Katherine Boehret

Invite Sites Help Start a Party

For a while, Evite.com was the only game in town when it came time to send out electronic invitations. Now, almost a decade after its introduction, competitors are finally giving the popular Web site a reason to look over its shoulder.

Like a beloved old car with faults that its owner no longer notices, Evite’s familiarity often masks its rough user interface. Its Web pages are littered with advertisements — many that are obnoxiously intrusive.

Evite

Social-networking users are irked that Evite doesn’t do enough to incorporate their favorite Web sites, leaving fans of MySpace.com and Facebook feeling like the Evite creation process is a bothersome step out of their online community of friends.

Still others complain that since it was launched in 1998, Evite hasn’t done enough to improve its user interface and hasn’t added many significant features that take advantage of so-called Web 2.0 technologies, which allow publishers to integrate more functions onto one Web page rather than forcing users to refresh or change pages to accomplish tasks.

This week, I tested MyPunchbowl.com (www.mypunchbowl.com) by Punchbowl Software, a competitor to IAC/InterActiveCorp.’s Evite (www.evite.com). Both programs are free. Though MyPunchbowl was introduced only in January, it has a clean interface with fewer ads than Evite; in fact, MyPunchbowl invitees never see ads. It doesn’t integrate with social-networking sites such as MySpace.com, Friendster or Facebook, but it does use message boards, as well as photo and video sharing through Flickr.com and YouTube.com, respectively.

MyPunchbowl is taking on the more-established Evite site
MyPunchbowl is taking on the more-established Evite site

MyPunchbowl isn’t perfect: its invitation preview button is buried, leaving the host wondering what exactly will be sent out to the guest. Its templates are limited to around 100, according to the company, while Evite’s templates total roughly 800. But all in all, MyPunchbowl offers a good mix of just enough and not too many features. It is approachable for the tech-savvy and nontechies alike.

Sensing competition from MyPunchbowl, Socializr (an Evite meets social-networking application founded by the maker of Friendster) and others, Evite.com has stepped up its game. Hotel suggestions can now be made in a Hotels.com section on invitations, and photos can be uploaded for post-party sharing. In August Evite plans to introduce an online party-supply store, and in October it will offer a mobile component. The company is even testing new, animated versions of its invitations.

I first played around with Evite to refresh my memory. I focused on its real purpose — creating an invitation. This process is started by choosing a theme, like “BBQ,” then picking a design to go with your theme. A host must then add details about the event for guests, and then enter guests’ emails. I found a BBQ invitation design in the new animated style, but couldn’t figure out how to see what its animation looked like before I sent it, which was frustrating. When I brought this to Evite’s attention, it acknowledged the bug. Hosts can easily see previews of regular invitations as well as the exact email that the guest will receive.

Evite allows for personalization in its Reply Style section. This section lets the host create party-related categories for responses rather than just yes, no and maybe. An invitation for a night of card-playing might, for example, categorize the yes responses as “I’m All In.” Evite responses are a big reason people like using it, as it lets all guests see who is coming and what they said in their response.

The party-planning section in Evite was introduced in the past year. It includes some useful tools, such as a drink calculator (to estimate how much alcohol you’ll need for an event), a party checklist and event-planning ideas. I used one tool called the party budget estimator to see if it guessed the right amount spent on a bridal shower I co-hosted, and it was pretty accurate.

MyPunchbowl.com tries to distinguish itself by offering start-to-finish steps for the event’s host. This procedure begins with Pick a Date, so that you can offer guests a few potential suggestions to see which one they’d prefer. Guests can be distinguished as VIPs, helping you give their vote more merit, and you can tell guests the date you prefer. Once a date is chosen, a Save the Date email is sent out, with a message board on which guests can start chatting about the event. The full invitation follows this, followed by the After Party message board on which photos and videos can be shared via Flickr.com and YouTube.

Evite also offers to send out Save the Date cards before an event, and it incorporates Pick a Date options in the actual invitation itself.

I got started on MyPunchbowl without signing up for an account, which was a treat. I got halfway through the invitation creation process before deciding I liked it enough to sign up. I started an account by opening a small window in my current screen, entering my name, email and password and continued making the invitation right where I left off.

One glaring problem with MyPunchbowl was that I couldn’t figure out how to preview my invitation before I sent it to guests. I ended up crossing my fingers and sending the invitation out anyway. Later, someone from the company showed me an obscure preview link on the bottom left side of a page, but this didn’t cut it. MyPunchbowl says it knows this is a big problem, and that it intends to fix this and other problems in the next few months.

I also noted that the text box where I typed a message to guests didn’t offer various fonts or colors, nor did it offer to spell-check my message; Evite offers all of these things. And responses on MyPunchbowl’s invitations are limited to yes, no or remind me later. If guests want to respond in more detail, they are directed to a message board. Evite users may not adapt to the message-board method.

I was able to instantly add a Google map to the MyPunchbowl invitation at the press of a button, which is helpful. MyPunchbowl also gives users a chance to more tightly control guest responses, such as requesting that guests respond a certain number of days prior to the party.

Change and variety are welcome for electronic invitations. After all, it makes sense that a hip host would want to be on the cutting edge, starting with the invitation. MyPunchbowl requires a bit of a learning curve and doesn’t have as many extra features as Evite. For people who might not understand the idea of MyPunchbowl’s message boards, Evite will remain the favorite. But the younger competitor’s cleaner interface coupled with its plans for improvements this summer might make it an appealing option for planning your next get-together.


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