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 a personality test used to help market the movie Hotel for Dogs.

“One of the things that Boston companies do pretty well, sometimes to their detriment and sometimes to their success, is focus on revenues,” Lieberman says. “There are fewer Boston companies that are just building something cool to see what happens. That’s unfortunate when things like Twitter get developed out west, but it’s fortunate when companies like LogMeIn actually make money.”

Straddling that line between cool and pragmatic seems to be working so far: Pangea will turn three years old this fall, has about 30 employees, had 2008 revenues in the “eight figures,” according to Lieberman, and is profitable. The company’s combined sites bring in about 12 million unique visitors per month. Pangea is funded by angel investors, including Lieberman himself. Steven Kane, the co-founder and former CEO of both Gamesville (sold to Waltham, MA-based Lycos in 1999 for $232 million) and GameLogic (a Waltham developer of online loyalty programs for casinos), is also an investor.

Pangea’s growth has been mainly organic to date, though it acquired a company called LaughNetwork last fall that brought an extra million visitors per month. “We’ll be looking for more acquisitions down the road,” Lieberman says.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I told Lieberman that I didn’t quite understand why Web users are so willing to spend their time interacting with branded adverquizzes—which, after all, are still advertising.

“There’s probably a slight disconnect between the way you think about advertising and the way people use our quizzes,” Lieberman answered. For one thing, he says, the branded quizzes offer people a convenient way to express themselves, through products and company names that are universally recognized. “For example, you’re drinking out of a Starbucks mug. That immediately tells me about your coffee tastes. It’s something I can understand without knowing you very well.” (He certainly caught me there.)

But there’s also a viral mashup aspect to many of the adverquizzes, Lieberman says: most of the adverquizzes allow users to create their own offshoots by rewriting the questions in the original quiz, then sharing the new quiz with people in their social network. “People love to take brands and make them their own,” he says. “They’re hacking them, if you will. And hacking and customization around the particular brand that you want to talk about is much more common than you may think.”

Pangea is the best around at helping advertisers craft these customization opportunities, Lieberman believes. “Any little company can create a quiz, and people do all the time,” he says. “But really building engagement and understanding how virality works and bringing the audience to advertisers—that’s really hard to do well.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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