The Failure of Online Event Community Sites

How does the common idiom go?  If I had a dollar every time someone pitched an online event social network to me, I’d be a millionaire?  However you word it, the fact holds true: dozens of entrepreneurs have begun to see these as financially promising business plans, and an equal number of investors might be agreeing.  Well fellow Event Planners, I’m here to tell you: THEY AREN’T (yet)!  Let me outline why you should not waste your time with these…at the moment… (Promising entrepreneurs, tune in to learn how to make a network I WOULD pay for…)

1) They Aren’t Expected
Unless a product is truly expected at an event by my attendees, I won’t pay the extra for it.  Expected things include: some food, wireless connectivity, places to sit, and possibly transportation if it is off the beaten path.  Unless you can convince my attendees that this is a necessary value add at an event and make them start demanding it, I won’t buy it (and if you have a good adviser, you’ll know that you canNOT spend resources convincing someone that you are solving a problem that doesn’t exist).

2) They Don’t Make Me Money
I am willing to pay for services that sell tickets for me.  For example (listen up entrepreneurs), I would pay you a referral fee for the first show, if you had an app I could stick on my website that told visitors who from their facebook friends was attending and directed them to buy a ticket (through a referral link.)  I would gladly pay a % of those ticket prices for the first event, and a flat fee close to that for future events – since you will have proven you work.  However, using FBconnect to do this leads to my third point…

3) They add complexity, rather than simplify.
My attendees have a network; it’s called the Facebook group, Twitter hashtag, and Flickr tag.  Alright, this isn’t ideal.  Sure, it would be nice to have one place where people see which of their friends are there, what talk they will be at, the photos they – and other guests – have uploaded, and the live twitter stream all in one place.  But so far every event network pitched to me requires attendees to register and create a new profile at the event, and monitor that throughout the show.  Too much work; people won’t do it.  When I use CrowdVine at a show, I find less than 10% of attendees actually start engaging on it.  And seeing the lack of use, those of course drop off quickly.  Conversations happen on Twitter, photos are posted on Flickr, moved to Facebook, and tagged there.  Your service just adds a complex extra layer, when it could be aggregating the existing data at no work for us.

So, entrepreneurs, fix this.  Partner with all the ticketing sites out there (I use primarily Eventbrite, but EventBee and Mogotix are some other options…).  Let “Sign-up for the event social network” be an opt-in feature at registration.  If they opt-in, pull what info you can from their ticket registration, then ask them to finalize with FBconnect, and BAM – they are part of the network.  Send them ONE email about it – letting them know they can connect with attendees, view the twitter stream, upload photos to Facebook & Flickr, and plan their agenda all in one place.  Let them opt-IN to getting alerts of who your algorithm thinks they should meet there, based on Facebook interests or friend connections, etc.  Then create this as an app on the ticketing site that I place on my page, showing anyone who lands there who from their Facebook friends is attending and take a referral fee for any tickets you sell through that.  THEN, and only then, I MIGHT pay you for the service.

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EVENT PLANNERS:
So now you know, when someone comes to you pitching an event social network, Just Say No.  Until these are perfected, I find I get about 10% engagement and little value add.  Attendees are perfectly comfortable communicating on twitter with a hashtag, and posting photos to Flickr and Facebook, where they alert other attendees to tag them.  I would LOVE to see more post-show engagement, but these social networks that pitch that they’ll do it are bogus for now.  It is not a “If you build it, they will come” scenario.  As event planners, it is our job to facilitate community growth outside of our events, not just hand attendees a walled garden and assume they’ll play.

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Comments

Hi Cass,

CrowdVine is my company and I’m sorry that you didn’t find it useful. I looked you up in our database and could only find that you were a member of one network, Future of Money. 10% adoption is miles lower than we expect so I’d like to dig into what happened at the events you attended. Could you share what other CrowdVine’s you’ve seen?

On the subject of adoption we usually set organizer’s expectations that they’ll get 30% adoption and we almost always see more. For example, I just got back from a PCMA event that had 56% participation. ALTC, which is a UK educational technology conference has close to 80% participation and last year’s FooCamp had 72% participation. We measure participation as number of people who created a contact or bookmarked a session.

We’re very clear with conferences we work with that there’s a minimum amount of community management that they need to do or their network will fizzle. It’s not rocket science, but it’s important: seed people into the network (you’re right that nobody will join an empty network, but most organizers can fake this by starting with staff/speakers), send a single clear email, be active on day one. I’ve never had any contact with Future of Money, but I’ve seen other fizzled networks and it almost always comes down to one of those three.

