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Your real-life network: How GroupMe lets you create a private social group


May 31, 2011

Jared Hecht and Steve Martocci often commiserated with their friends about not being able to get in touch at concerts and music festivals — namely while seeing their favorite bands Phish and  The Disco Biscuits.
They would email about their plans ahead of time, but once everyone was at a specific event, they had trouble staying updated about meeting places and times or noting changes in plans.

Sometimes this was due to spotty cellphone or 3G-network service, and, other times, someone wasn’t checking his or her email, or didn’t have a smartphone.

“We realized that they didn’t have a great tool to communicate before, during and even after these events,” Hecht says. “People had feature phones — not everybody was checking email all the time.”

So, Hecht and Martocci (who worked for Tumblr and Gilt Groupe, respectively) decided to combine their entrepreneurial spirit and love of technology to solve a basic problem.

The New York-based twentysomethings founded GroupMe last summer “to build a tool that would make this experience a lot easier,” Hecht says. “Text messaging just seemed like the most intuitive way to go about it. It worked on all phones. It worked all the time. Everybody already knew how to use it and it just seemed kind of silly that this didn’t exist. It was like, ‘There’s texting.  What’s the next logical step in this chain? Group texting.’  So we built it.”

At the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas this past March, countless people were using GroupMe and according to Mashable, it was  “undoubtedly one of the most-buzzed about apps” there. CNN has called GroupMe “an essential addition to your app library,” Gizmodo referred to the platform as a “lifechanger” and Bloomberg BusinessWeek named the duo to its “Best  Young Entrepreneurs 2011” list.

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GroupMe’s premise is group messaging and conference calling for everybody. “One way to think of it is like ‘reply all’ text messaging, creating a group that works on any single phone,” says Hecht.

Each group receives its own phone number.  You can share this number with your family, coworkers or friends from college — it doesn’t matter if they have an iPhone or an old-school feature phone.

When anyone texts that particular number, the message goes to everyone in the group.  When someone calls the same number, everybody’s phone will ring and they are placed in a group conference call.

“The concept of groups is part of this overarching theme of private social networks,” Hecht confirms.  “Broadcast social network sites like Twitter and Facebook have made communication and human interaction online very sterile because I don’t have the private medium to say things I want to my family, co-workers, college friends or fantasy football league.”

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There are useful business implications for the platform beyond connecting family and friends in social settings.  This tool can be beneficial whenever you’re collaborating or working in a team, Hecht says.

“It makes communication more efficient, sharing information so much more rapid.  You’re instantly in touch with everybody you need to be in touch with through the click of one button — to start a conference call, send people a message — and you know everybody’s going to get it. People talk all across the country, the world. [Texting is] pretty much the dominant form of communication.”

Brands can also use this tool, as it  essentially creates a private social network. “These are groups of people who know each other in real life, and that’s a powerful connection that brands have never been able to tap into before,” Hecht says. “Usually brands are engaging with consumers on a one-to-one basis, or blasting out [communications] to many of them.  We’re making brands talk to people who know each other in real life.”

Hecht uses the example of friends watching a TV show who can use GroupMe during the show to talk about it.  That brand or  TV show has the ability to interact with this group of real-life people through the platform and its Featured Groups.

As part of its Featured Groups, GroupMe has partnered with two TV shows, Oxygen’s “Bad Girls Club” and MTV’s “Randy Jackson Presents America’s Best Dance Crew;” two events, Coachella Music & Arts Festival and Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival; and the band Bon Jovi.

There are more partnerships in the works.

“[These brands] want to have the ability to inject themselves into real-life conversation,” Hecht says. “That’s something they haven’t had a chance to do.”

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GroupMe also creates opportunities for marketing sponsorships and events.  At South by Southwest, the company sponsored the GroupMe Grill.  “It’s a throwback to music festivals where you get out of a show and [people are selling] grilled cheese [in the parking lot], so we gave out free grilled cheese and beer,” Hecht says. “There was this great density of people who are technology lovers, early adopters, who love to play with new applications —  it was great visibility for us.”

He says to stay tuned for future plans surrounding live events:  “Whether it’s a music festival, convention or conference, we want to have a presence.”

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The overwhelming trend in social media, Hecht hypothesizes, will be toward more privacy. He describes the social media space as competitive, hyperactive and continually blossoming into a place with too much going on — too overwhelming, too public and too sterile.

Hecht believes that mobile technology is not necessarily the “third screen” anymore, but is now the one screen for reaching today’s on-the-go consumer.

“These private groups represent what we call a real-life network,” he says. “Mobile is how you reach anybody all the time, so this is — without a doubt — the future.”

Amy Jacques Amy Jacques is the managing editor of Tactics. She holds a master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Email: amy.jacques at prsa.org



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