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'Awkward' Niche Site Tries to Cash In

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NEW YORK Back in May, Mike Bender and Doug Chernack, a pair of screenwriters in Los Angeles, got together for lunch. Bender told his friend about a trip back home where he noticed a particularly embarrassing old family photo on his dad's desk.

"I've got plenty of those in my house," Chernack remembers responding.

And so the idea for Awkward Family Photos was born with the mission of "spreading the awkwardness" by collecting those snapshots that make us wince.

Less than five months later, the site boasts 1.3 million visitors per month, according to Quantcast, and is getting nearly 1,500 submissions a week from around the world, a testament to the fact that awkwardness is "a fairly universal condition," Chernack said.

Bender, Chernack and a business-minded partner, Ivana Ma, are now turning what began as a Wordpress blog built on a whim into a micro-media empire with a book deal in place, movie and TV show concepts in preparation and its inaugural ad contract.

Beginning today, Awkward Family Photos kicks off its first site promotion, a two-week contest created around the upcoming Universal Pictures' release Couples Retreat starring Vince Vaughn. Playing off the movie's theme of couples caught in strange situations, Awkward Family Photos will solicit awkward couples shots. Viewers can vote on pictures submitted for the campaign -- the first time the site will post all photos instead of only those Bender and Chernack select -- in order to find the world's most awkward couple. The winning photo will be featured on the site's home page for a day.

The campaign came about after Awkward Family Photos pitched Universal on the concept through its agency, Ignited.

Niche sites like Awkward Family Photos are nice additions to multi-faceted marketing campaigns, said Doug Neil, svp of digital marketing at Universal, but they're peripheral to the big drivers of awareness.

"They're a nice complement to the campaign," he said. "They're not going to make or break the campaign."

Still, Awkward Family Photos hopes the deal is the first of many among brands trying to latch onto the Web's spate of viral sensations. The site is one of several ventures trying to make the leap from fleeting Internet stars to lucrative media properties. The model remains I Can Has Cheezburger, a repository for photos of cats in strange positions with their thoughts scrawled on top. That site eventually spawned two books. The genre also includes breakout Web hits like Stuff White People Like, Someecards.com and the recent sensation Shit My Dad Says, which isn't even a Web site but a Twitter feed of an often foul-mouthed retiree's musings on life.

"Basically we incubated a brand online," said Ma. "We're building a portfolio around it."

The risk, Neil said, is that Web sensations typically have short life spans.

"Six months from now, who knows if Awkward Family Photos will have the same place in the zeitgeist as it does now," he said.

Chernack and Ma acknowledged the need to strike while the iron is hot, but believe their site and others like it have staying power because of the place Internet culture occupies in people's daily routines.

"We've replaced the daily comic for people," Ma said.