Regarding the solving a problem that doesn’t exist point, I built CrowdVine to solve a problem I was having as an attendee, which was that it was hard and awkward to meet people. We later added a personal schedule builder (which has the effect of helping you get to the best sessions). I’m sure some people are trading on hype around social media, but at it’s core, event social networks exist to support two evergreen goals for attendees: education and networking.

I think you’re wrong on another point, but I also think this one will make you happy. At the start of the year I counted seven event social network companies. Of the three that had venture backing, one went out of business, one launched a different product at DEMO, and another just fired their only sales guy. Another of the non-funded ones went out of business as well. That leaves three, and I know we don’t do outbound sales (it’s all word-of-mouth). So you should be getting fewer unsolicited pitches.

I’ll end by being agreeable. We do understand the need to reduce the friction of participation and have integrations with eventbrite and regonline. The people who most often raise the issue of maintaining yet another profile are people who are active social media users and for them we let you login through facebook, twitter, or openid.

Hey Tony,

Thanks so much for this input! I’m actually really glad to get it up here, and will be sure to share it. I believe that you and I are probably speaking correctly, but on different markets and experiences.

I should add to my post that I would really LIKE to see these products work. I do think that events generally still lack central online locations where people can publicly record their plans, comment on talks, network with one another, post photos, and generally build on their event experiences. I do feel that conferences less connected to social media initially (medical, legal, etc.), but thus far I’ve found that the work needed for the conferences I work on and my own shows (Future of Money, SF MusicTech Summit, Inside Social Apps, FailCon, and Girls in Tech Conference) is much higher than the return. You are correct that the organizer needs to stimulate the community, but I’ve found they actually need to stimulate it quite a bit – adding daily topics, constantly reminding people to join, asking speakers to participate, etc. and even that doesn’t pan out regularly: people continue to use Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr to connect primarily, and other attendees find that managing the two can be a bit overwhelming.

I think your point about the companies going out of business, pivoting, and losing funding points out the fact that they aren’t quite solving the problem correctly yet, as I was aiming to explain. I think CrowdVine, for example – which does have a great UI and easy application – would benefit from partnering with Eventbrite and using FBconnect (which you may already, my apologies if I am out of date) and alerting all attendees who sign up for my events to join the network – thus doing one of my jobs for me. As mentioned in the post, the opt-in at registration would be great. I think more real-time data on attendee location and check-in (Mogotix and Im Hello are working on this) would also be an incredible asset.

Overall, I should reiterate that yes, there is a problem here to be solved – which is what inspired the post. I just feel like all of the companies that are working to solve it pitch the same idea to me: we create the network generally disconnected from your other networks (some pipe in twitter #tags) that you need to sign-in to, create a new profile, and then do all the work to engage with other attendees. I would love to see one that allows you to opt-in from eventbrite, pulls your data from Facebook, automatically alerts you to people you should meet based on your friends and interest, pulls #tags and blog posts by keywords from around the internet and generally gets my community more engaged without myself, as the event organizer, having to hire someone to manage this alone.

So essentially, the post just said that event network sites aren’t worth it for the organizers…yet. They do not give me the engagement or monetary return that I would pay for…yet.

That said, I would love to be kept in the loop of CrowdVine’s development – I do think there is still a problem to be solved, and would love to help developers reach the solution. Feel free to email me at cassiph@gmail.com

Here’s a longer version of the advice we give network creators about community management.
http://blog.crowdvine.com/2010/02/01/how-to-launch-a-social-network/

We try to steer them away from situations where they have to be continually prompting attendees. I think all of your wishes for the future of event social networks are valid, but I’m also pretty sure that you could get better community activity without resorting to prompting, coercion, or email harassment. As evidence, the SF Music Tech 09 crowdvine had 169 folks opt-in and it didn’t do any of those things. That wasn’t our most successful network of all time, but I was there, and I got good feedback from attendees.

The case of other companies going out of business or pivoting is a bit mystifying to me. I think they had very similar products (social network, social media aggregation, and usually a personal schedule builder) and also started with significant advantages like being the second mover, having advisors with great contacts, active sales and marketing campaigns, money through either investment or savings, better designers, and important-seeming partnerships. We don’t have any of those things and we grow organically at a 50% clip, have always made at least enough to break even, get a steady stream of repeat customers, and high marks in our post-conference surveys. I look at our experience and have a hard time interpreting it as anything other than event social networks are ready for many organizers right now.

I’m not claiming perfection, and I think your conferences are an area where we’re not great. Our pay packages are a bit much if you have low registration fees and just a few hundred attendees. And it’s obvious from your community management experience that we’re holding on to some secret experiences that you can’t get without talking to us–a flaw for our self-service packages.

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