Rovion lets Web ad personalities talk to viewers

Owings Mills firm produces videos in new field of `immersive media'

February 15, 2007|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,Sun reporter

Call it the personal touch.

Below a recent banner ad touting the Food Network's popular Ace of Cakes, cake maestro Duff Goldman walked onto the computer screen to have a chat with visitors to VH1's Web site.

"I'm Duff, from the hit reality series Ace of Cakes on Food Network nighttime," the owner of Baltimore's Charm City Cakes said. "Me and my friends make cakes with blowtorches and airbrushes."

Goldman's video is one of many that have shown up on VH1.com and other Web sites to promote television programs or products. The ads feature celebrities appearing on the computer screen to tell viewers about their latest shows or pitchmen peddling a store's latest sale.

It's a tool created by Owings Mills-based Rovion Inc. that the company hopes will help humanize content delivery on the Web.

"When someone walks onto a Web site and says something to you, it seems to break down a barrier between video and the desktop," said Rick Baker, Rovion's founder and former chief executive who is now a member of its board of directors.

Clients mostly use the technology - called InPerson - to welcome users to their Web sites and talk about new products. But Len Ostroff, Rovion's chief executive officer, said the potential stretches far beyond that.

InPerson could be used to guide visitors through a Web site, providing interactive help or telling them about a company's promotions and coupons. Rovion can track the number of times the video is played, paused, muted or closed, how much of it is watched and the click-through rate - the percentage of users who clicked on the video to get to a promotion or Web site it was advertising.

Jeff Lanctot, vice president and general manager for Seattle-based Avenue A / Razorfish, the nation's largest Web media buyer, believes that Rovion's technology has great potential and fits into a larger trend of giving users a more in-depth experience when they visit Web sites.

"I think Rovion is an example of a broader movement toward immersive media," he said, "and it's really this notion that in tomorrow's Web, rich media and interactive video ... is going to be the key to engaging users."

Rovion's technology has already caught on with a list of clients that includes Barnes & Noble, Best Western, VH1, Showtime, Cisco, HBO, the University of Maryland and Toyota, Ostroff said. On average, the ads get about a 5 percent click-through rate, he said.

While that 5 percent is much better than the under-1-percent- rate for banner ads, keeping it may prove tough, said Andrew Frank, a research director for Gartner who specializes in online advertising.

"The caveat is that for any new advertising form, there's always a novelty factor that tends to boost the rates in the early days when it's still something unusual," Frank said. "Over time, we would expect it to be difficult to maintain a rate like that."

From its small Owings Mills office, Rovion can write scripts, book talent and edit, encode and compress the finished videos. The company also has a small studio in the back of its office where it shoots videos if the talent is local. Many clients, though, opt to shoot the video promotions themselves and send a tape to Rovion to be converted into an InPerson video for the Web, Ostroff said.

Privately held Rovion has 11 employees and is backed financially by high net-worth individuals, Ostroff said. He declined to disclose who those investors are.

Ostroff said Rovion could be profitable, but instead executives choose to put all profits back into marketing, technology and sales to grow the business. Revenue in 2006 more than tripled from 2005, Ostroff said. The company's revenue this year is expected to be two to three times more than it was last year, he said.

Rovion began about seven years ago in a technology incubator in Lexington, Ky. Back then, the company was called tuneitin.com and it focused on Internet advertising for the radio industry. But that was a tough market to crack, and the company refocused and slowly morphed into what it is today.

Ostroff became involved with Rovion in 2004 when he was running Sinclair Ventures Inc., the venture capital arm of Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, and the company came across his desk as a potential investment.

Ostroff was intrigued, but Sinclair Ventures' executive committee wasn't ready to invest, he said. So when Rovion came back to Ostroff 30 days later announcing they had found funding but were in need of a chief executive, Ostroff agreed to take the post.

"I've always wanted to run my own business. That's always been my goal," Ostroff said.

The company moved its headquarters to Owings Mills, with Baker leaving his CEO position but remaining as a board member. All but one of the company's other employees eventually left for other jobs. At the time, Ostroff was working from home and the company had only two core products - a tool that changed the shape of browsers (into, say, a soda can or a car) and a video similar to InPerson that played on the user's desktop.

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