At first blush, I liked the idea a lot. Brooklyn-based start-up LifeAt has built a social networking platform apartment communities and other housing developments can use to connect residents with each other, the management and the neighborhood. With the help of some persistent PR reps, the idea has gotten some attention, including a feature in The New York Times.
Conceptually, the model makes a great deal of sense–and I’m guessing that the real estate investors behind the venture can keep it afloat for quite some time–but as I looked things over, I realized that I have some problems with LifeAt’s execution.
First, the basics. LifeAt, which developed all of its technology in-house, charges building managers a flat $6,000 to get access to the platform, which includes templates for personal profiles and “friend” connections, a community discussion forum, profiles of local stores, restaurants and services and a “marketplace” where residents can post free classifieds. To make sure only residents access the sites, no one can enter unless they get a username and password from the property manager.
As of late 2007, when the Times wrote its profile, almost 1,000 communities were live or scheduled to go live within a few months. (Note: While CEO Matthew Goldstein didn’t say how many, at least some of the buildings are those already owned by the investors behind the project.) More interestingly, at that point more than half of residents in the already-launched properties had created personal profiles. In other words, yes, people do use the service.
So, other than the one-time $6,000 fee–a pittance as software development licenses go–how does LifeAt plan to support itself? Well, there’s the rub. Goldstein told me that the company plans to sell local advertising on the sites, something I very much doubt will work over the long term.
I’m skeptical of the local ad sales model for a few reasons. First, there’s already a huge array of local advertising options available to national companies who might want to go local, so the competition will be stiff there. Second, the local businesses immediately adjacent to the building are not exactly lacking in local channels either. Among other plays, there’s local newspapers, big city newspapers like the Times, Yellow Pages (both online and offline), ValPak and its ilk, plus local Web advertising plays by radio and TV stations. And unlike these local players, LifeAt’s sales folks aren’t going to be intimately woven into the life of that community (unless they have plans to hire thousands of local salespeople).
Sure, they’ll sell the “our people are more engaged” concept, but I don’t think merchants will be that impressed. After all, unlike the Facebook communities they imitate, as far as I know they’re not selling advertisers in-depth demographic and behavioral info on their users. So it’s just plain-vanilla advertising, even if sold by nifty partners (and it does have more than a dozen of those).
Meanwhile, another big issue is that LifeAt is relying on residents to create the local business content which plays a key role in its model. As local search gurus know, it can be fatal to wait for people to create good content–especially business content. Instead, I think LifeAt’s going to have to eventually break down and license Internet Yellow Pages or other neighborhood business listings content from somewhere else. Then, they’re still providing a nice variety of local business content even if residents aren’t review-happy.
Ultimately, I think LifeAt will end up having to raise its initial charge significantly and make all of its money there as a white-label social media network technology player (albeit a rather specialized one).
But we’ll see…I’ve been wrong a gazillion times. Hey, I though Yahoo was a big waste of time in 1995, and look, it’s still alive!
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