|Asia-Pacific I 2007
|Mobile social networking – the 3.45 billion dollar surprise
|Tomi T. Ahonen
|consultant, lecturer and author
Tomi T. Ahonen is a four-time bestselling author and a long-time independent 3G strategy consultant. Mr Ahonen lectures on 3G and mobile social networking at Oxford University and has been a guest lecturer at a wide variety of universities and industry events. He is a former Global Head of Nokia’s 3G Business Consultancy. Mr Ahonen has delivered workshops and seminars to the leading industry players on six continents. He appears frequently on TV and has published columns and articles in a great many publications around the world. Mr Ahonen has advised a long list of leading global and regional industry organisations, and been a founding member of several. His latest book is “Communities Dominate Brands” (with Alan Moore, Futuretext, 2005). Mr Ahonen earned a BS in Business Administration from Clarion University, USA and a MBA from St John’s University, USA.
The Internet has brought many changes, but few as interesting as the rapidly growing phenomenon of social networking. MySpace, YouTube, Skype, Cyworld, Wikipedia, videogaming, blogging and many other communal activities have grown, literally, from nothing a few years ago to tens of millions of users. Equally surprising is the growth of mobile social networking, particularly among younger users. Mobile’s anytime anyplace availability, compared to the more limited availability of desktop or laptop Internet access, has helped propel its strong growth.
Recent technology stories from around the world feature digital communities. From MySpace, Second Life and YouTube in America to Skype, Habbo Hotel and Bebo in Europe, to Cyworld, Mixi and Lineage in Asia; social networking services cover all aspects of life from LinkedIn’s professional communities to Ohmy News’ citizen journalism to Wikipedia’s information pooling or the videogaming of Worlds of Warcraft. The growth of online communities is equally impressive: there were two million bloggers in the autumn of 2004 when few people outside of technology enthusiasts even knew what blogging was. Today, November 2006, there are over 65 million blogsites. YouTube had three million users in the summer of 2005 and over 60 million a year later. Nobody doubts the rapid rise of social networking. But a surprising newer form of community behaviour is now appearing: mobile social networking. How big? Informa has just released its analysis of mobile social networking and found it was worth $3.45 billion in 2006! Start with mobile links There are three levels of mobile community services. The first and easiest is to provide mobile links, alerts and access to online Internet-based communities. M:Metrics reports that among 18- to 24-year-old users in America a third upload images from camera phones to picture sharing sites like Flickr. Many blog services and mobile operators now add RSS, Really Simple Syndication, feeds so that bloggers can keep in touch with what is happening in the blogosphere. Mobile enables payment collection through the use of premium SMS text messaging. A good example is the online Swedish robot fighting game BotFighter. This game has a ‘location-based’ indicator that is locked to the mobile phone of the ‘robot’s’ owner. Then, based on where the owner is, nearby robots are identified via SMS alerts and robot battles are offered based upon ‘virtual proximity’. BotFighter generates over a million SMS alerts per month. Consider Habbo Hotel, a virtual playground for 12- to 16-year-old created by Sulake in Finland. Kids of this age do not have credit cards but, by 2000, almost all Finnish kids had mobile phones, so Sulake hit a gold mine by enabling Habbo Hotel payments via SMS premium text messaging. By 2001, Habbo had spread to the UK; in 2003 the first Asian Habbo site opened in Japan. Today, Habbo operates in 29 countries on five continents. There are over seven million active Habbo gamers today – similar to the user levels of Worlds of Warcraft and Lineage, and many times that, for example, of Second Life. But most impressive is Habbo Hotel’s revenue growth, which more than doubles each year, Sulake earned US$35 million in 2005. Habbo Hotel has averaged over US$5 per user per year, or 40 cents per user per month. For a teenager, that is a considerable cut out of their disposable income. Building mobile variants The more challenging task is to build a version of an online concept for a mobile phone. So where YouTube, MSN Video, Netflix and Google Video are all familiar online video sharing sites, a similar mobile variant called SeeMeTV is on various Hutchison and its ‘Three’ brand 3G mobile networks. SeeMeTV was launched in October 2005 in Italy and the UK, and only six months later ‘Three’ UK reported that its three million subscribers had already downloaded four million video clips. In the next six months this doubled. Significantly, SeeMeTV pays the person who originally created the content. SeeMeTV UK, for example, pays one penny to the original creator of the video every time that video is viewed. In the first six months, Three UK paid over US$180,000 to those subscribers who created the videos. Now other mobile services based on this concept, such as Peek’a’Boo TV, are starting. A good example of an integrated