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The Freewebs Enterprise: Shervin Pishevar Discusses His Company's Marketing Model, Widgets and All

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 three fourths 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, the strategy, and why advertising power has now fallen into 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.

What does 2007 hold for this type of advertising? Is it something that will breach the mainstream, and have greater impact on the marketing mix?

Absolutely. In 2005, we started talking about this whole vision, it was really early. We were able to convince Sony Pictures, to their credit, to do something around the movie, "Zathura." We basically started having little widgets and games and website templates, and it was a really great success.

But this was 2005, before anyone was really doing this at all. It was difficult to get people to buy into it early on. What we're seeing now is that all the meetings, trips, and proposals we've made are starting to bear fruit. Chris [Cunningham] has done an amazing job of being that messenger and convincing the brands to take that leap of faith. The results are really making them happy.

To me, we're at the cusp of something new, and it has the potential to basically create whole new forms of advertising inventory. It's interesting because the model is very different. It's based on interaction. I call it people-powered media, PPM rather than CPM, and we charge on a PPM basis depending on how many people spread your widgets, your ads, and brands, and so on.

PPM for us points to the future of advertising because we see ourselves within a social computing context in that this only works within a Web publishing context, where people are basically personalizing their lives on the Web. They're going to basically choose the things that they have an affinity for, and their audience is most likely going to share their affinities and passions as well-otherwise, they wouldn't really be on that site in the first place.

If that's the case, then we're basically tapping into a whole new form of contextual advertising, which is based on mutual, shared interests rather than this automated algorithm in the background. The algorithm is people's hearts, their souls, their passions, their feelings. That's meaningful.

How will widgets fare in 2007?

I look out at the horizon, and I see that in 2007, [widgets] are starting to take over. In 2008 and 2009, it's going to become a dominant force. It's going to be very meaningful and self-supporting in terms of the actual business models for it.

With widgets, do you see brands beyond the entertainment world capitalizing on this platform?

Absolutely. There's so much value that we can get in to, especially when it comes to health and pharma, [implementing] widgets for calculating your daily health, better behaviors, calorie counters, exercise-all kinds of things that people will utilize and spread to their families and people that they love so they begin using it.

It seems that overall, user-initiated media is gaining a lot of traction this year.

I think with Time magazine saying "You" being person of the year in 2006, and then Newsweek saying 2007 is the year of the widgets, it's all coming together in terms of people-powered media.

Definitely I think the days of people being force-fed content are over. That's a given. But that's just the beginning. With business models, it's usually kind of like an echo. The right business models follow these paths, these trends, these changes in behavior. It has a lot to do with anthropology, and culture, and why people's behaviors are changing. Usually, people's behaviors change when the dominant factors for all of information cease to provide the needs that they have.

People have been forced to find new ways of meeting their personal needs, their passions, their interests, etc. MySpace, you have to give them a lot of credit for really teaching a whole new generation how to take advantage and control of that. The boom that's happening is that it's spreading to every other form of media. Television, mobile and everything else will be affected by it over the next five years.

But I think 2007, for me, is more the year that the actual business models that are profitable will begin to take shape. Tying it back to what we talked about in terms of widget advertising and Web publishing as a platform for that is one of the major business models that will dominate.

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