"I'm going to write my next column on Cat Paint," I told my wife.
She asked, "Is it about how you've become a twelve-year-old girl?"
Perhaps. But in a season of social media breakthroughs and brouhahas -- Facebook Connect surpassing 60 million active users, Google and Yahoo rolling out real-time search, Facebook's privacy overhaul, Twitter's Citysearch partnership -- I think we're all going to look back at this time and realize what mattered most was Cat Paint.
You might have missed the big news of Cat Paint releasing and then upgrading its iPhone app. After all, Compete says Catpaint.info attracted fewer than 1,500 unique visitors in November. To offer full disclosure, I have no personal connection to Cat Paint, they have never even recognized my existence (outside of posting one of my submissions in their gallery), and I'm more of a dog person. Yet, when they updated their iPhone app, they offered catnip for those who want to understand what the future of mobile social media looks like.
I first became aware of this breakthrough the old-fashioned way, via word of mouth, during an emerging media breakfast at my agency. Yes, Katty told Jeff, and Jeff told the group, and now I won't shut up about it. The app is deceptively simple: you take any photo on your iPhone and put cats on it. Note that mankind's best inventions -- the wheel, paper clips, red velvet cupcakes -- are all easy to grasp. All impacted the world. So will Cat Paint.
I got so hooked on the app that I created a Flickr gallery with some of my creations. Here are a few reasons everyone can learn from it:
1) It's easy. What does Cat Paint do? The most obvious answer is that you use it to paint cats. But the second most obvious answer is that you paint a picture with cats -- the cats are really the paint. You don't get a quicker elevator pitch than that. The value proposition is clear.
2) It has a revenue model. I'm not sure if this is the best 99 cents I ever spent, but it's up there. Facebook can afford not to charge for its app or run ads on it, but mobile social media will increasingly cost consumers. Many kinds of content providers will benefit from the one-two punch of consumers getting used to micropayments for mobile applications and extra features in Web-based applications. When movie tickets cost over $10 and Wii games cost $50, spending a few dollars for a few hours of portable fun seems perfectly frugal and recession-friendly.
3) There are clear calls to action. When you're done making a Cat Paint picture, you can save it (presumably to show others later), email it to share it right away, submit it to the Cat Paint gallery, or visit the gallery to view others' creations. Almost all of those actions are social, and really, who's going to use this just to keep it all to oneself?
4) It takes advantage of the mobile handset. With any mobile social app, publishers and marketers need to determine what really makes it mobile. Does it take advantage of GPS? Does it connect to other nearby devices? Does it use the accelerometer? Does it use the phone? Cat Paint uses the camera, allowing users to take instant pictures that can be played with and shared. It's not just some app that can run anywhere; it belongs on a mobile device.
5) It involves cats. That's just not fair to every other app out there that isn't cat-related.
The app could improve even more, though. Here are a few potential enhancements for future editions:
1) Adding in Facebook Connect. I wish I could instantly share these pictures on Facebook, though I can post them if I first save them to my phone. I made one Cat Paint creation my Facebook profile picture, and Connect could make all of this far simpler.
2) Crowd-source cats. Why not have users submit pictures of their own cats to include in future editions?
3) Branded cat placements. Perhaps marketers will want to "adopt" or sponsor certain cats. Who'd bite? Maybe Friskies, or Tony the Tiger, or "The Lion King" on Broadway. Or a brand that just likes sponsoring cats. Sponsoring this kind of sharable content has a huge upside for marketers that find the right fit in terms of the app and consumers.
4) Add cats for a fee. If someone would pay 99 cents to send cat photos, would they pay another buck for a totally new round of cats? I probably would, as it'd be one more excuse to talk about this app and share it with even more people.
I can't guarantee you'll find Cat Paint as amazing as I did. My wife has spent the past week rolling her eyes at me, and my almost-uncle (long story) spent half the family holiday party begging me to put away my iPhone. Regardless of your taste, give Cat Paint a look. Instead of the concept launching as a blog on TypePad or Tumblr as it might have in years past, it works perfectly as a mobile social media app. And if it appears in one of Apple's TV spots, it might even sell a few more iPhones.