In the beginning was a great idea: let’s create a Web site that makes it easy for people with similar interests to find each other and coordinate face-to-face meetings. And so Meetup.com was born, and grew, and grew. Along the way it became part of the massive, amorphous “social networking” set of companies (which includes LinkedIn, Orkut, Ryze and most famously Friendster.
All of these companies now face the same challenge that hit thousands of dotcom experiments squarely between the eyes just a few years ago: how do you monetize your customer base without producing a mass exodus?
Today Meetup.com announced that their free service was going to a fee-based model. And they’re not going to survive the transition.
First off, let’s look at their marketing communications. I got the following email from “email@example.com”:
Hi Meetup Member,
We have some important news to share with you about new features and a required monthly Group Fee paid by your Organizers on behalf of your Meetup Groups.
To learn more, visit: http://www.meetup.com/changes/t/news_i/
– The team at Meetup.com
What’s missing from this message? Any reason why I would want to remain a member and any enthusiasm for the change. The “new features” are a lie: read the Web page and there’s no mention of anything new. This is basically a “hey, we need to get some income” and when you go to the Web site you can see that they forgot the basic 21st century communication imperative of make it personal.
Instead, I would have liked to see a message from Scott Heiferman, Meetup.com Co-founder, that said
“Thanks for being a part of the Meetup community. When I created the company X years ago, it quickly grew to fill a need I had to network and meet other people with similar interests here in New York. I’m delighted – in fact, all of us here at Meetup.com are thrilled – to see how popular the site has become. But growth has a cost, and I need to tell you that the Meetup service is being reinvented on 1 May, 2005, in a way that will have a direct impact on you.
First off, we’re adding a bunch of new features, including X, Y, and Z, we’ve forged an important new partnership with ABC, Inc., and we’re hiring additional programmers to ensure Meetup remains the best networking tool on the Web.
While we’d love to continue having Meetup be free for everyone, we’re going to be switching on 1 May to a different model, one that will require meeting organizers only to pay a small per-event or per-month fee for our system. Since you’re already a key part of our community, we’re going to extend a 60% discount through the end of the year – for only $9/month, you’ll be able to explore all our new tools and see how easy and fun it can be to organize events, from the most informal to the most complex. In 2006 our fee will be increased to $19/month, and we’ll have some other pricing models at that time too: if you have some ideas on how you’d like to see our service priced, please email me directly!
Finally, I realize that a small percentage of you will leave our service because of this new fee, and that saddens me. If you think about how valuable your time is, I’m sure you’ll realize that saving even 20 minutes/month is more than worth the minimal fee we’re requiring. And just wait… if you could see what’s on our drawing board, what’s queued for release in the next twelve months, well! You’d be as excited as I am.
Meetup hasn’t hired me as a copywriter, however, so instead they’re garnering the predictable strong negative reaction from the online community, ranging from bloggers (check out technorati for that) to Businessweek’s Tech Beat writer, Rob Hof, who quotes an email message he received about Meetup.com: “There isn�t anything Meetup is doing these days that users can�t simply do on their own and more effectively, and there�s plenty of open source software out there to make use of and create your own website as I have done.”
That’s exactly right. When your business is a commodity service, how do you survive the transition from free to paid without sweetening the transaction? The answer: You don’t.
And that’s sad, because Meetup.com was a fascinating little company.