Mpath expands game site into hub for live audio chat

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A multiplayer game site, dominated by young males, seems an unlikely place to find prayer groups.

Which explains the surprise at Mpath Interactive, Mountain View, Calif., when preachers, karaoke singers and language classes began gathering on its Mplayer.com game site to take advantage of its live audio chat. The feature was originally designed so people could talk to each other as they played games online.

"It's really immersive and addictive like TV," said co-founder Brian Apgar. "People spend 137 minutes a day on the site." And unlike TV, he added, "it has the personal and interactive qualities of the Internet."

On Jan. 31 Mpath introduced a new site called HearMe.com that leverages that mainstream audience, which represents the fastest growing segment of Mplayer.com. Audio chat rooms on Mplayer will now be labeled "Mplayer.com live audio community brought to you by HearMe.com."

NO ADVERTISERS YET

While no advertisers have signed up for the service yet, AT&T Corp. has already expressed interest in Mplayer's audio chat, said Kristin Asleson McDonnell, VP-strategic marketing at Mpath. AT&T bought ad inventory in December on WebViewer, an application that allows users to access the Web through a window in Mplayer's audio chat rooms without leaving the site. Branding HearMe.com will help Mpath broaden its advertiser base and offer more demographically targeted ads, said Ms. Asleson McDonnell, noting that all users must register for the service.

Mplayer, which attracts 600,000 unique visitors a month, is 75% male and 25% female, a ratio she said is expected to even out on HearMe.com. Like Mplayer.com, HearMe.com, which requires users to download a small piece of software, will play rich-media ads and allow for branding opportunities in chat areas and on icons that users choose to represent themselves on the site.

PARTNER PROGRAM IN THE WORKS

Another part of the Mpath strategy is to set up a HearMe.com partner program to license the technology to online communities, portals and special interest sites. Mr. Apgar said the company is talking to prospective clients from the top 50 Web sites, and said it's close to signing one deal.

Seema Williams, analyst at Forrester Research, said she thinks HearMe.com is a great idea. "It'll help Mplayer gain more traction in the community space," she said, and "help diversify [its] customer base outside the gamer community."

She also said the partner program could easily be adopted by entertainment sites that want to add community-building functions.

Ms. Williams sees this feature as another organic evolution of the Web. "You can put capabilities out there, you never know how consumers are going to adapt them."

Copyright February 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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