Events on the Web: Why Do They Suck?

If you’ve ever wanted to easily find out what events are happening in your area, you know what an impossible a task it is. I usually have to check 4 or 5 sites, plus Facebook and Twitter before I feel up-to-date. To make matters worse, none of these services freely exchange information. An event listing on Upcoming, for example, has no correlation with the same listing on Facebook.

Adding insult to injury, duplicate events with differing times and dates often arise, cluttering up an otherwise decent experience with this:

Sun 05:00 PM Caribbean Night with the Marbali Steel Drum Band

(eventful: Inn at East Hill Farm)

Sun 05:25 PM Caribbean Night

(upcoming: The Inn at Hill Farms)

Which time is correct? Is the venue called East Hill Farm, or Hill Farms? The good news is problems like this can be avoided if these services just talk to each other.

From my experience with the APIs of the big players in the event listing market (Upcoming, Zvents, Eventful, TicketMaster, etc.), it is evident there is no standard format being used to exchange event information behind the scenes. If you’ve ever seen an event listing with redundant date, time and location information in its description, it’s because a proper event listing standard has yet to be widely adopted.

Each API arbitrarily assigns its own naming scheme, date formats and data structure. At Localist, we’ve picked up the slack a bit by developing customized parsers to retrieve and standardize the information, but cleaned up information isn’t truly useful until the format is adopted by a wider audience.

What about hCalendar?

While hCalendar is a great microformat for standardizing the presentation and “scrapability” of event listings (making the search engine the API), it inherently requires that all data related to the event be visible to the user. In practice, this has forced most event listing sites to intentionally limit the amount of parsable data available, restricting additional useful information to be entered in the free-text description field, where no standard is defined.

Also, providing relational information between events and performers is not reliably possible using hCalendar. For example, if there are 5 recurring instances of “Trivia Night” at “Joeʼs Bar,” it is not possible to attach photos or other useful data to “Trivia Night,” only the specific date instance. This results in isolated information that is quickly lost as time goes on.

What needs to be done?

The first step is to get everyone, not just the big event listing services, to adopt a simple standard that has already been widely adopted. The best candidate so far is iCalendar, or ICS. Every calendar on the Web should be available in the ICS standard without requiring any modification by an external service or parser. Once this happens, event data can be collected consistently.

Then, we step it up. The ICS format ensures all event information revolves around the event time only, when really, it should revolve around time and space. A consistent way to add information on top of the ICS standard is easy to implement; the challenge is, again, reaching a critical mass.

Where can I see an example?

Services like FuseCal are diligently combing the Web looking for calendars of all shapes and sizes, then parsing them into a (somewhat) accurate iCal format.

People like Jon Udell are working hard to get everyone to adopt ICS as their standard and has demonstrated how powerful this standardized information can be when leveraging services like Delicious. Localist, Calagator and other event listing services are discussing what a good event listing standard should look like once the dust settles from mass ICS adoption.

What can I do?

If you have a calendar available on your site, make sure there’s a visible link to an ICS format somewhere on the page.

Read up on Jon Udell’s efforts to promote mass iCal adoption.

Join the discussion at the ELF Wiki.

E-mail me (Mykel Nahorniak) at Localist if you have any questions or contributions regarding anything mentioned above.

It won’t be long now…

The overall goal isn’t to destroy and replace hCalendar or ICS, it’s to co-exist with it, enriching it when possible.

In the end, keeping tabs on local events will be just as easy as staying up-to-date with your friends’ tweets.

The CES Pitch

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2009 is rapidly approaching, and as a 10 year veteran of CES I’ve seen it from many different angles. I’ve been there as a tiny underfunded startup using a hotel room to do all demos and I’ve taken center stage in a multi-million dollar booth. I’ve attended as press and I’ve pitched the press. From virtually every perspective, CES is an exhilarating and exhausting process. I love it. With the massive surge in blogger registrations at this year’s show, I’ve also noticed more than usual complaints about the pitching process, so as someone who sits on both sides of the fence, I thought I’d share some observations and suggestions.

“The List”

picture-11Have you seen the press & blogger list at CES? It’s pretty unbelievably large, with 3398 identified members of the media, and there’s no way to get off the list, even if you aren’t coming to the show anymore. So these 3398 people are all getting pitched by the 2700 exhibitors. This means we have a ton of noise, with virtually no signal.

