The best way to describe Plancast is a social calendar with huge ears.
I'll say that it's the one digest email that I actually read. If you haven't played with it, you must. If you are looking for an event in your area, it's the best spot to start looking. I was fascinated by Mark Hendrickson's story, so I asked him a few questions about his new startup.
How did you dream up the idea for Plancast?
Hendrickson: Plancast sprung from a couple months of brainstorming ideas for a web service that would help connect people locally. I started off thinking very broadly about what kind of information people might want to share with each other on a local level and how that exchange of information would improve their quality of interaction.
At a certain point, I realized that I had envisioned a service that was way too multi-purpose and not focused on helping people in any particular way. After a meeting with Leah Culver, who persuaded me to narrow my scope and concentrate on the "plan sharing" piece I had mocked up, I started work on Plancast and haven't looked back.
How does Plancast get it's data?
Hendrickson: Most of our plan data is submitted by users who fill out a simple form that asks for a what, where, and when for each of their plans.
The idea was to boil "events" down to their most essential pieces so we'd have a quick and easy way for people to contribute even their most casual plans. We try to do as much of the heavy lifting for our users as we can, such as extracting the time and date for a plan after it's entered as free-form text and looking up locations using Google's Local Search API to determine just where they're going.
We also get plan data by aggregating from other sources. Currently, we pull all "open" events our users have indicated they're attending on Facebook. In the future, we'll pull from other websites that have "intent" data such as TripIt and even calendaring programs such as Google Calendar so that our users don't have to indicate their intent in two places.
It takes a lot for me come back to a site right after I join it. How do users of Plancast discover their friends and make new friends?
Hendrickson: We put a lot of time into integrating Facebook Connect and Twitter Sign In so that new users could sign up quickly and find their friends from other social networks immediately.
It's important that our users find friends to share plans with upon their first visit and subscribe to each other. And with these integrations, even if they don't have many friends on Plancast to start, they'll at least be able to share their plans through Facebook and Twitter easily.
These integrations have been key to getting over the classic chicken and egg problem that all social services face.
One of my favorite features of Plancast is the daily digest email. How important is "email marketing" to you guys? Do you get a lot of traffic from those mails?
Hendrickson: Our daily digest emails are pretty critical for us and they make life a lot easier for our users. As you said, it takes a lot to come back to any new site you join since it may not be top of mind. By delivering new content to our users via email, we remind them that there's good stuff to see on-site.
And we reassure them that others will see the plans that they share, even if they aren't coming back to check daily. It's not only a matter of generating traffic but keep everyone engaged as well.
Name something that you've learned since you started Plancast that you were completely surprised by.
Hendrickson: I've been surprised by how quickly plans spread through the site. A lot of the activity we see is around big events like SXSW. I posted a plan for that and before long hundreds of others had piled on (http://plancast.com/a/im).
It's great to see this distribution effect in action, and the phenomenon reinforces the idea that we often fail to discover we have friends going to the same events as ourselves. That's something we hope to remedy.
What are some new features that you guys are working on?
Hendrickson: We're ramping up for SXSW right now, cranking away at getting our iPhone app and mobile web version ready in time. We're also building out a guide to events taking place in Austin around the time of SXSW (http://plancast.com/sxsw).
Once SXSW madness calms down, we'll get a chance to work on privacy features and polish off our API. We have lots of users who would like to lock their plans down so only pre-approved friends can access them. There's some other good stuff in the works, but that's secret for now!
Adding an event on Plancast is dead simple. Do you get a lot of spam?
Hendrickson: We've noticed a little spam but nothing bad. Since we have a subscription/follower model in place, you'd have to be subscribed to a spammer to get spammy plans. The one bothersome type of spam we've noticed is when a spammer subscribes to users in bulk just so those users click through and see their one spammy plan. But so far, we've only had a few of those and we have protections we can put into place easily should we see more.
Will you guys integrate with Foursquare any time soon? If so, how will you use their API?
Hendrickson: I think the idea of integrating with Foursquare is promising. The trick is doing it so that our users get the most value and the integration doesn't detract from the overall experience.
The comparison of their data to ours is interesting since they know where people are right now and we know where people will be in the future. Obviously, those two data sets run up into one another. Whether we pull their check in, tips, or other data is yet to be seen; however, it's likely we'll make it easier for you to find your friends from Foursquare on Plancast before too long. Suggestions are certainly welcome!