social community is UK-based Flirtomatic. Flirtomatic has both online and mobile access to the full service, which has dating profiles with pictures, as well as chat, flirting, messaging, etc, services. Flirtomatic finds that its mobile users already generate 20 per cent more page views than its online users. We simply have our mobile phones with us – and connected – more than we have our laptop computers. This is also the key to why so much of the citizen journalism content of the South Korean news service, Ohmy News, is generated via mobile phones. We simply have the phone at the point of creation – in this case, where the news is made. Totally mobile communities The most demanding types of community services are those that are created uniquely for the mobile phone. These tend to be very new and are just starting to emerge. One such service is MyFoodPhone, a service that combines ‘weight watchers’ – type group-support for dieting, with calorie counters etc, all built for the phone. After all, anywhere we would consider eating, we also have our phone within arm’s reach. A BDDO survey in 2005 revealed that, globally, over 60 per cent of us actually take the mobile phone to bed with us, and a Nokia survey in 2006 reported that 72 per cent of us use the phone as our alarm clock. Music fans are a promising target for mobile community services. A pioneer in this is the Hong Kong pop duo Twins, who launched a fan club through mobile phones. ‘Twins Mobile’ included ringtones, screen savers, fan club newsletters, online chat, concert ticket promotions, etc. And the phone is always in the fan’s pocket. Now bands – from P Diddy to Kiss – are launching mobile fan communities. UK pop trio Sugababes has gone that far in fan interaction that it now requests fans to send in video clips with dance moves. The Sugababes are using the best dance routines on their current stage tour. Another clever idea is an authoring and sharing community such as MyNuMo, where you can create your own cartoons or horoscopes or videogames. MyNuMo lets users create almost any digital content and then share in the revenues whenever their content is downloaded, in much the same way that content providers on SeeMeTV are paid. Best example: Cyworld Perhaps the best example of mobile social networks is South Korea’s Cyworld. Combining almost everything from better known dedicated communities, Cyworld has user profiles like MySpace, picture sharing like Flickr, dating like Match.com, video sharing like YouTube, music sales like iTunes or iPod, and virtual rooms like Habbo Hotel. Cyworld includes both blogging and mobile blogging. Over 90 per cent of Korean youth, and an amazing 43 per cent of the total South Korean population, already maintain profiles in Cyworld, but only 27 per cent of Americans maintain MySpace profiles. Cyworld has become a national phenomenon; people from all walks of life now use social networking to better their lives. New parents find others with newborns to discuss tips on baby care, grandparents share images with their grandkids, pop bands maintain fan clubs and politicians discuss their policies. All of Cyworld is accessible on computers; remember, South Korea is a world leader in broadband penetration. Significantly, all of Cyworld is also accessible via mobile phones; Korea leads the world in 3G phone penetration with nearly 60 per cent of all phone users already migrated to third generation. Yet for all its other success and growth, the most disruptive dimension of Cyworld is the ecosystem it has created. Cyworld has its own economic environment, with the dotori, or acorn, as its payment mechanism – one dotori is worth about 10 cents. Korean business has suddenly discovered the virtual world. A rapid ‘gold rush’ is occurring, with over 30,000 business entities establishing Cyworld sites. The sites have over half a million commercial products and services for sale inside Cyworld. In music alone, the transformation has been truly disruptive. With such innovations as the welcoming song, Cyworld sells 200,000 songs per day and has become the largest outlet for music sales in Korea. The biggest endorsement comes from the users themselves. Cyworld has started its expansion to other countries, with launches already in China, Japan, USA and Germany. American teenagers who have tried both say that Cyworld is two years ahead of MySpace, and once they got involved with Cyworld they have almost stopped using MySpace altogether. Mobile social networking started just a few years ago, but with global revenues of over US$3.45 billion, digital communities, communities on mobile phones, are already bigger than web communities online. For mobile operators digital communities are a surprising hit. They already generate more revenues than mobile advertising, videogaming, MMS and TV services, gambling, adult entertainment, downloadable logos and screen savers. Mobile social networking has become the second largest data value-added revenue source – behind only ringtones – and is growing at incredible rates. Now is the time to build social networking links to every mobile service, and mobile links to every online social community. Totally web 2.0, the next-generation of web-based services, at heart, this is the biggest bonanza in media, IT and telecoms. Get into mobile communities now!