How do you fix digital information overload and the resulting life-attention deficit that’s apparently afflicting smartphone owners everywhere — and even leading some very large tech giants to unbox “digital wellness” tools lately?

San Francisco-based startup The Nudge reckons the answer to getting millennials to spend less time sucked into screens, and more time out and about actually doing things, is — you guessed it — another technology service! Albeit one that delivers inspirational plan ideas for stuff to do in your free time, delivered via the traditional text message conduit of SMS.

The sibling duo behind the startup, John and Sarah Peterson, have bagged $540,000 in pre-seed funding for their text planner idea, after running a year-long public beta of the service in San Francisco. The investment is led by seed-stage VC firm NextView Ventures, with Sequoia’s scout fund also participating.

Peterson says the idea to send plans via SMS evolved out of his earlier (and first) startup, called Livday: Also a planner app for friends to share their favorite ideas for weekend hikes and so on. But being just another app meant having to compete for attention with noisy social content, so the siblings hit on the idea of using SMS — as a sort of artisanal reversion of current state consumer tech — to “find a way to rise above the noise,” as they put it. Or, well, attempt to circumvent app notification fatigue/mute buttons.

As is often the case in fashion-led consumer tech, old ways can get polished up to feel shiny and new again once whatever displaced them has lost enough sheen to start to look old.

The Nudge has garnered around 10,000 active weekly users at this point, launching out of its year-long public beta. Peterson describes the typical user as “an active millennial woman,” with the community skewing 70 percent female at this point.

For the active user metric the team defines an active user as someone who is reading and engaging with the text messages they’re sending — either by clicking a link or replying.

They further claim to have signed up 5 percent of San Francisco’s millennials to their lifestyle “nudges.”

“While our new rebrand has a somewhat feminine aesthetic it’s interesting that we initially were targeting men. It just really resonated with millennial women,” says Peterson.

“They need this because taking the initiative is the essential yet hardest part of living our lives to the fullest, and that’s what we give them,” he adds. “A nudge. We’re laser-focused on that demo right now but have plans to help other demographics long-term. My empty nest parents badly need this.”

Nudges take the form of — initially — an SMS text message, containing a handwritten brunch idea or a hike plan, or details of a hip coffee venue or volunteering opportunity which the startup reckons will appeal to its SF community.

The texts may also contain a link to a more fully fledged plan (with photos, address, logistics etc.). You can see some of their sample plans here.

While the core delivery mechanism is SMS, there also is a Nudge app where plans can be saved for later perusal, and subscribers to the service can mark Nudges as “done” (presumably to avoid being spammed with the same plan later).

Currently, the startup has an editorial team of three people coming up with plan ideas to inspire subscribers — writing in a friendly, narrative style that’s intended to complement the cozy SMS delivery medium.

They’re also working with local social media influencers to hit on trendy ideas that resonate with their target millennial users.

Convincing information-overloaded consumers to willingly hand over their mobile digits to get random texts might seem a bit of a counter-intuitive “fix” for digital information overload. But Peterson reckons it boils down to getting the tone of voice right. (And, clearly, being careful not to send too many texts that you end up coming across as spam.)

“We want people to really feel like The Nudge is just another one of their (ridiculously resourceful and fun) friends texting them, and I think we’ve succeeded there so far,” he tells TechCrunch. “Nearly all of our growth has come from word of mouth. You’re right that text messaging is a sacred space, and we’re very sensitive about that.”

Peterson claims that unsubscribe rates are less than 1 percent each week — though they’re also limiting themselves to sending three “personalized” lifestyle “nudges” per week at this point.

On the personalization front, they say plan ideas are customized based on factors such as the current weather and local trends. They are not, as a rule, customized per user though — beyond being personalized with the subscriber’s name. So it’s more “Nudge Club” than VIP personalized lifestyle advisor.

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“In general, everyone is getting the same content, as we’ve found that there’s a lot of power in the shared experience (you know your friend just got the same text at that moment),” he says. “That said, we do sometimes create a dialogue where we ask you a question and depending upon your answer, we recommend something specific for you.

“We’re carefully not taking this part too far, as we really don’t view ourselves as a bot.”

Given they are (usually) sending ~10,000 people pretty much the same idea of what to do at the weekend or of an evening, Peterson admits that venue overcrowding has been a problem they inadvertently ended up creating — for example he says they recommended a free event that ended up getting 10x overbooked and had to cancel some tickets.

“Our answer is to only recommend small venues as a general suggestion (do this date idea this summer), and recommend larger venues specifically (do this hike tomorrow),” he says, explaining how they’ve tweaked the service to try to workaround creating unintended flash mobs of demand.

On the business model side, the plan is to make The Nudge a subscription service. Though they’re not going into details at this stage as they’re still experimenting with different options. (And they’re not currently charging for the service.)

But Peterson says the intention is not to make money via the specific things they’re recommending — which, in theory, frees them from needing to operate a creepy, privacy-hostile data-harvesting surveillance operation to determine whether an SMS can be linked to a specific bar bill or restaurant check for them to take a cut, for example.

Though, to be clear, Peterson says they’re gathering “as much data as we can about people doing a Nudge” — presumably so the team can better tailor the content and recommendations they’re making by figuring out what their users really like doing.

“We don’t promote any products or services,” he emphasizes. “Selling tickets or products or ads is tempting, and a lot of lifestyle services do that, but it would ruin or credibility. This is ultimately a subscription service based on trust.”

Despite that reassuring claim, it is worth noting that their current privacy policy states they “may periodically send promotional emails about new products/special offers/info etc via provided email addresses.” So be aware you are at least agreeing to theoretical email spam if you hand over your details.

What’s next for The Nudge now that the team has raised their first tranche of VC? Peterson says they’re planning to expand the service to LA this year — which he confirms will mean hiring a team on the ground to produce the custom content needed to power the service.

Albeit, he concedes, “right now our process is very manual.” And it’s not at all clear whether their concept could sustain much automation-based scaling — at least not if they don’t want to risk generating yet more impersonal noise versus the friendly digital lifestyle advisor tone they’re aiming to strike as a strategy to stand out.

Beyond LA, Peterson says they plan to expand “pretty aggressively” in 2019. “The Nudge as it stands now would work in any urban market as I believe it’s a solution to a fundamental human problem,” he says.

The Nudge’s spare time plans by text is by no means the only SMS-based lifestyle subscription service hoping to cut itself a slice of the attention economy.

In 2016 a startup called Shine launched on-demand life coaching by text messaging, for example.

And let’s not forget Magic — the “get anything via a text message” service that had a viral moment in 2015 — and now bills itself as a “24/7 virtual assistant.”

Google has also tried texting people shopping deals. And Microsoft has dabbled in event planning specifically — outing an iMessage app for social event planning last year.

Meanwhile Facebook added “M,” a text-based assistant app (which was itself human-assisted), to its Messenger platform back in 2015 — but went on to shutter the service in January this year, apparently never having found a way to scale M into a fully fledged AI assistant.

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