Except for the pretentious holdouts who snoop in on the social network through an acquaintance’s account, almost everybody is on Facebook. Most of us have friends lists teeming with acquaintances, close friends, colleagues, family members both immediate and extended, and their friends and acquaintances who happen to have met you at one occasion and thought, hey, having one meaningless conversation is reason enough for me to add you! While there are benefits to these larger-than-life friend lists, there are downsides – namely, overexposure and a good healthy fear of posting something not meant for everyone’s eyes. Most teens hate the social network because it’s overpopulated by adults and oversharers – and it’s driven them to other platforms, like Tumblr and Snapchat. Still, there isn’t one social network holding up a “no grown ups!” sign, like Facebook used to when it was for college kids only, and required you to have a valid .edu email address.
Enter Blend, a new mobile app specifically created for the college demographic, where they can freely share their on-campus activities sans the worry of mommy and daddy dearest finding out about their shenanigans. It’s meant to bring back the former Facebook glory days of exclusivity for the younger generation – and Blend means business. Once you graduate, you’re booted out of the social network.
Blend was appropriately founded by three twenty-somethings who decided to drop out of college to pursue a career in tech entrepreneurship. 21 year old Akash Nigam is a former Computer Science and Business student from the University of Michigan, and serves as Blend’s CEO and is also in charge of project management, as well as the app’s front and backend architecture. 22 year old Matt Geiger used to go to Wharton before being in charge of UX development for Blend. And 21 year old Evan Rosenbaum – who at age 14 released the world’s first third-party iPhone Web app and has garnered online recognition – also dropped out of Wharton so he can be the team’s chief interface designer.
Here’s how Blend works. As explained, you have to be enrolled in one of the many universities listed on the app to gain access. After linking your Facebook account, you’re required to specify your university name and expected year of graduation.
Everyday, users are encouraged to post photos – called ‘Blends’ – that best match the app’s theme of the day.
People in your network – if they are on Blend, they are automatically added into your feed through your Facebook account – award your posts “Snaps,” Blend’s version of a Like. The idea is for you to post a Blend that generates the most Snaps for the respective theme. The number of Snaps you receive will contribute to your Score, which will ultimately gain you freebies from brands.
And of course, Blend will face the same issue Facebook did: Letting everyone else in.
According to Blend’s founders, the brands that they are in partnership with aren’t necessarily hugely popular brands, like Target or Kohl’s. They prioritize establishments that actually go out of their way to cater to college consumers, but are also feeling the string of online shopping and big names that can buy up advertisement and customer awareness. This includes smaller brands that want the youth market (think ear buds, beer koozies) or local establishments that rely on the steady churn of the college student body to keep them up and running.
“It’s glaringly inadequate marketing, just how brands are trying to reach out to the tech-savvy, millennial students through extremely old-fashioned means – through fliers and gift cards that they’re handing out, on-site gimmicks when they try to perform some spectacle in the middle of campus,” says Geiger. “We’ve found that kids passing by are way too busy looking at their phones that they don’t even notice [the offers they are missing]. Or the typical mass email where you see something from a local pizza shop, but you also realize that it’s been sent out to 2,000 other people, so you don’t feel special and you don’t feel the incentive to go through [with the deal].”
Blend is in talks with brands like Rowdy Gentlemen, Yurbuds, Hydroflask, Southern Tide, Country Club Prep, and Amrita Singh. Not familiar with any of them? That’s probably because you’re not the target market. “Students have a very big ‘scam alert’ – immediately when we start putting in Walmart, Target, and other big-box brands [into Blend], it’s going to lose its feel. We need to make sure that brands truly fit and that it’s going to work and jive with the audience,” explains Geiger. “We shoot for brands that we know students would love but don’t know about yet. We take these brands to the next level of exposure, and students also get exposure to a lot of cool, underground stuff that they’re always looking for,” adds Nigam. They are currently working with over 50 brands.
Blend’s bread and butter comes from getting users to click on these Gifts, and it’s trying to make them do it via a “you snooze, you lose” vibe. The more you post and share, the better your odds – and what better group to appeal to with this scheme than a demographic obsessed with visually sharing everything on Snapchat and Instagram?
While the blatant brand love might sound like Blend is already feeling the marketing bloat Facebook staved off before caving to, the sleek design helps play this down. The offers themselves aren’t disruptive cross-screen banners, instead blending (pardon the pun) into the app easily. It’s no frills, but simple and easy on the eyes.
But to say Blend doesn’t face plenty of challenges would be a lie. Right now, only 3,572 universities are listed by Blend on the app’s initial selection menu, so if you happen to go to some no-name school or community college, you won’t be able to use the app.
And of course, Blend will face the same issue Facebook did: Letting everyone else in. For the time being though, the app is taking great trouble to make sure no one gets through the college gate. “We do double authentification [to detect fake logins]. We’re not going to release exactly how we do that –that’s Blend’s ‘secret sauce’,” says Nigam. It’s this secret sauce that supposedly kicks users out of the app upon graduation.
To test this, I installed the Blend app on my iPad and instead of choosing the test credentials the company provided for me, I signed up selecting Cambridge School of Language as my university and 2015 as my year of graduation. It let me in, no problem, without needed an .edu email address. A day after fibbing my enrollment, I am still able to use the app.
Although not having the ability to import photos isn’t a big issue, the lack of Instagram-like functions people have grown to love is a glaring omission. No artsy filters here – and no hashtags yet either.
Right now themes are dictated by the Blend staff and the 180 “campus influencers” the company has recruited all over the country to spread the word – which are all pretty inventive so far – but it would really make a huge difference if at some point they decide to receive suggestions from their users, a feature the founders say is in the plan.
The elephant in the room, of course, is what will be deemed inappropriate? While users will appreciate the lack of adult supervision, as the Internet and social media has taught us, nothing is ever truly secret or safe. If there are college kids, there will be photos of binge-drinking, ingesting illegal substances, maybe even nudity. How is Blend prepared to deal with this content? And how would it approach a Snapcheat Leaked-type situation? It’s almost guaranteed to come up.
According to the founders, the college community is accepting of its peers – if it “flies” with students, then it works for Blend. As a preemptive measure, they monitor all the photos and anything that is outrageous gets taken down. Community members can also report inappropriate content.
“We feel very passionately about this, even more than the bigger names like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – we feel that they’re almost becoming victims of their own success. They’re really broad, very diluted, and multi-directional,” says Geiger, explaining the drive behind their creation of the Blend app. “When Facebook started, college students were using it way differently than they do now, and it’s gotten to the point where the content on Facebook is so selective … it’s really not fun anymore.”
Blend currently has tens of thousands of users, a number they say continues to rise. By the end of the year, they hope to hit around 300,000-500,000 college students. “There’s around 15 million college students in four year schools. That’s our goal, and we feel that we can do it – we feel that Blend is going to be the thing that right when you get accepted into your school, the first thing you do, along with getting your school email address, is join the Blend community,” says Nigam. “We feel like the best four years of your life just got a whole lot better.”