Eons Spins Off Obits, But Insists Company is Alive and Well as It Unveils Big Redesign
The folks over at Eons, the web site for the baby boomer crowd, must have aged a lot in the last few months. Back in September, the struggling Boston company laid off a third of its staff. Then, in a pretty full-out public relations disaster, the firm early this month dropped its over-50 age limit in a bid to facilitate its new focus on social networking, sparking outcry from hundreds of people (including quite a few who posted on Xconomy), many of whom feared the site would be overrun by teenagers or launched personal attacks against Eons founder Jeff Taylor.
Today, continuing its efforts to reinvent itself as a social networking business, Eons announced a major redesign—set to go live at 9 a.m. eastern time—focused on bringing people together individually and around special-interest groups. At the same time, the company revealed more details of its previously stated plans to spin off its classified Obits section as a separate business called Tributes, which it said has received funding from investors that include Dow Jones & Company.
The core of this morning’s announcements, though, is the rejuvenated website, which Eons has been working on for the last several months. The company launched its beta site in mid-January and has been testing it through focus groups and adding updates since then. “What’s really reflected here is Eons’ full commitment to social networking, and so the navigation, the look and feel of the UI [user interface], is all oriented to a really robust community experience,” says senior vice president Linda Natansohn. This kind of social networking, she told me, is “what users told us they want.”
To that end, Eons has removed the circles that previously ran atop its pages to identify the broad subject areas it covered—“fun,” “love,” and so on. Instead, there’s a traditional navigation bar with tabs labeled, “my eons,” “profile,” “explore,” “groups,” “people,” and “games” that is more geared toward social networking. Natansohn says many Eons users go to their profile pages every day, and so the company wanted to better configure the site and navigation around their more personal view of things. For instance, she notes, when users sign in, they can see which groups they’re in and which friends are online.
Eons’s much-ballyhooed custom collaborative-filtering-like (I shudder to think how much the company spent on this) search engine, cRANKy, is also being put out to pasture. Rather than being presented with a long list of items when they searched on a given term, boomers would see a few items other boomers felt were most relevant. New chief technology officer Eric Golin says cRANKy will still be used for general Web searches, but the Eons site itself will be served by an open source search engine that makes it easier for people to search groups and find people they know, among other things.
I toured the beta site a few times over the last few days. I’m hardly an expert, but the site clearly seems more geared toward people and user groups—and interaction between people. I give Eons credit for a very clean, friendly design that is both different and familiar. Having lived through redesigns before, I’d offer a general rule of thumb: the bigger the redesign, the more desperate the company. I’d term Eons’ overhaul extensive, but not desperate.
In a separate announcement also released today, Eons noted it had secured $4.3 million in funding to establish Tributes.com as “the leading online destination for timely obituary news and lasting tributes celebrating loved ones’ lives.” Tributes says it plans to partner with funeral homes and act as a bridge between them and consumers searching for funerary services (sounds like it will sell funeral home advertisements to me). The site will also offer online community support for grieving family members, and will house an extensive obituary database stretching back to the early 1900s. The business will be, in effect, a subsidiary of the umbrella firm Eons Inc. (which is also the parent of Eons.com, the baby boomer site) and is subletting space from its parent in the Charlestown Navy Yard where Eons is based. Taylor will serve as its chairman, and former Eons product and marketing executive Elaine Haney will become its president.
What next for Eons itself? Reiterating what Taylor told me recently, Natansohn says that despite dropping its over-50 limit, Eons will not change its focus. “We are still for boomers and beyond,” she says. The redesign, she adds, “is really the full reflection of Eons’ commitment to our audience, to building a network that is appropriate to baby boomers and shaped by them through all their input over the last 18 months” since Eons’ July 2006 launch.
It’s far too soon to tell, of course, whether Eons has found the path to long life. Taylor told me that the firm, which has raised $32 million in venture funding, chiefly from Sequoia Capital and General Catalyst, has enough money for at least two years. He also told the New York Times that his previous practice of attracting visitors by spending big bucks to buy keywords was unsustainable. The Times, citing comScore Media Metrix figures, reported that Eons attracted nearly 1.2 million unique visitors last May, but that by December, its visitor numbers had declined to 285,000. Eons doesn’t reveal its numbers publicly, but Natansohn says those cited by the Times are on the low end of its internal figures.
Whatever the exact figure, it seems certain that Eons will no longer aspire to the numbers it once claimed. Instead, it seems to be betting that in being smaller, it is on to something much bigger.
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