When Mobile Eats The Web: Social Net MyYearbook Prepares For Tipping Point

We have been seeing impressive numbers from mobile growth all year. Hockey sticks have become the norm as search engines like Google and content providers across the board see massive amounts of new traffic coming from smartphones. But even within that context, the wave that hit social network, games and meeting site myYearbook last year was tectonic. Before the company launched iPhone and Android apps last year, it was seeing about 2% of its traffic coming from mobile sources. As the apps rolled out in mid-year, the percentage went to 6% by July, 16% by October and now stands at a full third of all traffic to the site coming from mobile. "It has been pretty torrid growth since we started growing with the apps," says CEO Geoff Cook. Just since January, the number of mobile ad impressions served by the site has exploded from 380 million to 600 million projected for March.

Cook tells me that the mobile traffic for now is fairly evenly distributed across the iPhone, Android and mobile Web platforms. MyYearbook has seven apps in all, and it sees 25,000 new installs a day. The apps represent the fastest-growing segment of mobile traffic and, within the apps, the Android platform is getting 30% to 40% more installs a day than iPhone at this point.

Which explains why the company is making acquisitions specifically in the Android space. MyYearbook just bought four games already on the platform, Toss It, Tic Tac Toe, Minesweeper and Line of 4. Toss It and Tic Tac Toe are among the most popular game titles in the Marketplace right now. It also acquired the SpringDroid, a Q&A app for users to ask and answer one another's queries. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, it bought FlockEngine, a multiplayer game engine for Android. MyYearbook uses social gaming as a way for people to meet on the network.

Unlike Facebook, myYearbook is about meeting new people. It uses tools like video chat during online games and geo-located chats among people in your vicinity to facilitate the meet-up dynamic. "The concept behind this is not just to buy games but to have some integrations," says Cook. "On the Web, we view myYearbook as the best place to meet new people and so, in order to do that on mobile, it requires a mobile social layer. Games will be one of the ways to establish person-to-person connections. The FlockEngine eventually will allow the gamers to play across smartphone platforms.

MyYearbook is a good example of how the mobile shift is pressing former Web companies to rethink their content and talent pool. Cook is gearing up for the tipping point where more traffic will be coming to his brand from mobile than from Web browsers, and that is likely to happen by year's end. "We are investing in that new reality," he says. And the "reality" is different usage patterns and a different style of monetization. "Mobile is much higher frequency in smaller bursts," he says. The average Web visitor is returning 14-15 times month but spending 20 minutes each session. On mobile, users are hitting the site (ready?) 115 times a month but for about 90 seconds a shot.

Part of the acquisition strategy was not only to get highly trafficked game properties that could add premium inventory and sociability to the mix but to get talent. Two of the developers from the buyouts will be moving to the New Hope, Penn., offices.

And myYearbook is not a stranger to meteoric growth. The company started in 2005 as a social network at a single high school and quickly became a meeting place packed with games, social apps and virtual currency with over 25 million members.

Cook admits that the new reality of mobile may entail some cannibalization of Web traffic. With a third of traffic coming from handsets, it is pretty clear some people are opting for mobile access over the Web. Still, he says that the site just had two of its busiest days in the last 12 months in terms of total users, so the base continues to expand even if mobile is getting an increasing share. But he admits mobile monetization still needs to catch up. CPMs on mobile inventory remain lower, and he can only serve one ad per page (albeit with much greater frequency).

He is seeing mobile become a standard part of the RFPs and he doesn't expect to see many Web-only ad proposals by this time next year. They are experimenting with screen takeovers, and Cook sees the limited screen real estate as more of an opportunity than a challenge. It gives designers a chance to capitalize on the lack of extraneous noise on the page.

But when it comes to monetization, myYearbook has a secret sauce many other mobile content providers lack, virtual currency. The Lunch Money coinage is purchased or earned via sponsor promotions and used to play games or make wagers, enhance communications, etc. Within the next month, myYearbook will deploy Lunch Money into the mobile system to allow users to add new Android apps with the virtual currency. Ultimately, it wants to fold this economy into the game play so users can make wagers with it. For advertisers, promotions are often successfully tied to Lunch Money. Users will watch a video spot or engage with an advertiser in exchange for the currency.

With such a massive shift of activity to mobile in such short order, Cook and Co. have to be thinking about re-engineering the content mix for the brand with mobile in mind. Fortunately for them, they already launched a Facebook-like news feed for members back in 2009. Unlike the Facebook iteration, this feed is geo-located so that it shows content being added by people in user-defined radii from where they are. What could be more mobile-friendly? And of course, this feed has proven to be the most popular feature for mobile users.

The next steps of development are coming, and Cook says that at this point the thinking has started to shift. "We are very much interested in not just porting features but deciding what may be good for the device." Clearly, myYearbook is in a social media category that intrinsically favors mobile. But it demonstrates just how quickly a publisher's audience can get way ahead of any reasonable expectations in going mobile and challenge providers to think differently about their content and their ad strategies ... before a competitor does.

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