Profiles in Marketing: The Million Dollar Homepage

In 2005, British university student Alex Tew devised a great idea. The idea was actually really simple. He set up a webpage and divided the page into a grid of 1000 squares by 1000 squares. (A typical resolution for a computer monitor is about 1280 pixels by 800 pixels, which equals 1,024,000 pixels, so this idea of his was actually really, really simple.) He decided to sell each pixel for $1, with a minimum purchase of a 10×10 block, for $100, into which advertisers could put any image or design they wanted. So, at most, it could host 10,000 ads. In exchange for their money, the page would be guaranteed to be online for at least 5 years.

And he called it ‘The Million Dollar Homepage’. Now, why would a British university student price ad space in US dollars, not British pounds? Well, because there are more Americans than Brits.

This idea is total crap, but it is also brilliant. A homepage that has no content, only ads. The only reason anyone would ever visit it is simply to see what a homepage that made someone $1 million looks like. In fact, there are many homepages that have made their creators a million dollars or more (Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, etc). But none of them say right in their name that their purpose was to make their founders a million dollars.

The name tells exactly the reason for the page. It’s not about the ads, it’s about making the creator a million dollars. That’s why it’s not called ‘The Million Pixel Homepage’ or ‘The Million Viewer Homepage’ or ‘The 10,000 Ad Homepage’. It’s the ‘Million Dollar Homepage’. And its purpose is to make Alex Tew $1,000,000 dollars.

And it did, sort of. He sold the last few pixels on eBay for more than their list price, so wound up making slightly more than $1 million. Subtract hosting expenses. Cut in half to account for taxes, and he made a few hundred thousand dollars in a couple of months just from realizing that 1280 by 800 is about 1 million.

How, though, did Alex get the worldwide attention, if only briefly, for his site, that was necessary to make that money? The same way that a lot of non-newsworthy things get attention – when he had sold a $1,000 or so worth of space to friends and family, he wrote a press release, which got picked up by the BBC, which then got spread around the world to places where people use dollars as currency.

What did Alex gain from this experience? A few hundred thousand dollars. What did the BBC gain from this experience? Perhaps a few hundred thousand pageviews.

I think it’s possible that Alex’s story suggests a solution for the trouble that the online news distribution business is experiencing with realizing income from online viewership. Some news sources are erecting paywalls – Give us money to read our news. The Associated Press is threatening to charge bloggers for quoting its stories.

But a large channel of the modern news industry is devoted to simply re-writing press releases and publishing them as if they are newsworthy. Some items are newsworthy in their own right, of course – wars, natural disasters, unusual events, international politics.

But much news is driven largely by press releases designed for the purpose of getting free publicity. Perhaps if outlets like the BBC had charged people like Mr. Tew at the outset for covering his story, either in the form of an upfront payment or a percentage of earnings, online news outlets would not have to worry about monetizing their viewership.

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