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.