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Media Morph: The Toolbar, Reinvented

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WHAT IS IT: Toolbars have a spammy reputation. Who hasn't downloaded one only to find it nearly impossible to uninstall? But the toolbar is back, and in better form. Conduit, a software firm with offices in Silicon Valley and Israel, is recreating the toolbar as a retention tool for publishers and an opportunity for marketers.

WHO'S USING IT: About 180,000 publishers, including TechCrunch, Major League Baseball and Universal Music Group. Publishers create their own toolbars which, once installed, stay with the user as they move through the web. The tech blog TechCrunch has a toolbar that allows users to stay connected to the news.

Greenpeace integrated its toolbar with chat and calls to action. Universal Music is creating toolbars for artists such as Duffy, sponsored by Nivea. About 38 million people are considered "active" users in that they've used their toolbar in the last 30 days, and another six people download a Conduit toolbar every second.

WHY: A toolbar boosts traffic, time spent with the brand and builds loyalty. Successful toolbars provide value to users: TechCrunch's toolbar has integrated Twitter; toolbars can include any manner of widgets, streaming audio or video, RSS feeds or links to iTunes. "Our business is aimed at providing an effective platform for publishers to build ongoing relationships with users," said president and former Viacom exec Adam Boyden.

WHAT IT COSTS: Well, nothing. In fact, it may make money. Conduit's revenue comes via a search deal with Google. It shares search revenue back with publishers once they reach a certain threshold of installs. Publishers can opt to sell sponsorships for their toolbars or not. But there is a catch: If a toolbar isn't useful or engaging, it's really not worth using. "If you don't put effort into high quality, the users will uninstall the toolbar," Mr. Boyden said.

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