It’s not exactly party time these days at Evite, the pioneer of online invitations.
The West Hollywood company faces several significant issues: withering criticism of its advertisement placements, increased competition from subscription-supported online invitation companies and a formidable challenge from Facebook.
Chief Executive Hans Woolley said that Evite has been late to RSVP to its challenges, including the need to adapt to the new world of social networking.
Evite, a subsidiary of New York Internet giant IAC and long known for its free service people use to send out e-mail invitations to parties and events, is rolling out a revamped website. It features an easier process for creating and sending invitations; updated designs; and new features including Facebook-like comment threads, where party guests can write to each other on the event’s Evite page. Woolley also dropped hints that a new mobile application and a paid service will be offered in coming months.
The redesign comes after years of criticism. In 2007, Time Magazine named Evite one of the five worst websites. The following year, Wired Magazine gave the site a scathing review in its “Why Things Suck” feature.
The new look of the site comes as a result of that bad reputation.
“This is certainly a response to a lot of the old criticism of the site,” Woolley acknowledged. “The main reason for redesigning the site is to bring a fully upgraded Evite to our users that is contemporary and modern.”
A common criticism of the old system is the large banner advertisements that are automatically slapped on invitations, even if party planners don’t think the advertised product should be associated with their events. Beyond that, Evite has been criticized for offering little design flexibility, and it has a cumbersome process to set up and mail the invitations.
In contrast, newer invitation websites, such as New York-based Paperless Post and Laurel Canyon-based Cocodot, offer paid services without ads and more design options.
Cocodot Chief Executive Shawn Gold, a MySpace veteran, and his wife, Amy Neunsinger, a photographer, founded their subscription-based business in 2009 because they didn’t like the big ads Evite puts on its invitations.
“You can’t send out an invite for your 50th wedding anniversary with an advertisement for Tide,” Gold said. “We wanted to make invitations beautiful enough that you can do your wedding online. That’s what prompted us to get into the space.”
Woolley, who joined Evite in May 2009 from another IAC company, New York-based comparison shopping website Pronto.com, acknowledged that finding ways to make the ads more acceptable to members and their party guests can be challenging. As part of the redesign, Evite changed ad placement on its invitations and even eliminated some ad positions.
But Gold, whose company positions itself as a high-quality invitation designer and boasts clients such as Vanity Fair, said that changing ad placement might not be enough to allay the concerns of Evite’s disgruntled users.
“Evite can make itself look better, but the ad model still creates a big barrier,” he said. “My wife would just not want to tie that on her holiday party.”
Sites such as Cocodot and other forms of competition apparently have cut into Evite’s traffic. The website had 6.3 million visitors in July, down from 9.5 million the same month last year, according to Internet traffic tracker Compete.
Nevertheless, Evite continues to dominate the online invitation market. The company claims that 27 million registered users send Evites for 7 million events each year. Cocodot, which officially launched in March, has 22,000 users, only 0.8 percent of Evite’s member base.
Woolley said that despite rising competition, it’s clear that Evite is the market leader of Internet invitation sites. He intends to keep it that way.
“We serve the broadest audience,” he said. “Part of the reason we can do that is because we have a free service.”
The company doesn’t release revenue figures.
Some industry experts question whether having the biggest audience means that Evite can bring in the most bucks.
Jeffrey Cole, director of the USC Center for the Digital Future, said the numbers don’t matter if the business model doesn’t work. He just doesn’t believe that ad-supported invitations will last.
“It’s a bad model, free with advertising,” he said.
Cole believes a better model is one with no advertising at all or one that offers users a choice of free invitations that include advertising or invitations without advertising but must be purchased. The latter is called the “freemium” model.
Woolley hinted that an ad-free invitation could be in Evite’s future. The company has been researching other ways to monetize the site and Evite members might soon be offered the choice of keeping ads off their invitations by paying a fee.
Cole, however, is skeptical that the 12-year-old website will be able to successfully alter its business model to the freemium model.
“It’s difficult to get people to pay for something they already get for free,” he said. “They need people to understand the advantages of a freemium model.”
It could be several months before Evite attempts to break into the freemium business. But with its redesign, the site is also responding to another competitor: Facebook.
The social networking giant doesn’t send out email invitations, but it does have a feature that allows its 500 million members worldwide to invite “friends” to events with a relatively simple process. As a result, the site has cut into the customers who once turned to Evite for its free invitations.
So Evite has set up features made popular by Facebook’s event page. The company has added a conversation thread that lets guests talk to one another about topics such as what potluck items to bring and post pictures from the event.
“The conversation feed has become a ubiquitous feature online and we’re a little bit late in introducing that utility to the site,” Woolley acknowledged. “By far our most popular form of feedback from members was to open that up and allow a more fluid form of communication.”
A test version of the redesign is on the site and users have been trying out new features and commenting on them.
Some comments indicate that the revamp hasn’t yet solved all of Evite’s problems.
“New Evite looks prettier, but not liking anything else about it. Not very user friendly,” one person wrote, and 66 people then clicked that they agreed. “Your new site is not intuitive or easy to use,” said another. That got 38 clicks of agreement. “The advertisement overwhelms the invitation on the first page,” according to another comment. That got 28 clicks of agreement.
Evite engineers are still working on the redesign, so maybe more people will be happier when it’s complete.
Cocodot’s Gold said Evite’s reputation might be tough to shake.
“They’ve dramatically improved Evite with this redesign, but one of the issues they’re going to have is 10 years of branding,” he said. “It’s very difficult to overcome such a legacy.”