United Virtualities Preps “Ooqa Ooqa”

Rich media ad firm United Virtualities — best known for its Shoshkeles “takeover” ad format — is branching out into new territory with the upcoming release of a browser-rebranding product.

The new offering, dubbed “Ooqa Ooqa,” is intended to be used by consumer portals and corporate sites, who could then offer visiting Web surfers a rebranded browser that would feature a graphic — like a corporate logo — in lieu of the default gray background of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or AOL Time Warner’s Netscape browser.

The rebranded browser also could feature customized tools — like a dictionary, or a stock chart, for instance — in addition to embedded hyperlinks. The browser — and thus the tools — could be updated every time a user clicks in their browser, so that a stock chart, for instance, would update every time a user visits a new Web page, or a weather icon could reflect the current local conditions.

Some of these tools could be configured to appear only when users visit certain pages. For instance, a currency converter button could be made available when a surfer visits a financial news page.

New York-based United Virtualities is anticipating that corporate marketers would want to use the Ooqa Ooqa (which, like the Shoshkele, gets its moniker from the nickname of a founder’s daughter) to extend their brands beyond their Web site. For instance, a food manufacturer could provide a customized browser on its site with a calorie calculator, or a financial services company could offer stock information.

United Virtualities also is eying online media publishers as potential clients of the technology. In this scenario, Web portals could sell embedded links or a portion of the browser to an advertiser, meaning that they could use the technology to not only extend their brand into to the gray perimeter of the Web page, but to create another sellable advertising unit. (Whether publishers would consider such units valuable — or whether sites are looking for ways to increase their inventory at all, remains another matter altogether.)

“Our aim is to enhance the browser experience while creating a branding experience for [sites’] own brand,” said chief of staff Ivan Entel. “This is by using a part of the screen previously being used by Microsoft or Netscape for their own branding purposes.”

Another intriguing fact is that the code used to launch an Ooqa Ooqa-rebranded browser is small enough to be trafficked through an ad server, so that a site theoretically could deliver different browsers (with different advertisers) to different sets of users, depending on their online profile.

Entel said the firm was undecided on pricing models for the Ooqa Ooqa.

To assuage users’ concerns over privacy and permission, the Ooqa Ooqa can only be launched when a user clicks to “opt-in,” and the browser features a prominent button that disables the custom browser — allowing them to “opt-out.”

Additionally, Entel said the technology doesn’t collect any user information beyond that normally obtained by Web sites — like visitors’ referring pages, their current page, and the links they click.

“There is no further intrusion to your privacy than a regular Web visit to your site,” he said. “Are we keeping track of the user’s itinerary? No, we are not.”

The customized browser can be configured to revert back to usual when users leave the site where they activated it, or until users quit their Web sessions altogether. United Virtualities said it has no plans to permanently rebrand users’ browsers — they must still download the enhancement during each browsing session.

While the product is new, the idea is similar to a number of efforts pioneered in the late 90s that have attracted a number of advertisers, but which to date have met with middling penetration among consumers.

One of the widest customizable-browser products was launched by software developer Neoplanet, which offered a tweaked interface to Internet Explorer that could accommodate different “skins.” The product landed advertisers including USA Networks, Universal Pictures and Jack Daniels.

HotBar, a startup with backing from Deutsche Bank and other large investors, has been marketing its rival solution for more than a year. In addition to “reskinning” users’ browser, HotBar also suggested links related to a site that a user is visiting. So far, marketers including Priceline.com , Keen.com and Alta Vista have experimented with the company’s eponymous offering.

United Virtualities, for its part, is planning to launch its foray into the field later this month, and said it’s in talks with several undisclosed clients. It also confirmed that it has exhibited the technology for Weather.com, but as of yet, has no contract with the site nor any other advertiser.

Nevertheless, the firm is optimistic that sites will demand the Ooqa Ooqa because of its embedded tools, which make for a more valuable proposition for consumers.

“Here, you can offer something in exchange for the user paying attention,” Entel said. “A rich media banner is something that could be effective or not, it’s arguable, but as a user, all I’m getting in exchange is relinquishing a portion of my screen real estate. The Ooqa Ooqa is a much fairer proposition. Hopefully, [sites and advertisers] can convince [consumers] that this is a good deal for them.”

News Around the Web