King of the Web: A Quirky Fame Contest Primed for the Young & Savvy

2/16/12Follow @curtwoodward

This week, if you were looking in the right corner of the Web, you could have stumbled across a curious thing—a fun little video-blogging contest had escalated into a full-blown international incident.

A Swedish guy named Felix Kjellberg, who has amassed a following on YouTube for his freaked-out reactions to horror video games, was in the middle of a promising campaign. Kjellberg was collecting votes on King of the Web, a website that doles out cash and other prizes to people who win its online popularity contests.

Kjellberg, who goes by the pseudonym Pewdie Pie, was pledging to donate the $7,500 grand prize to the World Wildlife Fund. That feel-good goal, his weirdly funny videos, and the existing online fans that he constantly calls “bros” looked like a winning combination. Pewdie was in the lead.

And then the Peruvian comedy blogger got involved.

From his headquarters in Lima, Jose Romero stumbled across King of the Web and decided to jump into the contest late. He was counting on his impressive collection of online fans—more than 1 million on Facebook—to propel him to a high-speed takeover of the contest.

Romero, known online as Mox, produces comedy videos under the banner of the “What Da Faq Show.” Mox’s videos tend to be mixes of funny YouTube submissions from around the globe, overlaid with his own excited captions and multilingual commentary. A recent episode featured some Russian rock musicians playing their instruments from a platform attached to a motorcycle sidecar (while driving, of course) and an American lady being chased into her car by a particularly aggressive turkey.

Mox encouraged his legion of followers to bombard King of the Web and cast their allotted 10 votes a day for him, quickly rocketing up the leaderboard. This turned lots of heads in the game, and drew some complaints, particularly when front-runner Pewdie found Mox’s original campaign video urging his Latin American fans to win the contest over the “gringo noobster.”

An impromptu summit was convened on Twitter to settle their differences.

We are all bros!” wrote Mox, who also photoshopped his head on a photo of President Obama in a call for his fans to tone it down a bit.

Well, may the best bro win then,” Pewdie replied.

And the game wound on. In the end, despite a coalition of other participants funneling votes to Pewdie, Mox and his wild “WDF Army” ran away with the title, collecting more than 3 million votes.

His logo has taken over the King of the Web homepage, where he’ll reign for two weeks, until another winner is crowned. Oh, and he’ll get a billboard slapped up in his home city, showing his face wearing a cartoon crown.

Presiding over all this madness is a small group of designers, developers, creative types, and ad-industry veterans, holed up in a little office in Seattle. Leading the team is Maggie Finch, a former executive for pioneering digital advertising agency aQuantive who now serves as King of the Web’s CEO.

Now, instead of dealing in advertising dollars, she’s trying to attract some. The audience that King of the Web has collected is a conglomeration of YouTube addicts, meme-conscious jokers, online do-gooders, and budding individual entrepreneurs that make up a considerable slice of the young “millennial” generation.

Co-founded by former aQuantive boss Nick Hanauer and Zillow founder Rich Barton, King of the Web provides an intriguing example of the kinds of online communities people are trying to assemble in the post-Facebook era, where shared digital experiences tie people together—from South America to Scandinavia to the Pacific Northwest.

The company has a fun-loving attitude that’s wrapped around a fairly grand vision: Getting to the root of an emerging online youth culture that mixes entrepreneurship, creative spark, entertainment, and people power.

“It’s definitely an idea where if it works, it will be huge,” Hanauer told The Seattle Times last year. “It’s a big idea.”

At the coffee shop and restaurant that occupies the ground floor of King of the Web’s building, Finch sits down to recall the not-quite-a-year since the quirky company opened up its game to the public. Finch says the startup marks the first time since the age of about 15 that she hasn’t worked in advertising—she started with an internship at Young & Rubicam, and at 21 moved to New York to start an agency called iballs. Finch was later hired on at Avenue A, which wound up as part of Microsoft’s roughly $6 billion acquisition of aQuantive in 2007. After staying on in top advertising jobs at Microsoft, Finch left to start King of the Web in 2010 with Hanauer, Barton, and fellow aQuantive vet Scott Howe.

“I needed something entirely different, and this is entirely different,” she says.

Step one, of course, is grabbing an audience. When King of the Web threw open its doors last April, it found pretty quickly that people who signed up to campaign for the big title (or any of the several subcategories) would hit all the social and content sharing channels they had at their disposal to promote their campaign.

It certainly helps that King of the Web isn’t just pulling this group of people from thin air. So who in the hell are they? If you haven’t read Wired magazine’s excellent portrait of professional and semi-pro YouTube stars and the long tail of wannabes angling for some online fame and cash, go do it—you’ll get a great idea of the crowd of people who might campaign to be King of the Web. With the Google property’s Partner program, which shares ad revenue with some heavy YouTubers, some of these people are actually scraping together a career.

With those elements in place, what King of the Web does is actually relatively simple: It makes YouTube into a game. Their particular version is much more aggressive and involved than the action on the main YouTube site, where users race to collect subscribers and good ratings.

“We saw immediate organic growth, which has kind of gotten us, in 10 months, to where we are today without much spend on things like marketing. Or any,” Finch says. She wouldn’t disclose King of the Web’s unique visitor numbers, but says that “it’s not uncommon for the site to double in size from one month to the next,” with peaks around the time of election deadlines.

So now you’ve got a fun game that attracts a good-sized crowd for pretty cheap. What’s next? Building a community to keep them around longer, naturally.

Finch says King of the Web is really only starting to nail this piece of the puzzle. But she says the job is made easier by some characteristics of the younger generation the startup is courting—especially a concern for the state of the world, and their ability to change things with digital tools.

“That’s everything from being sort of global citizens for philanthropic causes, to having a say in how they consume their entertainment. There are very few millennials and younger that anymore want to be just spoon-fed by some ginormous company and feel like they’re just a pawn in that game,” Finch says. “What we realized was we had instant bonding with this group over the fact that we were empowering people to establish careers and build their brands by campaigning for King of the Web. And if they were lucky, they’d actually take home some money to help them do it.”

The money isn’t pouring in just yet—maybe more like trickling—because King of the Web has only recently started turning on the machinery that could make this into a sustainable business. But the sources of dough that would feed King of the Web are what you’d probably expect in a social/consumer Web startup.

Premium add-ons are coming soon. Voters, who make up 99 percent of the site’s eyeballs, might be able to earn or purchase virtual goods that would give them more influence to help swing an election. Hardcore campaigners have already been asking for better data and analytics—to see which online channels are soliciting more voters, for instance—and that could be part of a paid offering as well.

Advertising and sponsorships also will be key, of course. The most recent competition for “Music King” was sponsored by Audiosocket, an online service that licenses original music for advertising, video games, TV, and the like. Standalone advertising hasn’t been added yet, but Finch sees opportunities to court brands that increasingly look to social media for emerging online niches of savvy young people.

Oddly enough, the startup run by digital advertising experts made a conscious decision to banish advertising from the site at first. And they learned a fascinating lesson about their audience.

“Being advertisers and Gen-Xers, we were like, ‘Oh, let’s not put advertising on the site right away because we don’t want to lose credibility with this audience by making it seem like it’s this big product of the man,’” Finch says.

“We found out very quickly that young people had an opposite reaction to not seeing advertising on the site than we anticipated. We got e-mails that literally said, ‘I’m concerned there’s no advertising on your site. How are you funding this? Are you selling my data?’” she says. “This is an incredibly, not only net-savvy, but business-savvy generation.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • http://www.directinteractions.com Matt Storey

    cool idea and company! thanks for this article