Social Call

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Published in New Media Age 15.06.06: Gustav Söderström is sitting in a hotel bar in Stockholm looking at the profile of a 23-year-old woman. This isn’t some seedy chatroom on his laptop, though. He’s taking part in a social experience entirely on his mobile phone, updating live as he talks and allowing him to instant message his friends and contacts, writes Mike Butcher

Söderström is a founder of Kenet Works, a mobile application developer in Sweden that has come up with an impressive Java-based application which works alongside a MySpace-style community in Sweden called Playahead.

Playahead is one of a number of online social networking sites in Scandinavia, many of which pre-date MySpace, the noted US community that has become a byword for online networking. Playahead has been a hit among the 18-24-year-old demographic, reaching over 1m members.

Part of the success of these online communities has been down to their use of mobile social software, dubbed ‘MoSoSo’. The mobile application for Playahead’s community lets you to do almost everything you can on a PC. It’s even ‘presence aware’, letting your friends see if you’re online.

The capability of the service is now allowing for content creation by members. “A more general trend right now is user-created content sites, where users upload photos and videos of themselves,” says Söderström. He thinks user-generated content on mobile has a lot of potential.

Closed community

It’s this desire among the young to network, chat and create content that has seen sites like MySpace grab headlines in the last year. The most popular of the social networking sites in the US, MySpace has over 67m members, with about 250,000 joining every day. According to ComScore Media Metrix, it accounts for 12% of US online advertising.

In February, MySpace announced a deal with US MVNO start-up Helio to offer rich mobile access to the MySpace community from Helio phones, including mobile blogging. Now MySpace, Bebo and Faceparty are all planning mobile services in the UK (NMA 01.06.06).

Alfie Denan, co-founder of Moblog UK, says, “There’s real authenticity and intimacy in this.” Moblog works with bands like The Automatic to allow them to moblog photos of their touring exploits as well as fans to join in, creating buzz.

But creating a branding effect on the mobile screen is a new world. Even Denan admits it’s hard to create community feeling on mobile.

One of the few case studies in marketing to mobile communities has been Absolut Vodka’s partnership with Dodgeball.com, which uses SMS and MMS messaging to allow users to connect with friends at nightspots in US cities. In the summer of 2004, Absolut sent opted-in subscribers a message asking them to send in their location to get information about the closest place where they could enjoy outdoor drinks.

Dodgeball was bought by Google in May 2005, but the marketing model it pioneered is still very much in its infancy. Location-based services have been largely unsuccessful for mobile operators, but it’s location-relevant advertising that’s making the mobile industry and marketers sit up and take notice. At this year’s CTIA conference, the buzz was about the $20 to $50 (£11 to £27) CPM being touted for mobile advertising.

This is also the view of Justin Davies, founder of Ninety Ten, a London-based mobile consultancy that has launched BuddyPing. Text your location to BuddyPing and it will text you back with the location of your friends (if they’re BuddyPing members), what they’re doing and events in the vicinity. It also has a Java client that runs on most phones and allows members to instant message each other. So far it has 3,000 users.

“The business model for BuddyPing is to provide brand affinity,” says Davies. “We can use location information to pick up an ad or sponsor message that’s relevant to a person there and then.” This could include offering discounts to declared gadget fans close to an electronics shop.

But to be successful, mobile location-based advertising requires a critical mass of users, something which, Davies says, can’t be achieved without the draw of keeping in touch with relevant local events and people.

Andrew Scott, founder and CEO of Playtxt, agrees. “Mobile marketing is about to enter its maturing period. We’re on the cusp of major brands embracing mobile,” he says. At three years old, Playtxt is one of the UK’s oldest mobile communities. It plans to relaunch in July with targeted opt-in location-based advertising.

“Brands are only interested it you can get a critical mass of users. So our model is like Google AdWords but linked to location,” says Scott.

While social networking based on location is the idea behind BuddyPing and Playtxt, gaming perhaps holds the most potential for marketing.

Last year Future Platforms built a mobile Java-based Sudoku game for Puzzler Media that allowed users to register their scores in a league. “We thought we’d get maybe 5% of people reporting their score,” says founder Tom Hume. In fact, a massive 40% of players entered their scores. “There’s a latent demand for community among people doing mobile gaming already,” he adds.

Congesting charges

One thing remains in the way of real mobile social communities developing, however: data charges. Fear of being hit by unknown bills for using WAP sites or Java portals is clearly holding back the development of communities.

One way around this would be for brands to pick up the costs on behalf of customers. Indeed, Masterfoods sweets brand Skittles is already sponsoring a BuddyPing sub-site (buddyping.com/ skittles), offering users a free BuddyPing account under the ‘Skittles Big Summer’ promotion.

Brand sponsorship of mobile communities isn’t going to be a golden bullet, however, says Helen Keegan, a mobile marketer who runs BeepMarketing. “It’s not about the channel, it’s about the community and user experience,” she says. “It will probably be a blend of mobile, Web and offline events designed to build these communities that will be key to their success.”

For now, mobile communities look likely to remain stymied by data charges and even the simple step of getting users to use a service. But it remains an area where brands could benefit by meeting consumers literally where they stand.

Published in New Media Age 15.06.06

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