Local Search for Events: The Great Missed Opportunity

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eventsMy jumping off point for this week’s column is a recent post from Greg Sterling, where he observes that despite all the impressive innovation around local search in recent years, no one has launched a truly useful local events service. From Greg’s perspective as a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s more difficult now to keep track of local events than back in the day when everyone looked to the newspaper as the primary source of local information, “I feel like I’m missing out on things,” Greg writes — to the point where he is ready to subscribe to the local paper again.

I have had this feeling for years and wasn’t sure if it was just me. But if Greg doesn’t know about a local events service that truly works, I think it’s fair to say one doesn’t exist. So pay attention, developers and entrepreneurs: local events need a killer app.

It’s worth surveying the field a bit to see what’s out there and what’s missing. Party planning services like Evite and Punchbowl are extremely popular and useful, containing helpful features like RSVP management and coordination of who’s bringing what to a potluck. These services are free as long as you’re willing to put up with a little advertising. Due to services like these, online party planning has been “solved” for some time now. But of course these are private events with attendees you already know.

Some party planning features would conceivably work well in an open local events forum. For instance, for events that do not involve ticket sales, it might be very useful for event planners to know who is attending, how far they are traveling, and so on. It might even be possible to organize a large and complicated event with volunteers and other participants, like a street fair or a farmer’s market, entirely through use of public online planning tools.

What of the services that are focused on public local events today? For the purposes of this column I surveyed the current state of three services: Eventful, Eventbrite, and Active. The first two are relatively well established and the third was unknown to me.

On paper, Eventful has everything you’d want: a broad list of event categories like concerts, festivals, sports, and conferences, and a decent representation of what’s happening in my local area. But it’s one of those sites one doesn’t think to check, and it’s instructive to consider why. Like Patch, Eventful is trying to provide value to local communities on a national scale. I’ve written before about how challenging that can be. Eventful feels like a place for big venues and promoters to advertise, rather than a destination for locals to share information. This is telling, because it’s relatively easy for anyone with an Eventful account to create and publish a new event. Easy, but not engaging.

Eventbrite, too, makes it easy for anyone to create and promote events. But for the part of California where I live, the content is quite thin, and again one gets the sense that the local community is not really involved. Like Eventful, Eventbrite seems geared toward providing marketing tools to promoters, not toward the everyday user.

Active is an interesting case. Focusing on sports, athletic events, and the outdoors, Active displays a surprising number of local bike rallies, 5K races, and other activities that I would not have known about otherwise. It seems the vertical orientation has helped Active to engage the community and provide more of what I would call a destination experience. It’s likely there are other vertically-oriented sites out there which serve niche groups of enthusiasts.

What about Facebook? Though Facebook has a well-established Events feature that is used pretty frequently by people in my circle as a proxy for something like Evite, I don’t find people use it for public events much at all. Facebook could do a lot to change this but it would have to overcome the bias toward only displaying information about your friends. The whole point of a good local events app is that it informs you of things you and your friends don’t already know about.

If I really want a comprehensive list of events in my area, I must turn to the old-fashioned source: the local alternative weekly. For me that’s a paper called New Times, which publishes a longstanding online and print events calendar. Locals are in the habit of listing events and checking for them on this site, though it presents only basic information with very few interactive features.

As web-based services go, the New Times site is primitive. One might argue it does all it needs to do. But surely there are smart folks out there with a notion of how to do more. Two quick points on what a new local events service might consist of. First, it’s entirely possible that something natively mobile would appeal more to today’s user than a desktop-based site. Second, forget curation. An open, inviting platform people feel like participating in, where all the content is crowdsourced and where useful tools help you build an event, not just promote it, is the type of service that will really take off.

Incidentally, I conducted an informal poll of my Facebook friends to ask where they go to find local events information. The list included the local paper and TV station websites, Facebook, Twitter, and Google News. There was an indication that Facebook may work better for event promotion in larger metro areas. No mention of Eventful and the other sites that are designed for this purpose.

Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.