Demographic Divide Affects Social Net Mobile Usage

Greg Sterling headshotA recent study by Local Mobile Search, a unit of Opus Research, found that only 6% of cell phone subscribers in North America have accessed social networks on their phones--although three-quarters belong to such networks.

Underlying this discrepancy is a demographic divide. Younger mobile customers who are more likely to use their phones for social networking can't afford to--while older, more affluent ones with smart phones and unlimited data plans have little interest in the Web 2.0 phenomenon.

Those ages 18 to 34 were more reluctant to use up valuable minutes to connect with friends through social networks when they could just as easily stay in touch via text-messaging. And with the emergence of micro-blogging services such as Twitter, texting becomes an attractive alternative to more elaborate social networking options on mobile devices.

Mobile users ages 35 to 54, meanwhile, simply don't see a pressing need for social networking sites.

A separate report released Tuesday by technology research firm In-Stat similarly indicated that so-called Millennials (children of the Baby Boomers) are driving adoption of mobile social networking. Worldwide, In-Stat forecasts some 230 million mobile subscribers could be using mobile social networking services by 2012.

Facebook was the most popular social network among mobile users in the U.S. and Canada--with nearly 40% accessing that social site most often, followed by MySpace (21%), YouTube (19%) and Yahoo Groups (11%), according to the Opus report. That's a positive sign for Facebook, which ranks a distant second to MySpace in PC-based Internet traffic.

Staying connected, letting people know their location and what they're doing, sharing videos or photos, and seeing who's nearby or what they're up to were the top reasons cited for using social networks on the go.

The mobile activity that people had the most interest in (41%) was the ability to be able to invite friends to join them at a restaurant or other location. Getting recommendations about things to see and do and tips on local stores were among other desired mobile services.

Key to the expansion of social networking on mobile devices is the growth of the mobile Internet. Of those with mobile Internet access, one-third to one-half are already using social networking services. Opus forecasts that 19% of mobile subscribers will regularly go online via cell phone this year--up from 15% in 2007.

"Over time, social networking features and social sites are going to be significant on mobile. There's already evidence of that," said Greg Sterling, senior analyst at Opus' Local Mobile Search. "The question is, 'how long will it take?'"

That question looms especially large for the 30 or more mobile startups focused on delivering social networking services geared to cell phones. They are likely to have a tougher time competing against Facebook and other Internet-based interlopers.

Sterling added that the spread of fixed-rate, unlimited voice and data plans among the major carriers should help to hasten adoption of the mobile Web, and social networking along with it.

Likewise, the In-Stat study concluded that the mobile handset will ultimately become an extension of most aspects of subscribers' lives.

Even so, wireless carriers and mobile content providers need to do a better job of letting subscribers know which options are available through data plans. "Given the low-level of awareness and use of social networking features on mobile devices, we expect the industry leaders to start investing in awareness-raising programs and in changing the existing behavioral model," states the report.

The findings were based on a survey, conducted with Multiplied Media, of 1,022 mobile subscribers between February and March 2008. The respondents skewed toward female respondents, especially in the United States, and also focused toward a slightly older (ages 25 to 54) demographic.

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