Yahoo Probes Social ‘Brand Universes’

LOS ANGELES Yahoo has been criticized for missing out on the explosion of social media best exemplified by the rise of MySpace and YouTube. Yet despite the lack of a Web 2.0 mega brand, the company has steadily built its arsenal of social media assets.

Now Yahoo plans to bring those properties to bear on behalf of advertisers, in the hopes of partnering with “passion brands” to generate more ad revenue. In the coming months, the portal will begin rolling out the first set of what it calls “brand universes.” These are dedicated areas on Yahoo for fans of a movie or product to congregate, share and connect with each other.

Vince Broady, head of entertainment, games and youth at Yahoo, said in a keynote address at the Digital Entertainment Media and Marketing Excellence conference here that the effort is designed to appeal to the 13-34 demographic, tapping into the several social media properties the portal has acquired in the past 18 months, such as photo-sharing site Flickr and group bookmarking site Del.icio.us.

“It doesn’t replicate the fan sites,” Broady said. “It augments them.”

The brand universes are Yahoo’s answer to the popularity of advertiser outposts on hot social media sites like MySpace and YouTube. On MySpace, advertisers have flocked to build profile pages to connect with consumers, while YouTube is leaning on “brand channels” to attract in users.

Unlike the brand areas on MySpace and YouTube, Yahoo is not asking marketers for ad dollars to build the sites. Instead, it has identified a batch of 100 “passion brands” to build dedicated areas. In its first such area, Yahoo developed a destination for fans of Nintendo’s Wii gaming system, wii.yahoo.com, which includes uploaded Flickr photos, information from Yahoo Answers, user-contributed links from Del.icio.us and videos from Yahoo’s video-sharing service.

For entertainment properties, such brand hubs can help solve a vexing marketing problem: How to keep fan interest along the continuum of revenue opportunities, like the lulls between a film’s theatrical run, game debut and DVD release.

“You begin to blur the distinction between these events,” Broady said.

Broady said entertainment properties are an initial focus, but Yahoo would expand to include any brand with a passionate fan base. It hopes to attract new advertisers to the site, letting a brand like McDonald’s, for instance, piggyback on the popularity of a movie.

Unlike presences on stand-alone social media properties, Yahoo is banking on its wide reach to drive users to the areas. In the first 24 hours of operation, for instance, the Wii site attracted 250,000 visitors, according to Broady. “A lot of our competitors don’t have that capability,” he said.

Yahoo has hit a rough patch in the past year, falling far behind Google in search advertising and seeing slower growth in some advertiser categories. In a leaked memo earlier this month, a Yahoo executive painted a grim picture of the company’s strategy, saying it had spread itself too thin by trying to be all things to all people.

Yet Broady said the current negative sentiment would not last, since Yahoo still attracts more users for longer periods than competitors like Google. Even hot social networking sites, he suggested, are at a disadvantage because they focus on one area, like video or social networking. He asserted Yahoo’s wide reach combined with its investments in social media would pay off in the long term.

“We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible here,” he said.