'Tis the Season for E-vites

Evite and other providers of online invitations are reporting double-digit growth, thanks to higher postal rates and eco-conscious party givers

If your mailbox has been light on invites to holiday soirées this season, there may still be cause for celebration: Just check your in-box.

Ad-supported online services that deliver festive, free e-mail invitations are surging in popularity. Market leader Evite, a unit of IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI), says it's on track to deliver a record number of holiday party invites. The site, nearly 10 years old, expects its users to send invitations to more than 30 million people this December, up nearly 30% from last year. "We have had a really great start to the season," says Lariayn Payne, Evite's vice-president of marketing.

Payne attributes part of the steady double-digit growth in online invitations to rising concerns about the environment. Saving paper, and ultimately trees, by sending free digital invitations is an easy way to be green—in more than one way. "With more awareness of eco-issues and the like, people are more open to sending online invitations," says Payne.

Increasing mail costs are also keeping some party planners from licking postage stamps. In May, the U.S. Postal Service increased the cost of sending a first-class envelope by 3¢, to 41¢. A few cents may not sound like much, but to a frequent party planner—particularly one who follows the etiquette of including a stamped reply envelope with a mailed invitation—those pennies can add up.

Advertisers Want to Join the Party

Evite isn't the only company trying to cash in on the increased popularity of online invitations. This year, MyPunchbowl.com launched an invitation site with party-planning tools. One is a date optimizer that chooses the best day for an event based on votes by those invited, even giving preference to the dates preferred by those invitees whom the host identifies as VIPs behind the scenes. "There is demand for sophisticated party planning online," says founder Matt Douglas.

There's also growing demand among advertisers to place their marketing on invitation sites. Though Evite won't release revenue numbers, Payne says the company has seen strong demand from party-related marketers. Evite tries to target ads based on the kind of party being planned. This is determined by the category the user selects when creating an invitation and the ready-made templates, complete with themed graphics, that they choose. For example, Evite may show an ad for liquor alongside a cocktail party invitation or pair an ad for toys with a child's birthday party. "If you are planning a kid party, you will not see alcohol advertising," says Eva Ingvarson, an Evite editor who discusses party-planning trends and tips on the site.

Beyond the nearly $30 billion U.S. market for online ads, there's another obvious financial opportunity for online invitation sites: the $10-billion-plus market for party supplies. Evite is already testing some related e-commerce tie-ins, and MyPunchbowl expects it to become a significant revenue source as well.

Another potential moneymaker may be referrals to event venues such as restaurants and clubs. Next year, Evite's Payne says, the company plans to explore tie-ins with local guide and review sites, such as Citysearch.com, also a subsidiary of IAC.

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