NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Meetup is one of the first great applications for the social web, famous for helping vegans, pug owners and salsa dancers find one another, not to mention a key role in the ascendance of President Barack Obama, who used it to organize supporters. Now it's attempting to be a brand-building medium, too.
Unlike most social-web start-ups founded early in the decade, Meetup never had any aspiration to become an ad-supported business. In fact, co-founder and CEO Scott Heiferman was flat against it.
Mr. Heiferman did his time in the online-ad business -- he founded and sold early ad network Itraffic to Agency.com in 1999 -- and was determined that Meetup would have nothing to do with eyeballs for dollars. "Ad people view people as things that are targetable," he said. "Once you step outside of that, you see it as ludicrous, because people are busy living their lives; they aren't about brands."
So he built Meetup not as an ad platform but as a fee-based service, charging $12 to $19 a month to the more than 100,000 group organizers in 3,600 cities around the globe. But along the way, Meetup organizers started finding sponsors of their own, and brands started knocking on Meetup's door.
"Initially I said, 'This is pure community, and there's no room for sponsors,' but organizers said it makes their meetings better," he said. So three weeks ago, Meetup formally opened the doors to a new line of business that allows a marketer to make one call and sponsor, say, 100 Meetups.
Desperate to influence the conversation and make one-to-one connections online, brands are busy courting bloggers, minding chat rooms and seeding Twitter. But a number have also started sponsoring Meetups to build relationships with offline groups. Mr. Heiferman likens it to his father's paint shop, which sponsored a little league team -- except it's scalable, with national advertisers.
That's the interesting part of Meetup's offerings: The groups and events may be smaller than other sponsored events, but there are many of them, which means even large advertisers can reach a large volume of targeted consumers.
Sponsorships take a lot of shapes, but all involve a monthly donation to the group to cover organizer fees, buy coffee or just provide a free venue for a book club. The idea is to keep it small, cheap and simple so it can scale. American Express Open, Huggies, Sony BMG and e-mail-device maker Peek are sponsoring thousands of entrepreneur, parenting, music, sports and moms' groups around the country.
In addition to cash, some sponsors form direct relationships with group organizers. American Express, for example, provides materials for entrepreneurs and small-business owners that offer advice on themes such as e-mail marketing. "Members know we're sponsored by AmEx," said Patrick Schwerdtfeger, who organizes the 938-member Entrepreneur and Small Business Academy Meetup, which convenes monthly in the Berkeley Public Library.
AmEx, of course, has a mammoth marketing budget. Start-up Peek, on the other hand -- not so much. Peek's new portable e-mail device made plenty of best-of-gadget lists in newspapers, magazines and blogs, and the company is targeting grass roots to build word of mouth. Its sponsorship of about 100 mom-focused Meetup groups is the gadget-maker's biggest marketing play.
"The goal is to get Peek into the hands into people we build the device for and we think its perfect for," said Marketing Manager Jeremy Downs.
That meant sending three Peeks to Melony James, organizer of the 224-member Toddler Adventure Group in San Jose, Calif. Peek also started depositing $30 a month in Ms. James' Amazon account to cover her Meetup dues and snacks for the kids. "I like the Peek because it's simple to use, not targeted at techies," she said. "They pitched it quite well."