In the past few years, the development of location-based services and the proliferation of smartphones have given rise to a number of social discovery apps aimed at connecting students on college campuses. Much has changed since Facebook hit desktops in 2004 — 20-somethings can now coordinate on-the-go, putting plans in place in real time.
College meetup app Wigo (short for “Who Is Going Out”), which boasted a valuation of $14 million earlier this year, capitalizes on the ubiquity of smartphones among students as well as that group’s propensity to party — aiming to put students looking for a night out in touch with each other. Similar to Facebook’s first days, users need a college email address to register. But once five percent of students at a given college take the plunge, their college has unlocked the app, and users can let classmates know where they are headed for the night, updating their peers on the best spot to gather for the evening and streamlining socialization.
Street Fight recently caught up with Wigo CEO and Founder Ben Kaplan to talk about the location-based meetups, and the social climate fueling his startup’s success.
What technologies have emerged in the last five years that have made Wigo possible?
Smartphones are definitely the number-one thing. Location services is huge and having more activity with LTE and 3G allows these smartphones to be little computers anywhere in the country.
I remember I used to share my family computer with my sister and we’d each get 30 minutes to go on AIM, and that wasn’t that long ago, and now I’m on the way to class or on the way to work, and I’m making plans on my phone.
Many apps have surfaced that center on the discovery of a target in a stable location, such as a store. But Wigo relies on event discovery. What are the challenges to event discovery as opposed to the discovery of targets in stable locations, and how does Wigo overcome those challenges?
This space we’re in — this social planning space of event discovery is really, really hard. No one has really nailed it yet. The key to Wigo that has brought us some success and that we will continue to make the app more geared around in the future isn’t so much the event or the venue or the details — it’s connecting people. One way to do that is through chat, like Tinder, for example; it’s social discovery, but then it becomes a conversation.
People don’t make social plans like robots or computers where they say, “Am I going out? Okay, yes. What time? Eight. Where? Okay, with whom?” That’s what a lot of these companies try to force you to do when you make social plans, but we’re geared toward just connecting people quickly.
How did Wigo first obtain a critical mass of users? What strategies did you use to popularize the app?
As cliche as it sounds, a big part of it is image and branding. It’s about having a cool brand and throwing parties that are very exclusive — that people want to get into. The biggest thing is getting the right people at the schools. When we were going to schools in the fall and spring, we would first go after the most popular fraternity on campus. We were trying to find the best fraternities or sororities, and if they’re the people having parties anyway, they have social influence, and people are going to listen to them. So at our best schools, it sounds corny, but the coolest kids were on board, and people follow.
How do you reach out to students on given campuses?
We have a whole team of folks who are in charge of that. By pooling all of our connections as young, social people, we were able to get 10, 15, 20 schools. From there, we leveraged what we had to branch out. We asked users to refer their friends from home who are at different schools. Basically we would create groups of socialites on different campuses, and then we’d plan a PR day where all those people would all post at the same time on all their social media that Wigo is coming to that campus. Everyone at that school would see it three, four, or five times, download it, and then we’d unlock that school the first Friday night after that. That was kind of like our bread and butter.
What do college campuses provide that other markets don’t?
The college market is a beautiful place to start something, especially something that requires the network effect. A lot of companies that have tried to do this type of thing in the past have launched in places like Boston, New York, or Philly. But it takes a ton of people using this all the time for it to be valuable. The schools that we were able to get the critical mass at — 20, 30, 40, up to 80 percent of the school using Wigo — it actually helps you figure out what you’re doing that night, whereas if five of your friends only in New York are using it, you’re not going to use this, you’re just going to text them. So the beauty of college campuses is there’s a finite number of students around, and you can build up a critical mass on a waitlist and then unlock the school and have success right away. Also, college kids all have smartphones, and they’re socially plugged in; they’re used to using social media for things like chatting and making plans.
Is there any pattern to the college campuses on which Wigo works best? For example, does the app work better in urban environments than in rural areas?
I lost a lot of sleep this year trying to figure out what those patterns might be, but we had success pretty much across the board, so it was a little frustrating in that there wasn’t a single recipe for success. It’s more about the people at your school using it than it is about the size or the location. It really depends on the core user base that is excited about it.
Joseph Zappa is an intern at Street Fight.