Pangea’s Quiver of Quizzes for the Social Media and ‘Brand Hacking’ Era

Are you smarter than Paris Hilton? If you could know the exact time, date, and location of your death, would you want to know? Which Harry Potter character are you? If you could only have one home gaming system for the rest of your life, which one would you pick?

It wouldn’t be hard to spend your whole day responding to online polls focused on burning questions like these. Indeed, answering the polls, surveys, and quizzes that have spread across sites like MySpace and Facebook is one of the most popular pastimes on the Internet. But quick—can you name the company that provides the technology behind most of these Web-based polls and quizzes? Don’t worry if you can’t. It’s a low-profile startup in Watertown, MA, called Pangea Media.

Named after the massive proto-continent that began to break apart 250 million years ago, Pangea is far better known through its network of Web properties, including Quibblo, Quiz Rocket, and SnapPoll, which together serve up more than 50 million quizzes and polls a year. These sites contain hundreds of quizzes built by Pangea, but they also bring in traffic by letting users design their own quizzes, which they can then embed in their blogs or social-networking profiles for their friends to try.

Quibblo Front PageThe company also has a lucrative business creating specialized polls and quizzes for advertisers around their brands. Instead of a regular banner ad for a BMW, for example, imagine an ad with a quiz offering the chance to find out “What model of BMW are you?”

These “adverquizzes,” as Pangea founder and CEO Seth Lieberman calls them, try to turn advertising from an annoyance into a form of entertainment. They earn higher rates than typical display ads, and their yield for advertisers goes beyond simple exposure—the adverquizzes also bring in e-mail addresses and other information that companies can use to build relationships with individual consumers down the road. Some adverquizzes are also customizable, meaning users can mix their own content in with the branding message and embed the new material on their own sites or profiles.

“Quizzes are actually an amazing framework for engagement and connectivity between advertisers and users,” Lieberman told me during a recent visit to Xconomy’s offices. “They’re highly engaging. They’re part self-discovery and part entertainment, and they’re highly viral.”

Lieberman says that after his success with Focalex, a Boston-based e-mail marketing and lead generation company that he sold to Intermix Media (then the parent company of MySpace) for $4 million in 2004, he wanted to try building a content-oriented Web 2.0 company. But it had to be something that would scale up naturally, with a large market, and that wouldn’t take a whole lot of capital to get underway. “We really wanted a model that was content-rich, but content-agnostic—we didn’t care whether it was focused on health or parenting or careers or casual entertainment,” Lieberman says. “That’s why we liked quizzes, because they can be written about anything.”

The company concentrated on building a single quiz platform, called QuizEngine, that would be able to handle everything from quiz creation to quiz taking to advertising and the Flash-based widgets that quiz builders can embed in their own sites. (For an example of a Quibblo widget, see the quiz at the end of this story.) The whole service is hosted at Pangea’s site “Running it all off of the same code base, the same technology, is the only way to scale multiple sites and make it manageable,” says Lieberman. “That’s one of the things I learned at Intermix—they made a lot of acquisitions, and you can’t effectively run seven sites on Python and three on PERL and six on Ruby.”

Lieberman says Pangea has “a very West Coast mentality” about the content of its websites—most content creation is left to users, for example—but “a very Northeast mentality” about revenue and money. In other words, it wouldn’t have rolled out its free quiz creation tools without having a plan for monetizing QuizEngine through the branded adverquizzes—such as a quiz last year that invited users to see which cast member from the MTV musical film American Mall they most resembled, or … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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