MTV Contest Helps Net Hook Up With the Future of Digital

'Incubator' Venture Rewards College Students Who Have Developed Innovative Web 2.0 Concepts

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Matthew Fargo never could have guessed that his drunken college rap battles with his friends would someday earn him $100,000.
RapHappy, the recent winner of the MTVU/Cisco contest, is the brainchild of two NYU students. MTV execs expect its traffic to soar.
RapHappy, the recent winner of the MTVU/Cisco contest, is the brainchild of two NYU students. MTV execs expect its traffic to soar.

But it wasn't slick rhyming skills that earned Mr. Fargo and his NYU classmate Ben Luduc-Mills their cash -- it was their keen sense of online business models and viral marketing that persuaded the bigwigs at MTVU and Cisco to shell out enough grant money to pay for their college educations and then some.

In good company
The project, RapHappy.com, is this year's winner of MTVU and Cisco's "Digital Incubator" contest, a venture launched by MTVU and Cisco in 2005 to harvest innovative Web 2.0 concepts by leaving the ideas to the demo most likely to lead its future: college students. Mr. Fargo is in good company. The program's first year has already yielded successful projects, such as "How Do I Say This?" an advice wiki that yielded its own short-firm series on MTVU this month, and "Hit! or Sh!t," a "Hot or Not"-esque video-ranking platform that recently was licensed by MTV to be rolled out across its key music platforms.

Each site is conceived as an external project, and there's no guarantee it will join the MTV family from the get-go. But Mika Salmi, MTV's president-global digital media, is constantly looking for ventures to add to MTV's rapidly growing portfolio of more than 300 micro-sites. "If it fits what we're working on, there's no doubt [we'll want to license it]," he said. "We want to work with outsiders and be connected to them in some way but still give them the tools of content promotion. These are new companies, and we want to be supportive of that."

For the contest, MTVU and Cisco put an emphasis on monetization and unique impressions. MTV pitched in on the advertisers, signing up at least one major marketer to help take RapHappy into the branded-entertainment arena in early 2008 (a Digital Incubator first). Mr. Fargo also projected RapHappy.com would have 1.5 million visits a month by this time next year, along with 600,000 registered users. That's a tall order for any social-networking site, but Mr. Salmi and a host of other MTV execs are bullish. "What's amazing about the product is it is very viral: You can add other people's raps, upload raps on a mobile phone, and if they hit the right vein, you can hit critical mass," he said. "It'll just take off."

MTV is hoping to make Digital Incubator a bigger deal next year and is seeking a new sponsor, as Cisco will be ending its two-year commitment to the program. Cisco's gotten "tremendous value" out of the program, said Claudia Ceniceros, senior director of Cisco's media-solutions group, adding that the company will launch its own college-targeted product in 2008. Stephen Friedman, general manager of MTVU, said he's in conversations with several of the network's sponsors to become the next Digital Incubator partner.

More schools soon
"[We're] figuring out how we maintain the core of discovering great student talent but also how we work with sponsor-customized content that speaks to where they're going as well," Mr. Friedman said.
Stephen Friedman, general manager of MTVU
Stephen Friedman, general manager of MTVU

Jeff Yapp, executive VP-program enterprises for MTV Networks Music Group, said MTVU will add more colleges to the lineup in an effort to help foster the next Mark Zuckerberg or Tom Anderson. "If you look at companies like Microsoft, Apple, Facebook or MySpace, so many of these ideas were spawned by these guys in college." Mr. Fargo will be finishing up his master's in Japanese literature at Berkeley, a degree that surely could help him take RapHappy to international levels. "Hey, Japanese people like to rap," he said.
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