Marketers Sit On Facebook's Mobile Sidelines
There have been so many big numbers tossed out about Facebook lately, you'd think the site was in the lottery business. Fellow columnist Cathy Taylor last week mentioned how Facebook provides nearly 8% of the traffic to Google and Yahoo, and how people spend more than three times as long as Facebook as on any other site. Days earlier, Facebook celebrated crossing the 400 million user mark.
The number that stands out the most to me is this one: 100 million. That's how many mobile users access Facebook across a range of devices -- actually, it's more than that, and growing daily. The safe bet is in time that the mobile user base will nearly mirror the overall user base, and that most of its usage will derive from mobile users. Facebook is in an especially strong position to benefit from the mobile boom, as mobile measurement firm Ground Truth noted this month that 61% of mobile Web pageviews are served by social networking sites.
Facebook is second to MySpace on Ground Truth's January list of top ten mobile sites ranked by page views, with other entries including Mocospace, FunForMobile, AirG, Cellufun, Mbuzzy, and Myxer (Google and Yahoo made the list too). The firm noted, "Just as eBay, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter popped up seemingly out of nowhere to join the top ranks of the wired Web, there is no doubt that some of the mobile Web startups from today or tomorrow will be standalone companies in the top 10 mobile Web sites of 2020."
Some of that reasoning's a stretch. I talked to one mobile vendor recently whose business was largely based on feature phones, the catch-all category for anything that's not a smart phone. He said that they'll milk the much larger feature phone user base for the time being, and when that dries up and everyone's on smart phones, they hope to adapt to the new marketplace. Many such companies won't make it. The feature phone market will be alive and well for some time, in the U.S. and abroad, and Facebook even just launched Zero, a completely scaled-back mobile site for those with bandwidth issues.
That has to rattle marketers a little. The whole promise of mobile was that it would open up new audiences who could be targeted wherever they were. Yet Facebook offers nothing like that. How dare Facebook scale down its site even more for mobile users! It's not like users could see ads or even easily access Pages before. Where are the homepage ads? What about geotargeted mobile alerts? Come on, Zuckerberg, give us something!
Lisa Foote, commenting on Cathy's article, summed it up well: "Making the hill even steeper to climb is consumers' increasing use of Facebook via mobile devices... Marketers who are already late to the social media party are going to find it's not a static target --- making it even harder for them to catch up in 2010." It's especially hard when there's no proscribed way to market to these users.
That's going to change, of course. It might not change for Zero anytime soon, which is more of an issue for global marketers, especially in emerging markets where the need for Zero should be strongest. The most lightweight versions of Facebook's mobile site won't appeal to its frequent users who appreciate many of the features available on the Web. So what about Facebook for iPhone, with 27 million active users, or Facebook for BlackBerry, with 15 million monthly active users? What's taking Facebook so long?
First, they're biding their time and growing their user base. No one's forcing their hand here, as they've gotten to 400 million users without caring too much about what others think of them. The second is that they're waiting to pull the trigger on an ad model that makes sense for their specific site and how it's used. Facebook just dropped Microsoft's banner ads on its site because they weren't contributing to the Facebook experience. The engagement ads and self-service ads running currently are customized to work for Facebook, not anyone else, creating a new experience for consumers without totally reinventing the wheel on the back end for marketers. Expect Facebook mobile ads to be built from the ground up.
No matter how long Facebook takes, marketers with mobile applications can currently take advantage of Facebook Connect. Any app that incorporates content sharing, messaging, or finding friends can use Connect to grow the app's audience and increase users' engagement with it. In some cases, Connect will be the predominant reason an app gets any social traction.
Beyond the app scene though, marketers have to go stag. Facebook's perfectly happy expanding its audience of 100 million mobile friends and doesn't want any chaperones butting in yet.