Checking In from the Meebo Bar: A Social Startup’s Latest Big Swing at Bat

“Meebo has a culture of doing what we call ‘big swings at bat’ every 12 to 18 months,” Seth Sternberg is saying. “We try something new, a hard project that’s highly innovative. And either it’s going to flame out wildly, or succeed wildly. If it works, great. If not, oh well, it was an experiment. It keeps things interesting.”

I’m meeting with Sternberg, Meebo‘s CEO, at the company’s San Francisco office, opened recently to accommodate the dozens of engineers and salespeople who prefer not to drive to the startup’s Mountain View headquarters. He explains that he and his co-founders Sandy Jen and Elaine Wherry started the Web messaging and content sharing service back in 2005, so they’ve had time to try four or five of these big swings. The most ambitious one before this year was probably the 2008 launch of the Meebo Bar, a strip of ads and social-sharing buttons that Web publishers can add along the bottom of their Web pages. Before the bar, Meebo had been known primarily for its Web-based instant messaging service, which allows users to communicate across AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo, Facebook, Windows Live, Google Talk, ICQ, and other IM networks without firing up actual IM software. The new bar included those functions—but far more important for the company, it carved out a valuable piece of screen real estate that Meebo could use for advertising and other features.

When you hover your mouse cursor over the ad at the left end of the Meebo bar, a multimedia ad appears on screen, often showing video spots. Today at Seventeen‘s website, for example, you can select from videos about Virgin America or the new Mini Coupe. Rich-media advertising launched from the Meebo Bar now brings in the lion’s share of the company’s revenues, which have tripled in the last year. Sternberg says 80 million unique users per month see the bar, and that 0.8 percent of them click on the ads. While that may sound low, it’s actually about 10 times the industry average for Web display advertising—and what’s more, the average ad viewer spends 60 seconds looking at the ads, twice as long as a typical TV commercial. No wonder 200 brands, like Starbucks, LG, Samsung, Toyota, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, have signed up to advertise through Meebo’s network.

Meebo CEO Seth Sternberg

Now Meebo is at bat again, and Sternberg is hoping that its next hit will go equally far. The company is adding a “check-in” button to the Meebo Bar. The term comes from mobile social networks like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places, and the concept is similar, except that Meebo check-ins are tied to the Web, not a physical location. When you check in at a website such as CafeMom, a record that you visited is added to your Meebo profile, so that your Meebo friends and followers can see where you’re hanging out online. By following other Meebo users who check in at your favorite sites, you can find new sites that might interest you. If you check in enough times at one site, you can become a VIP (Meeboese for mayor) and earn rewards.

The buzzword for all this is “social discovery,” but Sternberg puts it more plainly. “Meebo lives at the intersection of content and people,” he says. “We do a lot of research, and it turns out that people really want to learn about sites from other people. So when we were thinking about check-ins, we were thinking about how to hook up people with similar interests, and how to use that to make navigation easier.”

But there’s another motive too. Every time users click on the check-in button, they’re telling Meebo something about their interests—and that’s information the company could use to serve targeted ads, which typically have higher price tags. “If you look at the Web check-in stuff, at some level that is about delivering better brand content to users,” says Sternberg. “If we know you are really into road cycling because you have been checking into a lot of road cycling sites, it would be great to put an ad for Trek [the high-end bicycle maker] in front of you.”

Meebo certainly needs to sell more premium ads, because as fast as it’s growing—it passed 200 employees this summer, more than a quarter of them just hired this year—it has some very high expectations to meet. Over the last six years, … 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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