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X's, O's and $'s: Portland tech start-up links consumers, advertisers

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X's, O's and $'s: Portland tech start-up links consumers, advertisers

PORTLAND — A start-up technology company that includes School Board Chairwoman Kate Snyder has updated a classic pencil-and-paper game to market businesses to tech-savvy consumers.

Snyder, her husband Colin, and their Kenwood Street neighbor Bob Bruce make up Zylo Media, which rolled out its first product, BoodleUP, in Portland last month.

BoodleUP allows consumers to play a tic-tac-toe-style game and win prizes from local businesses online at boodleup.com or via a free smartphone app. Players click on the nine squares in the game to reveal tiny ads from merchants; click on three identical ads in a row, and you win the prize.

In Portland, the prizes include free samples of products or services from two dozen businesses, including Planet Dog, the State Theater, The Holy Donut and Rosemont Market & Bakery.

Consumers play BoodleUP for free; Zylo Media makes money by charging the businesses that participate.

"(BoodleUP) is a great chance for exposure, with very little risk," said Leigh Kellis, owner of The Holy Donut. "For us, it seemed like a no-brainer."

Kellis said her Park Avenue donut shop has seen "moderate results" since it started advertising through the game in December. So far, customers have only redeemed the shop's most inexpensive BoodleUP prize – a single free donut.

Still, she said, the advertising approach is a "cool idea."

Players are offered prizes about once during every minute of game play. But after accepting a prize, they are "locked out" from winning others for a period of time that depends on the prize (typically, a week).

Having to make that choice – and forgo other giveaways – leads consumers to become more "engaged" with the products and merchants they select, according to Bruce, who co-founded the company in 2009 with Colin Snyder.

"The goal is to create a mutually enjoyable experience between the player and a local company," he said. He contrasts this approach, which he calls "decision marketing," with intrusive forms of digital marketing such as pop-up ads.

"It's a different dynamic," Bruce said.

He also distinguishes BoodleUP from online communities such Groupon and LivingSocial, which offer members discounts on products and so "train customers not to appreciate the value" of the advertisers, he said.

So far, about 300 Portland-area residents have signed up to play the game. Many of those players were introduced to BoodleUP when a prototype was tested a year ago. Zylo currently has a patent pending for the technology.

After receiving $400,000 in seed money from investors, Zylo launched the commercial version of the product in Boston last April. More than 2,000 Boston-area players are now enrolled.

But Portland is home for Zylo, said Kate Snyder, who started working for the business full-time about a year ago, and today handles sales.

"Our goal was always to come back and open in Portland," she said.

The Snyders and Bruce are all originally from the New York City area, but moved to Portland about 20 years ago. Bruce is an entrepreneur who came to the area to advise Native American tribes in Maine on business strategy; the Snyders both worked in technology.

When Bruce got the idea for BoodleUP in 2008, he went next door to talk about it with Colin Snyder, who is a programmer.

Now Bruce is hoping to have about 50 Maine advertisers and almost 2,000 local players on BoodleUP by this summer. Those advertisers may include companies from areas including the Mid-Coast, Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn.

Eventually, he said, Zylo may seek another round of financing and explore development of other products or other markets, such as Burlington, Vt. Portland would probably remain the company headquarters and operating center.

When asked why, he cited the influence of the Maine Technology Institute, a nonprofit incubator for start-ups, and the example of local biotechnology company IDEXX Laboratories.

"We all love being here," Bruce said. "Our goal is to build the company here."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.