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Originally published Monday, May 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Wetpaint poised to make splash

It's been a while since a Seattle Web startup had a major breakout, so long that I was starting to wonder if the boom was over. But that magic moment...

Seattle Times staff columnist

It's been a while since a Seattle Web startup had a major breakout, so long that I was starting to wonder if the boom was over.

But that magic moment may be happening at Wetpaint, a quintessential startup run by jeans-wearing dot-com veterans in a musky Pioneer Square office above Salumi restaurant.

Today it's releasing Wetpaint Injected, a slick new technology for adding interactivity and secret Google juice to Web sites.

Buzz has grown since details surfaced in March, and last week DAG Ventures and an unnamed person added $25 million to Wetpaint's $15 million in funding.

The technology was code-named "Balco," a reference to baseball's steroids scandal, because it's a performance-enhancing substance that can be injected into Web sites.

"It's so good it's almost illegal," joked Wetpaint Chief Executive Ben Elowitz, who previously cofounded online jeweler Blue Nile.

I think he should have called it "Botox" because it's going to be like crack for old media companies — the aging, insecure dowagers of the Internet.

Old media still get most of the ad dollars and they have migrated online. But the old birds fear their days are numbered and obsess about the attention given to the Web's pretty young things.

They're desperately accessorizing Web sites with trendy features and services, but they're generally too cheap to invest much in building new online businesses.

Interactivity isn't the magic bullet media companies need to survive. But it's a component their Web sites need to serve consumers who have come to expect two-way communication from online media.

This is more than touchy-feely Web community stuff.

For online publishers, social networks and professional blogazines, interactivity gets people to create free content on their sites, drawing more visitors and creating new space for ads.

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They're all doing a version of the Tom Sawyer fence-painting trick, while old media struggle to paint the pickets themselves.

Media companies can't go too far in this direction, though, or they'll lose their standing as journalists and producers of original content. Then they'll be crushed by nimbler Web sites built to aggregate and discuss news gathered by others, if there is any.

Wetpaint Injected doesn't dominate a host site, fortunately. Instead it appears as a discrete widget that can be placed in the comment field below stories or blog items. It displays a "reply" button, within a frame defining which content is user-generated. Within the widget, visitors may post comments and add links, photos and videos.

Wetpaint began in 2005 as an ad-supported service providing a platform for anyone to build wiki Web sites.

But the wiki craze has faded and Wetpaint's business is increasingly premium services sold to media companies such as Showtime or enterprises such as Dell. For them, it may create sites for fans of a show or a product-support wiki.

Injected goes both ways. It's available to any site, and free until it gets to 100,000 monthly visitors.

But the opportunity lies with big Web publishers. They also get the technology for free, in return for 20 percent of ad sales it generates. The 40-person company will also support and moderate the sites for fees of $2,000 to $3,000 a month.

Once again, you can go down to Pioneer Square to get a little buzz, and first injection's on the house.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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