On December 13th, Facebook launched its Events app on Android to a reasonable amount of fanfare among social tech nerds, and little mention elsewhere. The iPhone version of the app had been around since early October, peaking in download popularity at #1093 in the US iTunes store on October 8 (or #63 on that same day if you’re only counting social apps). Yet, Events by Facebook may be the most popular local events app currently on the market.
Local events listings used to be under the purview of local newspapers and alt-weeklies. But as city papers cut print budgets, most event listings on news websites became cumbersome to access. As with most consumer friction points, this is the part in the story where a new player would presumably enter the marketplace, disrupt the old way of doing things with a brilliant technology, and leave us wondering how we ever survived without it. So why is there not yet a seamless, ubiquitous solution for finding local events?
Part of the issue is likely that it is quite hard to scale local listings without relying solely on user-generated content. With ticket sales at stake, allowing local events promoters full rein of any events-listing app could quickly devolve into a spam network. But with thousands of public events across the U.S. on any given day, it would require a significant number of socially-savvy employees to qualify and sort out quality events from the seemingly endless number of nightclub DJ “specials.”
This task may be feasible for an existing tech giant, but even Facebook is still testing this method in “beta” cities. The company has not yet determined if events on their own are able generate enough revenue to to warrant a nationwide (or international) rollout.
Another event app sorting method is a social sharing algorithm — sorting events by verified users’ attendance commitments. This is part of the strategy for Facebook Events, but the method also has its shortcomings. In the his postmortem of plan-sharing app Plancast, former CEO Mark Hendrickson shared his hard-won insight that most of us, save for a handful of passionate music fans or party animals, aren’t too big on planning for public events ahead of time.
“People also don’t pro-actively seek out events to attend as you might suppose,” Hendrickson wrote. “I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking about people as divided into two camps: those who have lots of free time and those who don’t… It’s hard to generalize by saying most people are in one camp or the other, but suffice to say, there are many people in the latter. And for them, it’s hard to get them excited about a service that will give them more options on how to use their time.”
According to Hendrickson, another issue is that users don’t have much of an incentive to publicly commit very far in advance, which leads to awkward silence in the “news feed” of event-only sharing apps.
So Who’s Hyperlocal In Events?
Perhaps local events won’t be disrupted like restaurant listings and taxi cabs were. It seems that the thing people do for a night on the town is too infrequent of an activity to exist on its own, yet also too broad, depending on individual interests, for any one app to automate. City-specific apps for travelers seem to occupy a slightly different market niche. From this 2013 roundup of event apps, only half mentioned are still in existence, including travel apps, Like A Local and Field Trip.
Other niche event players are finding success too. Songkick, while it focuses solely on live music, has secured a passionate customer base among concert lovers (enough, even, to earn the ire of Ticketmaster). The app allows customers to track locations and bands, and the site also sells tickets by partnering with artists directly. Jukely, another music-only events site, sells monthly subscriptions to users. Jukely subscribers RSVP for shows they want to see, which puts them on the guest list at no additional cost.
There are a few players in the marketplace who do feature general, non-niche events. DoStuff, a 10-year old startup from Austin has expanded city by city, and now runs separate websites featuring “things to do tonight” in 21 cities across the U.S. DoStuff pays locals in each market to curate events and makes money much like a local publisher, via advertising and agency services.
I spoke with DoStuff founder and CEO, Scott Owens, who explained his that his company’s approach to events is counter to the many apps currently in the market — their content is neither automated nor user-generated.
“The thing we thought set us apart is one we had good product chops and understood the larger web as a business, but so did Eventful and Zevents,” Owens said. “Where we thought they failed was that they came at it from a top-down approach and looked at local events as a data problem instead of as a community problem. If you look at it as a data problem, it ends up being heartless, and you have a hard time building trust.”
One such newer algorithm-focused app is UpOut. Like DoStuff, UpOut is broad in scope, but the twist to this startup is akin to Jukely’s model of providing event tickets to local members. The site currently provides an event guide for four major US cities, and for $20 a month, members get complimentary tickets to events in their city. The app doesn’t seem comprehensive yet – the only live music show in NYC listed for Friday, December 16 is Mariah Carey, but app does have unique offerings, such as workout classes and sailing lessons.
And Saambaa, which debuted in 2012 as a standalone local events app, now builds custom entertainment apps for local news publishers.
Given that users aren’t really incentivized to share their plans organically, creating local event content falls to the publisher. While a white label or city-specific solution is counter to the idea of “one app to rule them all,” providing existing local brands with a more modern “to do tonight” interface may be the best hybrid solution for the local consumer.
Local events are perhaps not a good fit for one “go-to” solution; Owens sees DoStuff as a promising solution thanks to its city-by-city approach.
“Our vision for what we are and what we want to be is a cultural institution,” he said.
Megan Hannay is the CEO of ZipSprout, an agency and tool service that helps brands connect with grassroots-level opportunities for SEO and local marketing campaigns. Megan also hosts The Zip, a weekly podcast on the ecosystem of local.