Is all mobile social?
Five years ago, penning a MediaPost piece that feels like it was written far more recently, I asked, "Is all mobile local?" That question would have been a more fitting title for the column rather than the wonkier one I used, "The Mobile-Local Redundancy," which sounds like a rejected name for a Jason Bourne movie. The question and the column answering it remain relevant, making me wonder if so little has changed in sixty-one months.
A very different question probably wouldn't have crossed my mind back then: Is all mobile social? More specifically, is all mobile media inherently shareable through digital social channels, and should that be the case?
The thought came up this week amidst successive meetings with two very different companies: InMobi, a mobile ad network, and SCVNGR, a mobile gaming platform (see a recent blog post I wrote for more on the latter). The ad network's executives highlighted a case study for Reebok that included virtual gifting via mobile media. The whole paradigm of mobile media is quickly coming around to what it seems it was meant to be, like Jack on "Lost" having his moment of awakening and fulfilling his purpose.
It wasn't long ago when almost all of the conversations I had with mobile vendors were entirely media-focused. These conversations would revolve around ad specs, file sizes, targeting capabilities, CPM prices, and other media minutiae. All of that's fine, but it quickly commoditizes mobile media. I don't think that's what these vendors want, but they should know that's why it's so hard for some of them to get a second meeting. They can send their one-page media kit PDFs instead.
A funny thing is happening on the way to the rapid commoditization and devaluation of the vast majority of mobile media. Marketers are starting to get a sense of what these devices can really do. There's Apple's iAd, which may well be the Jesus ad to accompany its Jesus phone and Jesus tablet. There's Google's Android, which makes it easy to share content from mobile devices. There's BlackBerry Messenger, perhaps the only social application on U.S. handsets that directly contributes to sales of those devices. Then there's Twitter with its heavy usage from mobile devices, Foursquare popularizing the concept of check-in apps, and Facebook with more than 100 million mobile users.
None of that tells the whole story, though. The bigger story is the device itself.
Mobile devices are designed to facilitate communication with anyone anywhere at any time. Text messaging became the most streamlined way to do this through data services. Cameras on phones became useful once photos could be shared with others directly from the devices. While mainstream news, sports, and weather sites were the first to gain multimillion-user audiences for mobile web content, social properties have accounted for the most pageviews in recent months. In some ways, smartphones now resemble personal computers, but Steve Jobs had to pioneer a new hybrid category to better capitalize on portable computing. The mobile phone is something else -- it's a social computer.
Mobile phones connect people to each other, they connect people to locations, and they are increasingly powerful for connecting people to each other within given locations. It's taken the devices a while to get there, but their form factor is lending to increasingly social behavior. Camera phones are a great illustration -- they were of limited value until you could seamlessly broadcast those photos or share them with others via email or MMS (multimedia messaging service).
Clearly all mobile media isn't social yet. It doesn't all need to be. Yet so much of what will work in mobile will either benefit from amplification as consumers share it with others directly from the handset (via email, text messaging, or social media), or use it to connect with others in proximity to where they are.
Just as it will bring consumers together, it will bring marketers' and agencies' internal organizations closer together. Mobile vendors, meanwhile, will get more people in the room, as it won't just be the media or mobile or social teams. If mobile can do that -- and it's still an "if" today -- then its social potential is truly limitless.