Evite Promises Overhaul

How does a Web site attract more than 15 million users yet inspire near-total derision from what should be its biggest fans?

Simple: Emulate Evite, which remains the king of party-planning services despite failing so miserably to keep up with Web 2.0 technology advances that it makes America Online Inc. look cutting-edge by comparison, according to critics.

Evite "is not actually social" and has made "no progress in years," according to John Payne, CEO of CircleUp Inc., who proudly proclaims about his Newport Beach, Calif.-based messaging start-up: "We are the Un-Evite."

"I use Evite all the time to communicate with my mommy friends," confessed Charlene Li, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. But "if I sent Evites to the TechCrunch crowd, they would just laugh at me."

Influential blogger Robert Scoble criticized the ad-supported Evite for forcing users to click back to its Web site and view an ad before giving out any event information. While columnist and venture capitalist Stewart Alsop called on "some youngster" to create an Evite knock-off "that's fully buzzword-compliant, AJAX-based ... replete with mashups" that Alsop said he "might even fund personally!"

Snarky Web publication Valleywag listed Evite as number one in its list of "Companies we all hate."

Even Time magazine got into the act, declaring Evite to be the second-worst Web site.

Evite's "fill-in-the-blanks approach feels clumsy and dated. The ads are intrusive, and navigation's a drag," wrote Time in June. It summarized: "We're only mad at Evite because we need it so much, and we know it could be so much better."

Makeover by Popular Demand

For all those who love to hate Evite, a reassessment may be in the offing. For one, the site will launch later this year a trio of mobile phone features that, according to Jessica Landy Raymond, vice president of product development at the IAC/InterActive Corp. subsidiary, would help it leapfrog the crowd of start-ups now sensing Evite's vulnerability and trying to steal its users.

In an interview last week, Raymond also said Evite is "actively working" on the first overhaul of its interface in four years due sometime in 2008. It will be the first major update to Evite since 2004, when it added social networking features in response to the then-popular Friendster site, features that Raymond acknowledged no longer exist in their original form.

And in the area where Evite is most heavily criticized by the Web 2.0 elite -- its lack of integration with social networks such as MySpace.com or Facebook -- Raymond promises "solutions" are in the works.

Evite is currently looking at whether to build applications that would integrate its service with the user bases of certain social media networks, Raymond said. Those include Facebook, Bebo and Hi5, which have all openly published their application programming interfaces (API). Evite is also considering signing alliances with those players, she said.

Finally, Evite might choose to leverage its own formidable user base -- 15 million registered members, 10 million of those "active" members who have logged in in the past year, Raymond said -- and open up its API to attract its own ecosystem of developers to build widgets and Web services on top of Evite.

"We understand how young people are consuming media," said Raymond, who has worked at Evite since 2003.

At the same time, Raymond deflected criticism that Evite has been a technology laggard. She pointed out that parts of the site today take advantage of the same Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) technology powering most Web 2.0 sites today.

And asked whether social networking sites threatened to make Evite obsolete, Raymond said, "We think of social networking as a way to step away from the virtual world and get together in real life."

A Party Site Needs Friends, Too

When told of Evite's plans, Li applauded them.

"Evite is not fatally behind the curve, though it needs to add features for power users," she said.

But Li said Evite's still-vague plans to tap into the fast-growing memberships of social networking sites will determine its future relevance.

"The key to survival in this space is building partnerships as fast as you can," Li said.

The first step in its three-step plan to make Evite better at "planning casual, last-minute events" is enabling mobile phone users get text message alerts displaying Evite information such as the date and time of a party and its location, Raymond said. By December, users should be able to display a full Evite on any WAP-enabled smartphone.

The final phase will be releasing mobile phone software that allows Evite users to send group invitations from their phones to other phone users. Whether called "QuickVites" or "Evite-Lites," they will enable "real-time group planning for get togethers," Raymond said.

Evite continues to add more incremental features. By October, it will integrate into its site an online store that sells party and event accessories.

The store is a well-known retailer that Raymond declined to name, though she said it was not a member of the IAC family.

Raymond said Evite is unlikely to introduce a paid, premium service that would, for example, up the limit on the number of invitation recipients from 750.

It also has no plans to broaden its focus from planning offline events in response to competitors such as Meetup.com which has carved out a niche helping club activity organizers, or CircleUp, which does event invites but is especially adept at managing e-mail and instant message-based polls.

Other, more direct competitors to Evite, such as Planypus, MyPunchBowl.com and Socialzr remain small.

Raymond declined to comment about Socialzr Inc., which Evite reportedly threatened earlier this year to sue for copyright infringement.

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