Away From The Madding Crowd-Source
While I am not really a Foursquare fan (call it "check-in aversion") I am a frequent user of Yelp and a few other local user-gen directories. In a locale where many other users contribute reviews, a decent database of opinions on local spots can be a genuine resource. But at the same time I have been impressed by a parallel but different phenomenon occurring in the e-mail segment: the local recommendation services like Thrillist, Groupon, Daily Candy, etc.
In many ways these services defy the database-driven, crowd-sourced ethos of many local mobile services. They are not trying to impress the users with comprehensiveness or user reviews. They take a highly selective view of the local options and focus on just one or two great finds at a time. It is interesting to me that in the Google age where completeness and scale seem to be the currency of digital, I find these highly refined and "undemocratic" resources refreshing and useful.
"Thrillist is very top-down," says the company's CEO Ben Lerer. "We make suggestions and say what is cool." His company has created a classic, targeted, editorially driven product in a crowd-sourced age. His daily emails target the young male hip demo with real reviews by professional critics who act as the filter in a region. When the company was started over four years ago, its VC funders told Thrillist they were not to buy market share but build an audience with rich, editorially polished review content. Now the email list is approaching 2 million, and in some locales like my Philly region, the map is dense with accumulated reviews for shops, restaurants and pubs.
What is most interesting about the iPhone app that Thrillist launches today is how it is teaching the company new tricks that it will use to revise its Web and email strategies. For the 14 markets Thrillist serves, the app pulls in only items that are geo-tagged to your location and fall into the shopping, eating and drinking categories. That geo-location functionality, which works nicely in the app, is going to be folded into the next iteration of the Thrillist Web site, says Lerer. They are learning from mobile and recognizing that the phone is teaching users new ways to relate to information that they will come to expect from all platforms.
"What mobile has forced us to do is recognize the lifetime value of content," says Lerer. Until now, Thrillist was mainly an e-mail daily for most of us. It had a fleeting quality. If you wanted to save a good item it usually involved pushing the email to an Outlook folder. There was a Web site, but most of us stuck with the inbox. Now it is a database moved into where you are now. The app has cross-platform saving and sharing mechanisms. Now you can save a reviewed location on the phone or on the Web, which stays in synch across the media.
But more than that, Thrillist is decidedly not a city guide. It has voice, selectivity and focus on the specific audience of young men. That's why the iPhone app was a no-brainer. The Thrillist audience over-indexes wildly for iPhone ownership, says Lerer. It reminds us that there is a place in a crowd-sourced and highly "scalable" world of limitless digital data for the human filter and the personal sensibility.
Also unlike its local mobile alternatives, Thrillist does not aspire to "crack the code" of local ad money. It does not partner with local vendors. The review crew simply evaluates them. The business model depends on national advertising, like launch sponsor for the app Bacardi Torched Cherry rum. "Between our 16 markets and 2 million affluent, well-educated guys who are hard to reach, we can work with a Pepsi or Gillette to get them in front of a big group of elusive consumers," he says.
Which is not to say that Thrillist for iPhone eschews the other trends in the platform. One of the lessons of mobile the company has learned is to let its users' tastes surface as well. The app leverages the usage, sharing and saving patterns of the crowd to also establish a list of "Top" listings in your area. This feature, too, will be incorporated now into Thrillist's next online redesign. And the app also ties into Facebook, Twitter, and even Foursquare to allow postings and check-ins.
But the overall experience of this app is distinct from the user-gen database tone and feel of the alternatives. The map interface is fairly dense with selections, but each one pops up an image of the establishment, a deep review of the place, and in many cases menus or rosters of beers. And the app reminds us not to be too easily swayed by the pseudo-democratic hype of crowd-sourcing. Sometimes a much deeper connection to the user comes at the other end of a top-down, editorially driven relationship.