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September 8, 2008 5:26 PM CDT
Photo sharing hits the BIG time
by Arundhati Parmar Staff Writer

A young fan’s photo  e-mailed to FanChatter.com is displayed at the Minnesota Twins home game on Sept. 7 (Photo: Bill Klotz)
A young fan’s photo e-mailed to FanChatter.com is displayed at the Minnesota Twins home game on Sept. 7 (Photo: Bill Klotz)
Website allows sports fans to put their pictures on the Twins' Jumbotron

Serendipity does not often smile upon businesses.

Now some local entrepreneurs blessed with some of that accidental good fortune are trying to make a go of their startup – FanChatter, a mobile sports fan network that allows people to share photos and chat about sports by e-mail and text messages.

What has caught Marty Wetherall, co-founder, and four other partners of FanChatter by surprise is that what was intended solely as a marketing/promotion tool ended up being a revenue generator.

Wetherall and Slantwise Design, a local web design and development firm, teamed up to create FanChatter in the summer of 2007. The website is similar to social networking site Twitter, except it’s for sports fans. (Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to send text-based updates or “tweets” of as many as 140 characters in length to each other.)

But FanChatter’s revenue is starting to come in not through the traditional route of ad fees, but through charging for displaying on the giant video scoreboard the cell-phone photos fans take of themselves – or their cute kids – during games.

In the fall of 2007, FanChatter’s idea got a free trial run at University of Minnesota Gophers football games at the Metrodome and wound up being so popular that the Minnesota Twins signed a contract to pay for the service at all 81 of their home games this season.

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And just a couple of weeks ago, the University of Oklahoma signed on the dotted line and is paying FanChatter to do the same at their home games this season at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman.

“I don’t know whether this story makes us more interesting or whether it makes us sound more out of control, but on-the-fly we discovered not just another part of what our business could be, but also a part that was much more immediately revenue generating,” Wetherall says.

This FanChatter Stadium tool, as it’s now called, was initially supposed to be used to promote FanChatter.com by driving more people to the website, and not necessarily to make money. The idea was to sign up as many website users as possible, following the model of other social networking sites, and then to use the number of registered users to impress advertisers who would pay fees to put up ads.

“My background is in advertising so the thought was to come up with innovative ways to incorporate advertising dollars that don’t disrupt the experience of the users,” says Wetherall, who is a senior producer at advertising firm Fallon.

So Wetherall approached a friend with the Gophers football team. He wanted FanChatter.com to be featured on the Metrodome Jumbotron and thought that if fans were asked to snap photos of themselves while at the game and e-mail them to FanChatter, it would pique interest in the website. The Gophers in turn could feature some of those photos on the Jumbotron followed with the tagline “Brought to you by FanChatter.com.”

“We would be like official sponsors like Qwest is for Minnesota Twins” where they support certain features and add this was “Brought to you by Qwest,” Wetherall says of the original idea.

The Gophers went for it, and the feature proved to be such a hit that FanChatter Stadium was born.

Wetherall approached Andy Price, director of broadcast and presentation with the Twins, for whom he had done some independent marketing work previously, to gauge his interest. He was not disappointed – the Twins signed a deal to use FanChatter Stadium starting with their home opener on March 31 and ending with their last home game on September 28.

At Twins home games, the video scoreboard flashes a message asking audience members to snap photos of themselves and e-mail them to twins@fanchatter.com and promises to show those selected during the fifth inning. Fans who participate get a text message acknowledging the photo has been received. That message, branded by official sponsor Qwest, also asks fans to visit twins.fanchatter.com to share those photos.

Not every photo e-mailed is displayed on the video board, of course.

“We try to show between 40 and 45 photos per game, [but every photo] that we deem to be acceptable goes onto the website twins.fanchatter.com and people can go back and see the photo and then send it off to other people as well,” says Andy Price of the Twins.

Since the opening game on March 31, thousands of photos have been sent in. On average, fans e-mail between 150 and 200 photos per game night. The record was 449 on one night, according to Jon Dahl, another FanChatter co-founder.

(The goal to boost site traffic and sign up more users has not exactly panned out, however – the website has only about 380 users, though Wetherall says revenue from FanChatter Stadium will be used to improve the website.)

Price says it’s likely the Twins will continue to license the technology from FanChatter for next season.

“There’s not a lot in sports on video boards that catches my eye anymore, but I thought it was a unique way to bring the camera to the people,” Price says. “I thought it was a pretty brilliant idea.”

Neither Price nor FanChatter partners would comment on how much the Twins is paying to license the technology.

“Until we have worked out our pricing, it’s best to keep it confidential,” Dahl says. “It’s something that, given a dozen or a few dozen users similar to the Twins, could be a sustainable and profitable business.”

And they may well be headed in that direction.

In late August, the University of Oklahoma’s Sooners football team signed a deal with FanChatter to license FanChatter Stadium for its home games. Wetherall says he met a University of Oklahoma representative at a conference in Chicago in July and that connection, along with a positive referral from the Gophers, got the Sooners to sign up.

Wetherall hopes to extend that relationship to other University of Oklahoma sports teams, as well as college teams at other universities and pro teams in other cities.

Back home, the Twins’ Price is not surprised.

“It’s a great element that is very fan friendly that works perfect in stadiums – everybody will catch on to this,” Price predicts.

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