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Uber makes a strategic shift

The site that began as a social hangout has become more of a publishing platform for its users' pages.

May 27, 2008|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles-based artist Glenn Kaino's gigantic sculptures have been installed in such prominent places as Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum and New York's Whitney Museum of American Art.

The 35-year-old Cerritos native also has designed websites for such entities as Fox television network, the Disney Channel and Mars Inc. rice brand Uncle Ben's. He envisioned creating a digital canvas, or gallery, online and had shared the concept with his cousin, Scott Sassa, a former president of NBC Entertainment who had been chief executive of the online social-networking site Friendster.

The pair created Uber.com after joining forces in 2006 and recently shifted the site's strategy. Initially, the cousins built Uber as a social hangout for the uber-cool. But over the last two years, their strategy shifted. Uber is now less of an online community and more of a glossy Internet magazine -- a publishing platform that aggregates individuals' websites for free.

Uber has vertical networks organized by such disciplines as photography, music and style. It has a group of bloggers and a recently added index, which regularly compiles new posts and commentary of contributors on the site.

"The consumer trend has been moving toward developing these sites that provide a richer and more engaging experience," said Bobby Tulsiani, an Internet analyst at Jupiter Research. "It's a good space to try to lean into, and they have some impressive things."

Uber's latest goal is to draw more users and advertiser support, said Sassa, 49, who declined to say how much the partners had spent on the website.

According to Nielsen Online, Uber.com this year had been drawing about 500,000 users a month, up from about 350,000 in July 2007. ComScore Media Metrix said Uber.com had 443,000 unique visitors in April. That was up nearly 200% from the year earlier figure of 152,000 visitors.

It is difficult for firms to measure the audiences for such small sites. Sassa puts the traffic figures at about 2 million users a month.

The venture received a boost this year when Discovery Communications Inc. signed on as an investor. The company plans to use the site to power an online forum so that fans of its TLC cable channel tattoo shows, "Miami Ink" and "LA Ink," can connect. Discovery joins Universal Music Group, which was an original investor in Uber.com.

"We've been trying to find new ways to engage our viewers online," said Bruce Campbell, president of digital media and emerging networks at Discovery.

The Silver Spring, Md., company has spent tens of millions of dollars to acquire websites during the last two years, including TreeHugger.com, HowStuffWorks.com and Petfinder.com. Discovery's minority investment in Uber, Campbell said, fits into this strategy.

"We want online components that are more than just a promotion for a show. They should be areas where viewers can explore their interests," Campbell said. "Scott has come up with a business model to build a community of people who are passionate about self-expression. It is a video-rich, photo-rich environment."

Tulsiani, however, cautioned that a stylized look and the ability to add media elements to a website might not be enough for success in such a competitive space. Many people are trying to create the next MySpace or Facebook to attract millions of users who will spend hours on their sites, leaving digital impressions that can be sold to advertisers.

"There are a lot of these sites in the works right now," Tulsiani said. "And the question is if you are a blogger, and you already have a MySpace page and a Facebook page, how many of these things do you need?"

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meg.james@latimes.com

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