“The Prune”

Any half-decent marketer’s first task with the list was culling it. Got a mobile gadget? Get rid of the home AV bloggers and media. Got a speaker? You can ignore the auto guys. Unfortunately it seems that most companies didn’t do such a great job pruning. For my personal blog, I was surprised to get contacted by PR reps with products that were way out of my typical coverage area. It may seem like a lot of work, but internally we managed to pare down the list by 90% in less than a day, and it was time very well spent.

“The Outreach”
If slicing up the media list is a science, then writing the outreach pitch is absolutely an art. My favorite pitches to receive are (1) short, (2) funny/entertaining, (3) direct & to the point, and (4) contain all the information I need to act on (especially including links!). Considering the hundreds of emails the typical CES media person is receiving, the more the pitch can stand out from the crowd yet still convey the necessary info, the better. The worst pitches I’ve received don’t include URLs for more information, try to be too coy or clever, try to make mountains out of molehills (if you sell CD storage cases, you simply don’t have EXCITING NEWS AT CES this year), or otherwise complicate the process.

“The Followup”

I don’t have as much of a clear rule here. There are times when the follow-up is useful, warranted, and welcome. Others it’s annoying and borderline harassing. My recommendation to all is no more than one follow-up email, and no phone calls unless the individual has made it clear they *want* phone calls. Don’t send 5 reminders, because nobody likes a pest. I do appreciate those who send a quick extra note with their contact info and a reminder of where at CES their booth/demo is, and leave it in my hands to make the decision.

JT and Scoble

“The Meet”

There’s no better way to screw it all up than meeting the blogger/journalist in person, and then asking them some question that utterly reveals you have no idea who they are. I don’t care how you handle it, make a cheat sheet, print something out in the morning, but if you’ve taken the time to ask me to see your demo, you can take the time to be *remotely* familiar with my blog. I don’t expect you to have ready today’s post, but you should know something about me or my style or my content. At the same time, I think bloggers who schedule appointments for demos/briefings should also take the time to read the materials/website for the company/products they plan to see – it’s a two-way street.

“The Close”

Following up after the show is your job, not that of the blogger. If you promised someone a review unit, it’s on your to-do list, not theirs. Also, you should make a point of reading their coverage of the show prior to the follow-up. If they didn’t write about you during the show, don’t be hurt or offended, and by no means should you close the door. Similarly, if you are a blogger and your brief mention of a company hit your “CES recap” post but doesn’t make their Press page, that shouldn’t be unexpected. For both sides to keep in mind: not every demo deserves a blog post from every blogger.

CES is a wacky time of the year for a couple of hundred thousand people. Many of us haven’t slept much since the Thanksgiving Break (or longer for our international visitors). I’d call it controlled chaos, but that implies one can control such a wild beast. That said, it somehow works. Those 96 hours are a magical time of year for me personally, and while I’m already tired of both receiving and giving pitches, I’m still getting revved up for the show. See you in Vegas!

The Invisible Twitter Expert

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An interesting controversy on Twitter today. Matt Bacak (Anyone ever hear of him? ““ Exactly) self released a press release calling himself, The Powerful Promoter. “œFirst Facebook, now Twitter. The Powerful Promoter, Matt Bacak, has taken himself to the top of the social media networks yet again, this time beating out 99.9% of the fastest growing site’s members”.

As you would expect, the Twitterverse has not been kind. Scott Baird, describes the reaction in his blog, Matt’s press release states “œAnyone can call their promotional abilities “˜powerful’ but I actually prove that mine are,”. “œThe problem is that this type of ego really contradicts the the overall social media mentality which is basically “œIt’s not about you, it’s about the overall community”.

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You can see the backlash through Twittersearch. Bacak has been called the Biggest Douche in Social Media and 232 people have dugg the article with 69 comments at this time. Jamie Scheu described the situation well on his blog, Promote Your Way to Irrevocable Personal Humiliation.

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As humiliating as this situation may be, it points out the problem with our obsession with keeping score. Matt Bacak wrote a press release because he got a high Twittergrader score.

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How does a guy who follows just 32 people with 1500 updates and most importantly, no one knows, get such a high score? As you can see, Bacak is so memorable that real Top Twitterer, Aaron Brazell, calls him Joe. Maybe the wizards at Twittergrader need to go back to Hogwarts. How can you give a person that no one on Twitter knows a 99.9! Aside from the grade inflation or algorithm problems, I think what the Invisible Twitter Man points out is the problem with ego and score obsession in social media. Hopefully, we can get back to Scott Baird‘s point and let social media be about the overall community.