FOWA Expo Day One: I Can Has Cheez Burger

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FOWA Expo 2008.jpgBeing an approaching 40 something male with a hatred of cats I can’t for one second ‘get’ the whole LOL cats thing. Nor do I even begin to comprehend why anyone over the age of 16 would find deliberately mistyped, largely unfunny, captions of felines amusing enough not only to pass on to friends but post on the web. But after yesterday’s speech from Ben Huh, CEO or chief Cheez Burger of I Can Has Cheez Burger even I found myself checking out pictures of cute animals.

“You need enthusiasm, you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously,” Huh told the audience at FOWA (Future of Web Applications) Expo – a slightly geekier, low rent version of Le Web 3 but with some stellar speakers (Digg’s Kevin Rose, Maholo’s Jason Calcanis and the biggie, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg). “All we’re trying to do is give people five minutes of fun each day,” he adds.

Like Shiny Media has tried to do over the last three years or so, I Can Has Cheez Burger has built up an impressive audience by tapping into people’s love of pets. And has now expanded into other areas including politics with Pundit Kitchen. (this image of a banker phoning his Mom to see if his room is still available made me chuckle).

And like Shiny Media, the publisher of Tech Digest, I Can Has Cheez Burger also uses a blogging platform (in this case Word Press) to publish its blogs. “We account for 10 per cent of Word Press’ traffic,” Huh claims. Even some of the network’s smaller sites are doing 125,000 page views a day which is a mightily big figure, given that they’ve only been around a year or so.

What is particularly impressive about Huh is his honesty and openness. “We really hadn’t got a clue what we were doing when we started out. We weren’t cool at all.” Huh says they have grown the business by focusing on developing the community aspects of the sites. “Our hardcore fanbase is only 1 per cent of our readers so we concentrate on the much larger ‘casual user’ and encourage them to become fans.” This is done through a ‘conversion funnel’, trying to hook people by getting them first to rate content, then commenting, then finally uploading their own content.

And while this may all sound like a cynical ‘marketing ploy’ from anyone else, you don’t get the feeling that Huh is using anything more than good old common sense to develop his business. Similarly, when it comes to developing the sites his mantra is basic common sense: ‘keep things simple’ and just ‘get it out there’. “If you ask an engineer to move this podium across the stage, he would probably develop a little robot to do the job, rather than just pick it up.”

Certainly there is nothing technically complex in the sites – and they don’t even look that great with their ill-fitting, flash based adverts littered all around. “We use seven ad networks, way more than most people recommend, but we have been profitable from day one and it works for us.” They also make money, of course, from merchanding including the latest Dumb and Dumber ‘bumper stickers’ featuring John McCain and George Bush

Key to the company’s success has been its policy to ‘encourage thefting’ by letting people upload images on their sites. Though a journalism graduate, Huh is also largely dismissive of writer’s copyright issues. “Don’t be afraid to let people cut and paste your content – as long as you are properly credited with a byline and the publisher’s details it’s free syndication and publicity.”

shinychris