A Small Web Empire Built on Cuddly and Fuzzy

Calendars and coffee table books filled with pictures of cute, cuddly kitties and sad-eyed puppies have been around for decades. So what explains the success of Cute Overload, a new page-a-day desk calendar that recently shot to the top of its category on Amazon.com and, more remarkably, to the upper ranks of the site’s overall best-sellers list?

Stranger still, the birth of Cute Overload was almost purely accidental. Meg Frost, a 36-year-old design manager at Apple, started cuteoverload.com three years ago to test Web software. Within months, it became an online institution, drawing about 88,000 unique visitors a day — about the same as the political gossip blog Wonkette. BoingBoing linked to Cute Overload, saying that viewing the site "is like taking a happy pill."

And in that warm feeling lies the reason for its popularity. Given all the nastiness on the Internet — blog trolls, flame wars, vicious gossip, pornography, snark and spam — what better antidote is there than looking at pictures of tiny ducklings waddling in a line or kittens splayed on their backs, paw pads in the air?

The most famous cute-animal Web sites are presented with a touch of self-mockery. The site I Can Has Cheezburger? features cat pictures with ungrammatical captions, Stuff on My Cat displays photos of objects stacked on sleeping cats, and Kittenwars.com pits pairs of cat photos in a cuteness showdown.

Like those sites, Cute Overload is "cute, but not cutesy," says Ms. Frost. "There’s definitely an edge."

Ms. Frost has not given up her day job at Apple . "I actually love doing both, though it’s pretty crazy," she said. Viewers send her about 100 submissions a day, and in doing so, grant her full republishing rights, she said. Ms. Frost is free to reuse the photos as she pleases. The calendar’s success may be just the beginning. She hints at other projects, possibly including a video channel.

She is astounded at the calendar’s success. That it did so well on Amazon last week — and sold out in a day — "is totally ridiculous," she said.

Ms. Frost will not talk about how much money she has made from the site, although it is enough money that she recently hired two part-time assistants. Nor will she say how many calendars have been sold. But the calendar’s top ranking in its category — accessories — and its reaching as high as No. 21 last week on the overall category — books — are indications of its success.

The site’s ads are placed by Blogads, which handles advertising for about 1,500 blogs, including the gossip site PerezHilton.com and the political site Daily Kos. On Blogads.com, advertisers can view traffic numbers for each site and the cost of various types of ads. According to Blogads, a "premium" ad on Cute Overload costs about $2,000 a week, with an estimated 808,000 page views. Hartz Mountain currently has a premium spot for its UltraGuard line of flea and tick repellents, as does American Apparel for its Essential X 3 line of underwear three-packs.

The site also offers "standard" ads for $500 a week. Those are taken up mostly by small companies serving what might be called the "cute market." Sublime Stitching, for example, sells "cute embroidery patterns," like "Forest Friends," while Shanalogic offers clothing and accessories emblazoned with cute imagery.

According to Blogads, there are nine "standard" ads currently running on Cute Overload.

That’s good money for a niche site. By comparison, Daily Kos is running one "second slot" ad for $7,500 a week and three standard ads for $4,650 each, according to Blogads, which says the site offers nearly 8 million ad impressions a week, about 10 times as many as Cute Overload. (Daily Kos’s "premium" slot, offered at $15,000, was unsold as of Tuesday.)

It is all about niches and demographics, said Henry Copeland, founder of Blogads. The audience is overwhelmingly female and between 18 and 34. "For these women," he said, "recently graduated from college and sitting in grim corporate America, Cute puts them in touch with their nonwork selves. It’s escapism."