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Groups have been using the Web since the mid-1980s for a wide range of activities, such as scheduling, discussions, photo sharing, referrals etc. Groups have been a special strength for Yahoo.

BigTent, a group software company based in San Francisco, has recently been vying with Yahoo for the same market, focusing largely on women. It now has more than 1 million members, who reside in more than 50 percent of U.S. ZIP codes. The question for BigTent and Yahoo, in the age of Facebook and other social media, is what will keep users on a dedicated platform? And what will be their own revenue model?

BigTent CEO and Founder Donna Novitsky says the answer is easy: Facebook is great, but BigTent’s groups, which range in size from 10 to “hundreds of thousands,” tend to require a lot of customization and special features. BigTent groups now range from simple mailing lists to groups with discussions, events, memberships, payments, classifieds, reviews and more.

“Many BigTent groups are local and use the technology to schedule events every week and track participation, in addition to hosting lively discussions 24×7 online, by e-mail and on mobile devices,” says Novitsky. “As groups have grown, they need subgroups to maintain intimacy, so we provide that as well, with all the functionality of the top level groups. It’s all about continuing to scale and deliver value to more local clubs, schools, parenting groups, neighborhoods, sports teams and scout troops,” she adds.

From a business perspective, one of the core challenges for BigTent, a free service, is how to leverage its aggregated user base. The answer: advertising with national brands that want to target women, such as Clorox and Old Navy, and various marketplace opportunities.

Novitsky notes that one marketplaces effort the company is doing is a partnership with Redbeacon, which helps members find local service providers like babysitters, plumbers and painters. “Much of the discussion in our local groups is seeking referrals and recommendations from other group members so this is win-win-win for the members, partners and BigTent,” says Novitsky.

Deal referrals are another big marketplaces opportunity for Big Tent. The majority of deal-a-day subscribers, after all, are educated women. “Our audience loves deals,” confirms Novitisky. “But the deals space has gone crazy with too many different providers sending too many e-mails — it’s deal overload. So BigTent is working with several of the deals providers such as Groupon and The DealMap to bring together the best deals and sort them for our audience. This is respectful of our members’ time and attention, and delivers better results for everyone.”

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