NETWORKING THE KILLER APP? – When Facebook sells more handsets than Nokia

NETWORKING THE KILLER APP? – When Facebook sells more handsets than Nokia

John Ozimek, associate director at Mi liberty

John Ozimek, associate director at Mi liberty

Something special has been happening in the mobile world, and it’s all thanks to social networking. The chances are you are part of this story already, one of almost 19 million people in the UK who have created a profile on the social networking site Facebook.

Merely a curiosity two years ago, Facebook has risen to become a global phenomenon, with more than 120 million users at the start of this year. Along with a handful of other sites like Bebo and Myspace, Facebook has been the catalyst for the rise of social networks on the web and now on the mobile. In fact, it’s become so popular so quickly on mobile, it’s started me thinking about whether this signifies a shift in the brands which dictate how and when we buy our mobile phones.

Visits to social networking sites already account for 50% of total mobile internet usage in the UK, and that’s set to rise by another 10% by the end of the year. Research by Mobile Squared, specialists in mobile content trends, has shown how the operators have quickly switched their content strategies in order to put social networking at the top of their priority list so that they don’t miss the boat. According to Orange, 640,000 of its customers regularly use

their mobiles to update their web profiles, with some doing so up to eight times a day. That much activity translates into 166 million page impressions on sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo per month – just on Orange. Now for years, I’ve hated the whole ‘is this the the killer mobile app?’ debate. Even when I was actively involved in launching mobile games early on in the industry, with all the associated hype, talk of gaming as the ‘killer app’ made me cringe. The same has been true of early mobile TV, WAP browsing and mobile music. All heavily promoted, all still niche content areas despite the best efforts to get consumers on board.

But the differences with social networking on mobile are striking. Firstly, it’s the first real blended content and communication service, meaning that for people already involved, it’s incredibly sticky. (Have you ever tried deleting a Facebook profile? It’s not easy!) Also, the critical mass of users already exists on the web – mobile is merely a convenient access point for something consumers are already familiar with. It also uses plenty of data, so without all you can eat data tariffs and 3G networks we probably wouldn’t be seeing the same uptake. It’s very much case of the right product at the right time. No wonder operators are jumping for joy.

Emarketer.com conservatively predicts growth of 2% to 3% a year for mobile social networking. That may not sound much, but the uptake of paidfor mobile games has been stuck at just under 5% of total subscribers for the past few years, and stubbornly refuses to budge. Mobile social networking has probably already passed this in the UK, and it’s growing globally. And crucially, the fastest uptake of mobile social networking has been amongst the higher spending groups; Orange has seen almost 50% of its 3G subscribers accessing social networks.

So is this a tipping point for how people decide what phones they buy? Should retailers be selling phones according to which social networks they work best with? It’s less crazy than it sounds. Vodafone spent big at the end of 2008 on letting consumers know they can access Facebook on their mobiles. 3UK has just launched the INQ1, dubbed ‘the Facebook phone’. And Nokia looks to be building it’s own mobile social networking platform, having shelled out an estimated $30 million for geo-social networking platform Plazes.

The brilliant thing about social networks is that for people that use them, the brand loyalty is so strong there’s hardly any need for marketing. Tell a customer that they can access Bebo or Myspace on their phones, and they’ll know exactly what you are talking about. The education has already been done on the web – there’s no need for the hard sell. Brilliant. So what if it’s got a five megapixel camera, plays video in HD and comes pre-loaded with 3D games? If I can log into Facebook on it and see what my friends are up to, I’m sold. If I was a retailer of any shape or size, I’d be reading up on social networks as much as I can, as it’s clearly what my customers want.

For a long time there have been efforts to launch services that bring in consumers that are uniquely mobile: who’d have thought that the real breakthrough would come from a handful of free websites? Yet here we are. Maybe it’s not about how you connect, but who you are connected to.

 
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