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Maven offers system to tap into online marketing

Over the last two years, automaker BMW North America has attracted more than 40 million broadband Web surfers to download special eight-minute, Hollywood-quality thriller videos that just also happen to be eye-candy advertisements for BMW luxury cars like the Z4 Roadster.

The success of BMWfilms.com in reaching an audience of likely very willing buyers for its products has served as a key lesson for a new business venture in Cambridge called Maven Networks, whose backers include Jeremy Allaire, of Web-publishing start-up Allaire Corp., now part of Macromedia, and John Landry, former chief technology officer of Lotus Development Corp.

After more than a year operating in so-called stealth mode with little publicity, Maven this week will begin selling a software package that companies can use to create their own broadband video marketing campaigns similar to BMW's. Maven already has some big-name customers, including film studio 20th Century Fox, which is using a Maven system to promote a Russell Crowe movie that comes to cinemas in November, and Virgin Records, which is using Maven to promote new music from singer-guitarist Ben Harper.

Maven is a prime example of the new modes of advertising and information distribution that industry analysts have long envisioned taking flight once the United States gained a solid base of high-speed Internet subscribers. As of the end of June, major US cable and telephone companies counted more than 20.7 million subscribers for cable modems and telephone-based digital subscriber lines, according to Leichtman Research Group of Durham, N.H., and millions more Americans have access to high-speed Net access at work or college.

"Now that you have a critical mass of broadband subscribers, not just in the US but many other countries as well, people want to gravitate toward richer and richer forms of media," Hilmi Ozguc, cofounder and chief executive of 25-person Maven, said in an interview. "What we're all about is combining the video quality of television merged with the personalization of the Web." Ozguc is a former top executive of the ExciteAtHome broadband cable service.

Maven envisions companies buying the system, at a price starting at $50,000, to serve consumers like BMW fans who want to watch video clips that would include interactive features such as ways to buy the product or join an advertising mailing list.

For movie studios that often spend $30 million or more to promote films through the mass media, a Maven system could be a much less expensive way to reach the people most likely to buy tickets.

20th Century Fox is using the system to promote "Master & Commander," a 19th-century naval warfare epic starring Crowe that is set to debut Nov. 17. People interested in the movie will be able to sign up to download trailers, interviews with Crowe, and behind-the-scenes short pieces about the making of the movie. As the debut nears, the system will offer ways to buy tickets online.

Similarly, Virgin Records is distributing through Maven a promotional video for Harper's new song "Diamonds on the Inside." Recipients who redistribute it to five more friends or relatives will get access to a previously unreleased digital version of a Harper song and can use the system to buy compact discs and concert tickets. National Geographic has also bought a Maven system to promote its cable television shows to broadband Net subscribers.

Maven's system requires users to spend about 10 seconds downloading a piece of software that serves to boost existing computer media player programs so they can offer full-screen, DVD-like video and sound through the PC. Users of the system require Windows 98 or newer operating system from Microsoft Corp. Because of the chronic limitations of "streaming" media, which transmits content in real-time bursts, Maven has opted for a system that requires a video clip to be downloaded in its entirety and stored on a computer hard drive for replay later.

Ozguc said Maven envisions people arranging to have the downloads transmitted over high-speed connections late at night or during times when they are not actively surfing the Web. Links to show the clips would then show up in e-mail, roughly like signing up for an online magazine or newsletter subscription. In any case, Ozguc said, the service would be limited to people who opt to sign up for it. "The last thing we want to do is encourage video spam," Ozguc said. "If I'm going to be advertised to, I really want to know about things that actually interest me."

While online marketing is one of the obvious first uses for Maven's system, the company also envisions developing markets for companies to sell subscriptions to sports highlights, similar to an ESPN online service that has more than 3 million subscribers, and distribute interactive video user manuals for products and instructional seminars. Maven has received $5 million in venture capital funding from General Catalyst Partners of Cambridge, where Allaire is "technologist in residence."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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