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February 5, 2009 12:00 AM

Microsoft's MSN launches new celeb gossip site Wonderwall

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano

Microsoft partnered with entertainment big shots BermanBraun Interactive to create a new entertainment and celebrity news site for MSN, called Wonderwall. "As long as has been around, we've had an entertainment channel," said Rob Bennett, MSN general manager. But people had a hard time finding celebrity news and gossip among the existing Music, TV and Movies channels. "Celebrity content is sort of sprinkled throughout."


With Wonderwall, Microsoft aims to change that and compete in its own right in the competitive celebrity gossip world.

Microsoft hopes to differentiate the site in two main ways:

Visually. "This site really makes use of the screen real estate. It uses large, beautiful photography, creates great, rich slide shows, video within the experience itself," Bennett said. Wonderwall will attempt to "decommoditize" the stream of celebrity images available from providers such as WireImage by packaging it in interesting ways and applying a unique "spin and voice" on top of it.

Editorially. The site will try to strike a balance between the "catty, snarky almost to the point of disrespectful" tone of TMZ, Defamer and PerezHilton on one end, and the "puff piece, always-positive on celebrities" tone of sites such as," he said.

They've brought in as editor Alex Blagg, founding editor of Best Week Ever. A five-person editorial team based in L.A. will write original articles and draw from wire services. Eventually, the site may do its own video work, too. "Right now we're focused on text, photos and interactive games," Bennett said.

To Bennett, success for Wonderwall will mean engaging the MSN audience more deeply, attracting more people to MSN's entertainment portfolio, and "creating premium advertising experiences." MSN Entertainment sees about 19 million unique users each month.

A tough sell in a tough economy?

Nah. "As things in the economy got worse, the sales cycle definitely got longer, but it really was a testament to the sales team and I think the product that we were able to stay in the game," Bennett said. "... [E]ven as recently as last week we were closing deals, so there's still money to be had, it's just you've really got to be able to prove a differentiated story."

Clients of MediaVest have signed up to advertise on the site at launch. Bennett is not allowed to name names, so we'll just have to wait and see.

The name, Bennett said, refers to a horizontally scrolling wall of inch-square visual tiles that form the centerpiece of the site. While it's a part of MSN, they were looking for something distinct -- and, in fact, the MSN branding on is subtle.

"We knew we didn't want to be MSN Celebrity," Bennett said. "It had to be something that was decidedly different and could stand alone and could be fun and aspirational and engaging, and not just sort of a purely descriptive portal name."

Speaking of Wonderwall, here's the 1995 Oasis hit ... after being reimagined by Microsoft Songsmith (apologies for Songsmith posts on consecutive days):

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