Commentary

Mobile Branding Is Not For Old Farts

Virtual social networking is one of those phenomena that makes me feel my age. My teen daughter had to teach me how a Xanga and MySpace page are made.

"You know HTML?" I wailed a couple of years ago. As if she had just dropped an innocent S&M reference, I said accusingly, "Who taught you HTML? I know I didn't."

Being behind the curve is part of the Dad game, of course. Even when I am in the know about something hip and new, I have to pretend ignorance just to keep the peace and maintain the clueless Dad myth. But I admit there is a real cultural/demographic disconnect when it comes to social networking. What the 20- and 30-somethings call being social online with public profiles still feels foreign and a bit exhibitionistic to me. Several years ago, when InterCasting's Rabble first launched on Verizon, I couldn't get past the initial rush of users compelled to post pictures of their penis. I am sure I extrapolated unfairly from the trauma of seeing so many penises in one place and decided that something was going on with social networking I was too narrow or old or poorly endowed to get. I always need an assist to understand this stuff, so recently I went to one of the new faces and brands in the mobile social space.

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We have been focusing on mobile media brands in the last week and the question about building new brands wholly on mobile. It is fitting to end the week visiting one of the most successful examples of a social networking application that is dominating a category a Web entity, namely MySpace, should own. In the year since its main feature set was launched, MocoSpace is nearing 1 million subscribers and several hundred million monthly page views.

MySpace? Is that one of those oldie-but-goodie Web brands?

MocoSpace founder and CEO Justin Siegel says his personal profile and networking site has been a pure word-of-mouth play that demonstrates the power of social media to go viral. "We've done no marketing or PR, just some mobile acquisition via AdMob and Google Mobile to seed the community. But the vast majority is strictly organic."

Well, actually growing a brand on mobile is not that automatic. Siegel says in the very beginning he and the staff (now 15) went to sites with similar demographics and talked up the service and fueled that with limited mobile ad buys on AdMob. "And literally overnight, we woke up and had a couple dozen users."

In fact, having scale, a crowd, is among the most important aspects of getting further traction in the mobile community world. Many other companies have emerged in the last year with interesting technologies around mobile social worlds. "But the real interesting thing about a MySpace, a FaceBook or a MocoSpace is the community," he says. "It is not the technology but that you will find other people, that people are actually using it."

Arguably, people are the media here, in that just browsing profiles seems to be one of the most popular pursuits. Call it people-watching (or shopping) as a kind of entertainment snacking. Dating sites report a similar phenomenon of people using their mobile extension of the service to filter profiles and tag the ones they want to ping later. Crush or Flush, another recent mobile hit, works on a similar principle. The MocoSpace interface is actually quite polished and mature. It is an icon-driven, off-deck gateway into profiles, blogs, user-uploaded videos and chats. Siegel says that the audience skews ethnically to African-American and Hispanic members, who comprise more than half the population.

But I had to ask Siegel why MySpace doesn't just own his ass in this space? Why doesn't an overwhelming Web brand, where so many millions already have deep profiles and networks established, just walk over everyone else when they come into mobile? Isn't that the big brand plan?

I liked Siegel's response because it is not simple and straightforward so much as multi-faceted. First, he argues, the users in the social networking space have proven to be more flexible than some of us assume. Old farts like me may think that a MySpace has a natural advantage, because it already houses so much of a person's accumulated personal content. In fact, the user bases for many of these networks overlap considerably because core users have no trouble maintaining multiple profiles and often portray different parts of themselves or socialize with different groups in each virtual community. I hate when these new-media kids make me feel old.

More to the point, among the core demo for social networking the PC is becoming almost old-fashioned. (I am feeling old again). "Mobile is their main interface for the Internet," Siegel says. "Whether it is MySpace or Amazon, their mobile plays are contingent on the idea that you are a Web user who wants to access their Web stuff. Many of these online products have mobile extensions that are really sub-sets or satellites of the Web property. But there is a whole shift of young people who don't see the Internet as a PC-centric experience, and these satellite features are going to be less attractive."

But their business model won't be. The next stage for Siegel and his fellow mobile networks is to follow the example of a MySpace in supporting themselves with text links and banners for other mobile content. They need the kind of integrated programs that the Facebooks and others are starting to cultivate, sponsor profiles and widgets rather than typical network buys. We are starting to see these more custom placements in the form of sponsored and branded content at the likes of Zannel, Versaly's FastLane and MobiTV. For now, mobile social community looks like a volume race. Who can make it to scale fastest and attract the more sophisticated advertiser or attract the inevitable News Corp., FaceBook, Google or Yahoo acquisition offer? That is the real question.

I may be old, and a lot of things in technology and culture have shifted, and my daughter went and learned HTML without me, but some things about this business remain the same.

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