Huddler Looks to Open Up Message Boards to Advertisers

Startup Helps Provide Audience of 9 Million for Display Ads Across Sites Such as EpicSki, Denimblog.com

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In 2007, brothers Dan and Ted Gill realized that there were online discussion communities that had been using the same communication technologies for a decade or more. It also occurred to them that they could modernize and improve the functionality of these sites to make them more attractive to advertisers. So in April of that year, they created Huddler, which does just this -- and its official launch is today.

Dan Gill
Dan Gill

Unlike the rest of the web, message boards -- many with roots that pre-date the consumer internet -- haven't adapted to commerce. Why? They're generally run out of someone's basement and not particularly display-ad friendly. And if there's any advertising going on, it's usually in the form of text ads from Google.

Over the past few years, Dan Gill, 28, and his brother Ted, 32, and a developer, have built a technology platform to make primitive online message boards more useful to users and more advertiser-friendly. Now they're scouring the web to find niche communities that might be valuable to advertisers.

So far they've signed up 24, with a cumulative 9 million unique views. But they don't approach just any discussion group. Rather, they target sites that have at least 100,000 unique visitors per month. The company was funded last year with a $5.5 million series A round by Pilot Group and NEA among others.

Unlike most startups at this stage, Huddler already has the ear of one of the biggest global marketers. CEO Dan Gill met with 26 Unilever marketing execs touring Silicon Valley in May. In New York last week, he met with Unilever's media agency Mindshare to brainstorm how the No. 2 marketer could reach these passionate audiences that have so far slipped under the radar of major marketers. Unilever declined comment for this story.

EpicSki's discussion forum, before and after converting to the Huddler platform.
EpicSki's discussion forum, before and after converting to the Huddler platform.
Mr. Gill believes there are at least 2,000 boards reaching 275 million people around the world that could be made into mini ad businesses.

Mr. Gill also looks for online communities that are "commerce-oriented," which means that discussions among members often revolve around products. For example, one of Huddler's partners is EpicSki, a website for skiing enthusiasts who write passionately about ski gear. So Huddler, which is based in San Francisco, has paired the website with Backcountry.com, a hiking and ski gear retailer, as well as Aspen Snowmass, a Colorado ski resort, and the tourism boards of Colorado and Maine.

"We'll never understand ski gear, or whatever it is, as well they do," Mr. Gill said. "We tell them, 'You focus on content and community, we'll handle tech and the business side.'"

Huddler splits revenue with the owners of the message boards, generally 50-50, but only on the revenue they're able to add to the bottom line. That means some amateur pastimes are becoming small businesses. EpicSki's founder, Joan Rostad, was able to convert what was once her hobby into a full-time job thanks to the increase in ad revenue.

David Craige, who is the creator of DenimBlog.com, started working with Huddler a few months ago. His blog covers the latest trends in designer jeans, and he says Huddler helped him out with SEO and landed a sponsorship for the site from True Religion Jeans.

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