same column runs in, say, The Austin American-Statesman, which the same advertiser also bought what just happened?
Content Finds Its Orb
Media really is going everywhere. Now anyone can take their digital music files, TV programs, movies, and cable feeds anywhere there's a computer, an Internet connection, and a Web browser. The trend is dubbed "media-anywhere."
And Orb, marketed by Emeryville, Calif.-based Orb Networks, is our pick for the media-anywhere application to watch. Although Verizon, Sling Media, and Motorola are mostly trying to charge customers for the media-anywhere experience, Orb is letting users access it for free to create traffic and impressions online.
Orb will face challenges managing consumers' on-demand expectations; we can just imagine the bottlenecks. But smart marketers could find real value in Orb's approach.
Go Ahead and Guba That
Long before iTunes, YouTube, and Google Video, music video and text were posted on free Usenet news groups. Usenet news groups were the original Web troves of media, and they remain some of the richest veins for content online.
But as useful as Usenet groups were, they were hard to navigate; it was next to impossible to find clips or images among the tens of thousands of groups in cyberspace.
That's where Guba came in. The Giant Usenet Binary Archive was started in 1998 as a commercial search engine for the Usenet. The service charges $14.95 a month to centralize Usenet search. Most early Internet fare was porn, so Guba found much of its early success helping people find adult entertainment.
But that era is over. Recently Guba stepped away from adult content and brought in professional management. It now offers a mix of videos, music, and other material that rivals other larger services.
Marketers will find Guba to be the sleeper of online content sites, particularly for consumer-generated material.
Survivor: The Web Movie Edition
Sure, iTunes attracts all the online buzz with "24" and "Law & Order," but CinemaNow has been offering first-run-quality content online for years.
The Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based company was started in 1999 with modest investments from Microsoft, Lions Gate Entertainment, Cisco Systems, Blockbuster, and others. CinemaNow has one of the largest online video rental, purchase, and subscription libraries.
The ride hasn't been easy. The company faced limited distribution, lack of consumer demand, and entertainment industry skepticism. CinemaNow was ready to offer movies online years ago, but the studios wouldn't play ball. Now that the Berlin Wall of digital content is coming down, CinemaNow is finally in a position to succeed.
The company offers a viable alternative to the emerging Disney/Apple digital oligopoly. Investor Lion's Gate made its name as an independent filmmaker and distributor.
Now CinemaNow is ready for its star turn.
"We've said for years that this would be the year for online movies," says CinemaNow CEO Curt Marvis. "But 2006 really does seem to be the year."
Me and My Radio
Think Internet radio, satellite radio, and iPods have done all the heavy lifting in digital music? Think again. Music Gremlin promises to add yet another verse to the familiar track.
Music Gremlin uses Web intelligence and storage to deliver music through multiple Wi-Fi hotspots to consumers in real time. Better yet, the stream is so smart it can deliver a customized stream to a user, in effect creating a personal radio station. Think of it: No more sitting in Starbucks downloading that new Beth Orton track.
Music Gremlin could simplify marketing for advertisers, too: The system knows what music customers like without giving away the listener's identity. That means marketers should be able to match their content with users' tastes and preferences.
Satellite Radio, Minus Satellites
In what's turning out to be an unexpected happenstance, the Web sites of Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio have become fabulous Web content destinations in their own rights.
As of the end of April, Nielsen/NetRatings data show that traffic to www.sirius.com grew by 188 percent to 1.9 million unique users in March. And www.xm.com grew 47 percent to 1.7 million unique users in the same period. Not bad.
It's not just the traffic. Users are sampling Em's and Sirius' Web sites at about the same rate they're using established music services such as Rhapsody, the Clear Channel Music Radio Network, and msn Radio. Sirius and XM also have a major hardware advantage because Clear Channel, Rhapsody, and msn need to go through iTunes to get onto the omnipotent iPod. Not so for XM and Sirius; they already have their radios.
Think of what a smart advertiser could do across both the satellite providers' Web sites and players.
Get a Second Life
Wanna be a rock star? A millionaire? Center fielder for the Boston Red Sox? "Second Life" lets you try.
"Second Life," from San Francisco-based Linden Labs, has built a digital world for people to be who they really want to be. The game's virtual world has an economy, social issues, private property, major interest from universities, and an estimated 200,000 users worldwide.
Marketers are already staking out real estate in this virtual universe. Wells Fargo Bank is testing a training island in which the games' characters, called avatars, learn about finance.
Most marketers are focused on ads for game platforms like the Xbox or PlayStation. But these audiences are limited by the number of consoles. "Second Life" could potentially offer more reach, since the game can run on dumbed-down PCs, enabling many more people to acquire the means to find their second life.
The Last Gamer Standing
Where can you go to play three of the world's hottest video games for free? Battle.net.
Battle.net, owned by Blizzard Entertainment, a unit of Vivendi Universal, hosts contests for players of "World of Warcraft," "Diablo," and "Starcraft." Although pc game sales are sagging, Battle.net remains strong. Blizzard claims about 12 million active users, who spend 2.1 million combined hours per day playing games there.
Console games are adding more interactivity via broadband, but they're still primarily solitary. They can't compare with Battle.net, which seamlessly weaves the online experience with disc-based game play. The result is a seamless experience that is attractive to users.
The bottom line: If advertisers don't know the difference between a soul shard bag and an ammo sac, they'd better get moving. The gaming revolution is here.
The Games People Play
Serious all-out players willing to create virtual versions of themselves are not the entire video game audience. Some people play games casually; and when they do, chances are they go to the acropolis of casual games: Popcap.com.
You probably have spent more of your professional life than you would like to admit sandbagging with Bejeweled, Zuma, Bookworm, or other Popcap games.
Popcap has served about 175 million downloads of its titles over the past five years. It hosts 7 million total unique users per month at Popcap.com.
The site also hosts at least several hundred thousand simultaneous users at any given time. That excludes the traffic Popcap titles generate at third party game sites like Yahoo.
Marketers should take note of casual gaming. Estimates put the total U.S. casual gaming market at about 175 million users, with usage cutting across PCs, consoles, TVs and wireless devices.
The slogan, "Do you Yahoo?" ought to have a corollary: "Are you playing Popcap?"
Mapping the Web
With Google, Yahoo, and msn, can there be anything really new in search? The answer is yes.
Several new companies, such as Grokker, Mooter, and Kartoo, are taking a different, more graphic approach to finding things on the Web. These graphic search sites display results as maps rather than lists. Kartoo.com is our pick for the best of such sites because it offers the most developed interface and tools of the map sites we tested.
Graphical search takes time to figure out. The maps seem random and there are some tricks to getting to useful results. But map search is inherently more fruitful than list-based queries, because much more information can be displayed in a map, and the format eliminates paging through endless lists of search detritus.