Another Group Notification Solution

We told you recently about Phonevite, a one-to-many service that allows a user to blast out a voice message to multiple recipients. Great stuff if the soccer game is rescheduled at the last minute.

Bellingham, Wash.-based Tatango offers the same idea, but a slightly different implementation. Instead of broadcasting a voice message, Tatango’s free service employs SMS to reach out to a predefined group of recipients. (The service can issue voice alerts too, but SMS is the main product.)

What’s so great about a text based one-to-many connection? First, there’s the fact that Tatango’s core user group of 16 to 30 year olds lives and breathes text.

Then there is speed. Put SMS side by side against the next logical group-messaging option, e-mail, and text comes out way ahead, said Derek Johnson, CEO for Tatango, a five-person startup that went live in October 2007.

“Usually people open a cell phone message within 15 minutes of receiving it. With e-mail it takes so long for people to check their messages, and then you have to sort through a lot of e-mails to get to the ones you actually want to see,” he said.

The voice option can be intrusive: Answer the call now or miss it. Tatango does offer voice, but only “on demand.” Users get an SMS message telling them a voice message awaits. Respond with the word “call” and your voice message rolls in.

“This way the group administrator could send it out at 7 o’clock but if you can’t pick up the phone until 7:15 you can still receive that call, whenever you want. It’s more on your time,” Johnson said. (That being said, Johnson readily defends the virtues of voice, which he said can be appropriate when the moment calls for a longer message than text might accommodate.)

Not profitable yet, Tatango lists some 260,000 registered recipients in its groups. There are between 4,000 and 5,000 groups on the system, most averaging 30 to 70 members. Some very large groups may host 3,000 members and up, as for example nightclubs.

Groups include college fraternities, church groups, businesses, and military personnel texting family members back home. There is no common theme as yet.

Members use the system to tell people about schedule changes, send out event reminders, and in some instances deliver commercial messages such as coupons. Users get 120 characters for their missives, or one minute of voice time.

While the system does allow commercial use, its administrators have several mechanisms in place to prevent spam, primarily through an opt-in signup process.

A group leader registers at the Tatango web site. From there, that leader will send an e-mail to prospective members, including a link back to a registration site. It’s done by invitation only. “We don’t allow people to upload phone numbers directly to our system,” Johnson said. This keeps would-be spammers in check.

A user could also put a Tatango widget onto a blog, a web site or a MySpace page, thus allowing visitors to easily opt into a group. Johnson said the widgets have drawn one million hits to date.

Keywords are another way to join. For $4.99 a month a user can create a keyword for quick and easy membership. An SMS recipient could for instance use the keyword “pizza” to join the group of a local pizza parlor.

The basic service is free, as noted. Tatango therefore looks for revenue primarily through advertising. Within a text message, this would mean a 30 to 40 character ad at the bottom of each message. Thus far advertisers have promoted click-to-call coupons, ringtone downloads, and opportunities to request product information. Ads have come from car makers, film studios, ringtone vendors, and others, Johnson said.

Within the voicemail service, messages are accompanied by a seven second “this feature brought to you by…” advertisement.

Johnson claims users in all 50 states, most drawn by word of mouth. He said the service is attracting 300 to 500 new users a day.

In his most creative selling point thus far, Johnson gives out his personal cell phone number to anyone and everyone (it’s 206-334-4012, published with his blessing) and is standing by to assist with technical difficulties and answer questions about the product.

“It’s a way of showing users that they are valued, that they are the ones who are building the value in this company,” he said. “If my stock is tied to the users, shouldn’t they be able to contact me and give me their input?”

Fair question.

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