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

10/12/11Follow @wroush

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that they wanted to connect their users to each other within their dot-com domain. So that if you’re on TMZ, you can connect with your friends and people with similar interests around the content on TMZ.”

Sternberg and his co-founders liked the idea of giving the conversations on Meebo a focus, so they took several cracks at the problem. One was Meebo Me, a chat widget that publishers could embed on their Web pages. Another was Meebo Rooms, a private rooms feature that could be opened from Messenger or the widget or embedded in public Web pages.

Then came the Meebo Bar, which had the huge advantage of being present all the time—it’s affixed to the browser frame for a given site, rather than being embedded in the Web page itself, so it doesn’t disappear as users navigate the site. “If you are trying to build a layer that connects people with people, then you can’t get interrupted when you scroll or move from page to page,” says Sternberg. “It has to be ubiquitous.”

Of all the startup’s products, the Meebo Bar “is what took off from a traffic perspective,” Sternberg says (about 40 percent of U.S. Web audience hits a site with a Meebo Bar at least once a month). “Initially, it was just a way to get IM out there, just to let people talk to each other. But with that out there, you could also do inviting, sharing, navigation, and so much more.”

When its big swings have turned out to be a big swing-and-a-miss in terms of profitability, Meebo hasn’t been afraid to walk away. A case in point: the company turned off Meebo Rooms last week, even though the four-year-old feature still brought in 15 to 20 million unique visitors per month. “You have to be careful to allocate resources to what’s really killing it, and the bar as a platform is killing it,” says Sternberg.

The “platform” part is key. Meebo sees the bar as the launching pad for new products and experiences, the latest one being check-ins. The feature hasn’t shown up yet on every site with the Meebo Bar—it’s still “somewhere between alpha and beta,” Sternberg says, meaning it’s being tested with selected publishers, such as CafeMom and Pep Boys.

If the check-in feature has a tactical goal, it’s to help Meebo users learn more about each other’s interests. If it has a strategic goal, it’s to help brands build communities of like-minded consumers who can evangelize to each other. “If you think about how you discover content on the Web today, it’s either search, which is very specific and pulled by the user, with high intent, or it’s social—the cute cat videos on Facebook, which are pushed to the user, and low-intent,” says Sternberg. Check-ins provide the best of both worlds—a social recommendation (which can be more authentic and trustworthy than either a search result or an ad) in the context of a high-intent situation. “We are trying to find you great content, and obviously that has interesting implications around advertising,” Sternberg says.

Meebo is clearly in the explosive-growth phase that every startup hopes to hit: revenue tripled from 2009 to 2010, and will triple again from 2010 to 2011, says Sternberg. Twice as many people will see the Meebo bar this year as in 2010, and repeat advertisers are spending more with the company with each campaign. “They had a crazy-aggressive plan for the first half of the year, and they exceeded it,” notes Sequoia’s Roelof Botha. Getting to this point may have taken a lot of cash, but Botha says that’s not surprising. “There are all these things that make it very easy to get a startup going these days, but getting going and building a large, sustainable company are not the same thing,” he says. “Hiring the right people, building your sales team, building an international footprint, all of these things remain necessary.”

The bigger a company gets, though, the smaller the number of other companies that can afford to acquire it. Will the startup’s work on things like the Meebo Bar and check-ins ultimately translate into a home run for its investors?

“I hope so,” says Sternberg. “I don’t think there are many properties that reach 40 percent of the U.S. Internet audience, that enjoy an 0.8 percent engagement rate, where a user spends 60 seconds of time inside the rich media unit once they engage, that is doing very substantial revenue. So I would hope so.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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