Cashing in on blog bling

San Francisco startup Slide has a plan to make big money off tiny free software programs now populating the Web, writes Fortune's Jessi Hempel.

By Jessi Hempel, Fortune writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- Spend any time online these days and you'll see and hear a lot about widgets. On the web, these are tiny free software programs that can be dragged, dropped, and embedded into web pages, offering everything from weather reports to sports scores.

Call them bling for your blog. They're all over the Internet -- some 220 million people used widgets in May alone, according to ComScore -- and their viral-like success has set off a frenzy over how to make money from them.

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PayPal co-founder and Slide head Max Levchin
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Slide's new model lets users doll up their widgets with ads. Here, LionsGate, distributor of 'Bratz: The Movie,' has created special graphics and a movie trailer that users can add to their slide shows.

Max Levchin, who at 23 co-founded online pay-processing firm PayPal, which was sold to eBay (Charts, Fortune 500) in 2002 for $1.5 billion, thinks he's found a way.

Now 32, Levchin has a new startup, Slide.com, a site that lets users post snapshots of friends, say, or vacations in slide-show format. Slide has fast become the most trafficked widget maker on the web; Levchin's plan to embed advertising around slide shows could help transform widgets from a web gimmick into a profitable business.

What's so special about these software snippets? Consider basketball fans, who spend game time toggling between the NBA website and their work.

They can now embed the scoreboard in their Google home page. It's a page-within-a-page, a small piece of the NBA site that lives inside a larger site. The tools are particularly popular with bloggers and MySpace users, but as Facebook and other social networks open their platforms to developers, their popularity is mushrooming.

More important, widgets are shifting the dynamics of the web. Once, people surfed from site to site to do virtual errands. With widgets, they can bring those sites to one central landing page, exercising more control.

This has grand implications for the $20 billion online-advertising industry, which doesn't work very well. Web surfers don't really pay much attention to banner ads from, say, car brands or liquor companies, and they block disruptive pop-ups.

Levchin's pitch? Do-it-yourself product placement -- let users embed ads inside their widgets. Slide users have always been able to jazz up their slide shows with flowers, stars, and the like. But Levchin's newly signed deals with several big companies -- including Paramount Pictures (Charts), AT&T Wireless (Charts, Fortune 500), and Discovery Channel -- let Slide users decorate their slide shows with logos, props, and other branded elements.

A fan of Discovery's new survival show, for example, could add a sword with the show's logo to his photos. Discovery pays only if the Slide user opts to use the bling.

Will the strategy work? There's no proof Slide users will choose to brand their photos, though Levchin insists they will. "There are definitely brands that have proven to be extremely successful at connecting with their users," he says.

Another challenge: The bigger websites that host widgets will probably demand a cut of advertising revenue. Right now Facebook lets widget developers keep any revenue they generate. At some point, however, it is likely to request a percentage of the take.

Then there's competition. Levchin has the biggest widget site, but close on his heels is RockYou.com, a startup testing its own ad strategy.

But Levchin has massive aspirations. He thinks Slide's model could ultimately be as significant as PayPal's. "Our valuation will be comparable to hosts [like Facebook] themselves," he says.

One way or another, all that bling has to be worth some cash. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.