Will mobile be the new frontier for MySpace and Bebo?

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It’s not news that online social networking sites are going mobile. MySpace took its first steps into mobile earlier this year in a deal with US mobile operator Helio, and has talked publicly about its intention to extend this to elsewhere in the world. But talk seems to be intensifying, as the big Web 2.0 sites realise that mobile will be an important part of their future development.

Just this week, speculation’s been rife that Bebo plans to launch its own mobile service next year, possibly in partnership with O2. Both Bebo and MySpace have registered .mobi domain names too, which indicates their commitment to mobile. But having experienced rapid growth online, will transferring to mobile be as easy as these companies think, or could they be trumped by new mobile communities, either run by the operators, or independently?

One thing’s for sure: it’s a logical move for social networking sites to go mobile. "As the number of users grows, so too will the desire to access blog and social networking spaces on the move," says Tim Cole, of mobile content specialist Tao Group. "Mobile phones are the obvious medium to facilitate this."


He’s backed up by Mark Fisher, VP of business development for Danger, which makes the Sidekick messaging device. "Mobile social networking is the natural extension of mobile
messaging," says Mark Fisher, VP of business development for Danger,
which makes the Sidekick messaging device. "It is a big opportunity for
the industry. Social networking websites are generally the most popular
destination for our users."

Meanwhile, Tim Deluca-Smith, communications manager at mobile firm SmartTrust, points out that it’s teenagers in North America and Europe who are likely to fuel the trend, being the heaviest users of PC-based instant messaging and community sites, and also of their mobiles.

"How quickly would they flip to a
mobile-based service if it supported the communities and services they
get via the PC today?" he asks. "In Asia, where the penetration of cheap,
high-bandwidth fixed internet is lower, and the reliance of the mobile
for internet connectivity higher, social networking sites such as
Cyworld have offered WAP interfaces from inception. And Cyworld, which
now boasts 25% of the country’s population as a member, is now owned by
SK Telecom – an investor in Helio."

Going mobile is not a new option for social networking sites. Take
Swedish service LunarStorm, for example, which has 1.5 million members
in Sweden, and over 100,000 in the UK since launching here. CEO Nils
Hammar explains that mobile is not seen as just a cut-down extra.


"Users have free access to the mobile element of the site, which is
as near as possible to being the same as the main site," he says. "The
only function that is not available is to upload pictures to the
gallery. As each piece of new functionality is launched on the Web, it
goes mobile simultaneously. We have a repurposing engine, so we do not
need to do the development twice."

So who is best placed to make social networking work on mobile: the existing online services, or new mobile startups? Some have experienced success. For example, mobile operator 3 UK has signed up over 50,000 users to its Kink Kommunity in just two months since launching, who are making 350,000 postings a day, and submitting 80,000 MMS messages a month. However, most observers think the key will be partnerships between the mobile operators, and the online social networking sites.

"It is probably too late for the operators to build their own social networking sites," says Cole. "After all, in this youth market cool and reputation are everything, and MySpace, Bebo and one or two others are already streets ahead. So a partnership approach between the operators and social networking spaces will work best."

Fisher agrees that the established online communities will have an initial advantage in moving to mobile, but points out that there are already some mobile communities showing traction – Kink presumably being one of them. "The services that can deliver a relevant and rich mobile experience will ultimately prevail," he says.


"The established websites that have created the revolution in social networking are the perfect brands to extend to mobile," says Grant Smuts, chief commercial officer at mobile content firm FoneStarz Media Group. "The demographic of their users is what Vodafone refers to as the ‘Young, Active, Fun Crowd’, who are the target age for the more sophisticated and innovative mobile technologies. Thereford the established brands within this market, who already have a captive audience, should in theory see a fluid transition to mobile, which should provide a substantial extension to their success."

However, Smuts points out that the main challenge facing these brands is whether their online services will work on mobile, and also getting to grips with the mobile industry itself, and particularly the way it is largely controlled by the mobile operators. Above all, they’ll have to appreciate that it’s not just about transferring what they do online onto mobiles.

"It is unclear whether mobile will be the primary or secondary platform for social networking, but it is clear that it will have an important part to play," says Smuts. "24×7 access is a definite USP, and uploading and downloading content is a realistic example of where mobile can be advantageous. However, for writing long weblogs, viewing higher quality and long audio/video content that requires higher bandwidth, the Internet will remain the primary source of such material. At least for the forseeable future."

It won’t just be the likes of MySpace and the mobile operators, however. Anil Malhotra, SVP of marketing at mobile payments firm Bango, says there will also be a lot of brands looking to create a mobile community service for their audiences. "Whether it be magazine publishers, broadcasters or games publishers, it’s all about creating an experience around a brand, where people go to share content," he says.


Mobile also offers new directions for social networking, for example building in location-based elements. Loopt is one company that’s launched a ‘see where your mates are’ mobile application, while Webraska founder Jean-Michel Durocher says his firm is also seeing the benefits.

"We are already beginning to observe social networking developing around mobile technologies such as satellite navigation," he says. "With a simple SMS, maps, addresses and directions can be sent to friends, and points of interest can be created and shared by end-users."

Meanwhile, Bango’s Malhotra points out the potential for more micro-payments.

"Mobile communities provide an important opportunity for
people to profit from their creativity, so we’ll see micro-payments come into
play in a way we’ve not seen on the PC Internet," he says. "People won’t mind paying 50p
for a funny clip and sharing with friends. This will pull people to moving to
mobile communities, who wouldn’t mind making £50 from something fun they do in
their spare time."

