Poolhouse, the Toronto-based creator of pet-related applications on Facebook, recently got an unexpected but welcome phone call from the producers of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah had enjoyed playing with one of the company's applications and wanted to feature it on an upcoming show. "It's beyond comprehension," Poolhouse founder Geoffrey Roche says of Oprah's potential seal of approval. "Every time there's press it's helpful, but with that kind of press you might as well be on the front page of The New York Times."
For years, Oprah has propelled authors, fashion designers, and makers of home furnishings to new heights of success with a mere mention on her TV show or in her O magazine. More recently she's stepped up the focus on technology, introducing her millions of viewers to such Internet services as Twitter and products like Amazon.com's (AMZN) Kindle.
As a result, the tech industry is increasingly looking to Oprah to single out gadgets and online services that might have mass appeal. "Oprah has a wonderful instinct about when to bring the next technology into the public view," says Geoffrey Moore, a partner at Silicon Valley tech consultant TCG Advisors and author of numerous books on innovative technology.
Oprah's Nod of Approval: Priceless
Many trendspotters keep tabs on industry pioneers, such as Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs, and tech-gadget blogs, including Engadget. But widespread use of computers and the Internet has created demand for a more mainstream arbiter of tech taste. "She represents what the technology can do for you," says Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer at public-relations firm Porter Novelli.
Oprah learns about new gadgets and Web sites "from a variety of sources," says Don Holcombe, spokesman for Winfrey's production company, Harpo Productions. "Friends, colleagues, production staff, and tech companies who are pitching their products, to name a few." Public-relations agencies such as Beautiful Planning Marketing, which specializes in technology and fashion, strive for an endorsement from Oprah for just about every product they pitch. "It is definitely a stand-in-line process," says Beautiful Planning CEO Monique Tatum. "Everyone wants her nod of approval."
With good reason. On Apr. 17, the day Oprah discussed Twitter, visits to the microblogging site spiked 43% compared with the previous week, according to analytics firm Hitwise. Sales of the Solio solar-powered charging device, created by Better Energy Systems, were up 35% in December, the month it was featured in O. When Oprah called Amazon's e-book reader Kindle her "new favorite thing" in October 2008, Google (GOOG) searches for the term "Kindle" skyrocketed 479%. Oprah's endorsement contributed to a demand surge that left Amazon sold out of the devices by the yearend holiday season.
Tech companies particularly enjoy the "Oprah effect" because it drives interest from her primary audience of women and middle-aged adults, two groups not typically associated with tech early adopters. "The fastest-growing demographic in social media and tech are the 'soccer moms'—35- to 50-year-old women—and Oprah owns that demographic," says Vivek Sodera, co-founder of San Francisco-based Rapleaf, a researcher of social media trends.
An Endorsement for the Nintendo Wii?
So what tech toys might Oprah introduce to her audience next?
Harpo is mum on the matter. But ever since celebrity gossip site TMZ posted pictures of Winfrey shopping for a Nintendo (NTDOY) Wii in Hawaii, the video game industry has waited to see whether she would officially state her allegiance to the mom-friendly console. Nintendo may soon have to compete for Oprah's affection: On June 1, Microsoft (MSFT) unveiled plans for a technology that, like the Wii, will let players use body movements during game play. But Microsoft says its technology is aimed at a more mainstream audience.
The Oprah effect doesn't extend to all corners of techdom. While her satellite radio program is popular on Sirius XM (SIRI), her TV show has surprisingly little traction on the Web. Although ABC.com parent Disney (DIS) recently announced it would begin showing several shows on popular video site Hulu, it hasn't yet announced plans for online broadcasts of Oprah, which is syndicated to the network.
And although Oprah helped drive awareness for Apple's (PRODUCT) Red iPod Nano in 2006, a music player that benefits rock star Bono's charity, the talk show host has yet to discuss one of the hottest gadgets of the moment, the iPhone. That may be because Oprah loves her BlackBerry. She recently told a crowd at New York's Lincoln Center that she wrote an entire magazine article about First Lady Michelle Obama for Time (TWX) magazine using the device, made by Research In Motion (RIMM).
Plans to feature Poolhouse's application for Facebook have not officially come together, says founder Roche. Harpo says it is not planning any new show at this time because taping for the current season has been completed. The company did not comment on the plan to feature Poolhouse's application. But in the event Oprah does decide to give the tool her imprimatur, Roche is ready. Poolhouse has doubled server space in hopes an on-air endorsement materializes.
Click here to see 20 tech products and services that have received the Oprah treatment.
Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek in New York.