One thing’s for sure: the next few months are going to be pretty exciting for anyone who’s into their online social networking, and is phone-savvy too. Whoever stands to capitalise the most on the impending crossover between Web 2.0 and mobile, let’s hope they get it right.

Stuart Dredge

5 comments

  • Mobile as a social networking device definitely offers some promises, however the way this problem is approached in the first place could be a deterministic factor in how successfully this will be adopted by the consumers.

    One approach could be to see the MySpace/Bebo’s of the online world stretching their arms and going mobile. But then isn’t it the problem that we have been facing since the dawn of this era i.e trying to fit what exists and is sucessful on the web to a mobile device? With the MySpace/Bebo examples we are also talking about the US/European demographic which generally speaking is barely 2 hours from their PC’s at any point in time, so would people actually wait to get back to their PC’s and do a lot more with their online community sites or will they try to browse through bunch of pages on the small device? Being able to post/read scraps via SMS may not quite define what we could call as mobile playing a primary role in the social networking domain.

    Another approach, could be to offer social networking designed specifically for the mobile devices. Something that can offer an intrinsic value to the mobile user (much more than simply staying plugged in to the online community), making him wanna checkout the device even when he/she is sitting on the PC. Something like this could be favored by the operators too if it is designed to aid data revenues for them, for instance something that could bring a community(read viral) effect to the Value Added Services offered by the operators. If we see the desired rise in the mobile micropayments as suggested in the article) then maybe something like this might offer the potential to surpass the carrier’s walled garden.

  • The user experience from a mobile device towards an online social network is not defacto WAP only. Let’s not forget that sms and mms are mainstream in Europe, so let’s not try to re-think social networking interaction in function of a non-addressable technology, but at least consider the power of sms and mms. Where are all the wireless access service providers such as mBlox and Mobile365 in this discussion? They are lacking the content formatting applications and integration skills to adopt user-generated content into an online environment. At least Mobiya is addressing the classified advertising industry from a mobile user experience using a service that always works, is personal and billable: sms!

  • The biggest opportunity facing existing web-based communities that are looking at the mobile internet space is also their biggest challenge.

    I predict that we could see a reshuffle if the current big players get it wrong.

    Communities need to adapt to the mobile space, not just re-hash their existing offering by shrinking it down to a small screen.

    Sure, file sharing and blogs are great but they’re so… yawn… yesterday.

    Users engage with their mobile devices in a completely different way to their PCs. Bandwidth and usability issues aside (which will undoubtedly impact on users actively sharing experiences and ideas on mobile), we should consider exactly what users want to do with social networking on their mobile phones.

    Do provisions and messaging systems already in place provide them with that functionality today? Do users need to create their own identity on the mobile internet? Is it worth the hard work? After all, engaging in social networking takes time – just as in the real world. The best site you’ve ever seen on MySpace was not built in a day. It took time, more time than all but the sorest-thumbed mobile user will be willing to put in.

    At Wapple, we’re inventing new activities that social groups can engage in through their mobile devices that go way beyond those that community sites are already providing on web.

    We’re looking to extend reach and appeal by identifying the core reasons users will actually bother to interact with community through their mobile, determining where and when they will do it and finally looking at benefits and rewards.

    After all, if you can do it on web (and the experience is faster, bigger, better) why wrestle with a wap browser to do the same thing on your mobile phone.

    Our mobile community project does all the ‘me too’ stuff. Yes, you can edit your blog, upload pics and vids, message your mates and so on. But its our clever engagement ideas that create multiple USPs. I’m talking about activities that users simply wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do on web – yet are well suited to mobile devices.

    Finally, we’re helping users achieve impressive and unique sites quickly. Our community members can differentiate themselves in an instant, creating mobile identities that stand out from the crowd in ways that you don’t even see on the web.

    In summary, mobile communities must evolve from their web-based parents and benefactors. They should grow from baby brothers, copying their older siblings, into strong and unique platforms for communication, expression, engagement and commerce – all with a mobile twist that simply isn’t possible on the web.

  • We are already doing this on mobile with great success at http://www.mocospace.com The extension to mobile though is not as simple as some of these players might think, any more than the jump to Web was over a decade ago. There will be plenty of new and old companies finding success in this space.

  • >>>Both Bebo and MySpace have registered .mobi domain names too, which indicates their commitment to mobile.

    I’m sorry, but this is ‘not’ a sign of being commited. Most people are buying .mobi out of fear – they don’t want other’s to buy them up.

    Same thing would happen if some organization created a useless top level domain for websites that are for viewing in your car, corporations would buy up the .auto names because they don’t want others to buy them.

    Buying a .mobi means very little. Don’t believe the .mobi hype!

    >>> “After all, in this youth market cool and reputation are everything, and MySpace, Bebo and one or two others are already streets ahead.

    Yes – true, but I think Cole forgets how things change, and how something ‘cool’ now is considered ‘lame’ within a year.

    >>> so we’ll see micro-payments come into play in a way we’ve not seen on the PC Internet,

    while that does sound right, if you look over the micro-payment world, you’ll none of them have reached a significant degree of traction. Possibly PayPal’s mobile payment solution could be an answer, but I’m afraid the solution most will go with is direct billing on people’s phone bills, which means more money to the carriers.

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