Social Networks

Mobile Becoming Focus for Social Networking

According to data released by comScore, 30% of US smartphone users access social media sites via mobile browser (they're not counting access via apps in the data). Facebook says it has 100 million are "active" mobile users around the globe. That number is destined to grow, as is the number of mobile Twitter users. 

Here's the top-level comScore data:

In January 2010, 11.1 percent of all mobile phone users accessed a social networking site via mobile browser, an increase of 4.6 percentage points from the previous year. Much of this growth has been driven by smartphone owners, 30.8 percent of whom accessed social networking sites on their mobile browsers, up more than 8 percentage points on the year. By comparison, just 6.8 percent of feature phone users accessed social networking sites on their mobile phones.

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Here's Nielsen's parallel demographic view of US mobile social networking (in the aggregate):

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Note that the female audience is larger and that older users comprise more of the mobile social network user base. The largest single group is over 35 (probably owing to the economics of mobile data plans). However what's very clear is that mobile devices are becoming a primary tool for social media access and status updates for ever larger numbers of people. 

Pew: 88% of Mobile Internet Users Get News

The Pew Internet project has come out with a report, which I've written about at Search Engine Land and Screenwerk, on digital news consumption. It's based on US consumer survey data. Below I summarize the mobile news portion of the report.

Overall, 26% of American adults say they get some form of news via cell phone – that amounts to 33% of adult cell phone owners and 88% of adults who have mobile internet.

The typical on-the-go news consumer is a white male, age 34, who has graduated from college and is employed full-time. 

Among this subgroup of internet-using mobile phone users, we found that the vast majority get some kind of news online:

  • 72% check weather reports on their cell
  • 68% get news and current events information on their cell
  • 49% have downloaded an application that allows them to access news, weather, sports, or other information on their cell
  • 44% check sports scores and related information on their cell
  • 35% check traffic information on their cell
  • 32% get financial information or updates
  • 31% get news alerts sent by text or email to their phones
  • 88% say yes to at least one of the above

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Source: Pew Internet Project 1/10 (n=2,259 adults)

No surprises here, news is one of the top mobile content categories. The report overall shows a multi-platform news enviornment where people are looking at news in traditional media, online and in mobile.

The "Internet" is now the third most common news source, outstripping traditional newpapers and radio (following local and national TV). Online, portals and aggregators are the dominant sources of news for consumers. 

Report: Facebook Looking at Loopt

Loopt has been scrambling to reinvent itself and gain traction -- despite its longevity in LBS -- in order to not be made totally irrelevant by more visible competitors: Facebook, Yelp, Foursquare and mobile couponers. While it's still possible that Loopt would find the right mix of offerings or the right formula to succeed as an independent company that train has probably left the station.

TechCrunch, which loves to report rumors and tech gossip that also often turn out to be correct, is saying that Facebook is doing due diligence on Loopt. Facebook is the dominant mobile social network and a general force to be reckoned with. I recently speculated that it was only a matter of time before the company became a mobile ad network or platform. 

I had previously predicted that Facebook would buy Foursquare but that looks less likely now because of Foursquare's deals with large media companies. It still could happen. But if Facebook were to buy Loopt what exactly would it be buying? It would be potentially getting some mobile development expertise and some technolgy as well as some carrier relationships (but it already has those). 

It wouldn't be getting and doesn't need mobile users, with 100 million active mobile users of the site. Thus the price is likely to be a big sticking point. Loopt has raised just under $20 million. Loopt's investors will likely want something approaching or exceeding $100 million. My guess is that what Facebook gets from Loopt won't be valued at that level. We'll see. 

Loopt will ultimately have to sell itself because I think its time has come and gone. I could always be wrong of course. 

Survey: IM Now Passé for Teens vs. SMS

That headline might have overreached a tiny bit, but Mediamark has found in its survey research that US teens now text more than send instant messages on the PC. Though it should come as no surprise, this is apparently the first time it's happened according to the firm:

Some 57% of teenagers report they text messaged on their cell phones in the last 30 days, compared to 42% who instant messaged on a computer in the same time frame, according to the TeenMark study . . .

The number of teens who text has increased 50% since 2007, vs. a 13% decline in the number of teens using instant messaging. Texting is now the top feature teens use on mobile cell phones, aside from making phone calls.

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How Long Before FB Is a Mobile Ad Network?

There's a nice summary (and video) of Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya's speech at the Mobile World Congress (via TechCrunch) in which he discusses Facebook mobile growth and engagement and makes a pitch to work with carriers. Facebook says it already has relationships with 200 carriers globally (compare to Yahoo, which says it works with roughly 80 but with the potential reach of 800 million).

Here are some quick facts from the talk:

 Palihapitiya pitched carriers on the idea that Facebook would help them grow data revenues. 

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Facebook's mobile usage and growth are nothing short of amazing. But let's talk about what may be coming sooner rather than later: Facebook as a mobile ad network and one that offers location (and potentially demographics) as part of that proposition. 

There are currently no ads on Facebook's apps, mobile websites or SMS. I would almost bet my life that's going to change in the near-to-medium term. Facebook will be clever and careful about integrating advertising into mobile, mindful of the potential to alienate mobile users. However the mobile ad opportunity may be at least as big for Facebook as it is on the PC. 

Facebook is about to make $1 billion in ads on the PC; however neither I nor anyone I know pays attention to and/or clicks on them. However I do hear from marketers anecdotally that Facebook ad targeting does work. But offers and mobile advertising from SMBs and brands tied to location is a potentially huge opportunity for the company. 

I think it's just a matter of time before we see Facebook start to roll out an offering. And, on arrival, the company would be as large or larger than any existing mobile ad network. 

Loopt Still Struggling to Find Identity

Loopt, an early friend finder and mobile social network, has been totally eclipsed by Facebook in the latter category and is suffering at the hands of fast-growing local social gaming newcomers, FourSquare, GoWalla and MyTown, as a friend finder.

Recognizing its inevitable defeat as a pure social network it next tried to become Yelp. But Pelago's Whrrl already tried and failed at that. Yelp is doing a great job of being Yelp in mobile. 

Seeking other, alternative ways to gain traction Loopt introduced Loopt Mix (dating) and Pulse (feed aggregation + recommendations). Loopt is on all major carriers but the company is still suffering an identity crisis and trying to find its way as the market shifts quickly around it. 

Loopt recently did a deal with couponer Mobile Spinach. And now it's done a deal with food and wine email publisher Tasting Table to add high-end "foodie" content to Loopt. I'm afraid this isn't going to help much either. 

Facebook the King of UK Mobile Media

Metrics firm comScore and the GSMA last week reported figures for UK mobile Internet visits, time on site and so on. Consistent with some of the other data in the market, Facebook is the winner across categories, followed by Google.

As you can see from the chart below, and unlike in the US, the carrier portals have a presence in the top 10:

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Compare the Nielsen "top 10" US mobile sites, which put Facebook at number five:

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See related post: Facebook's 100 Million Mobile Users.

ChaCha Now Answering 1M Questions Daily

ChaCha introduced a new Facebook app that submits questions to users' Facebook networks and to ChaCha simultaneously:

With ChaCha's Facebook App, when individuals pose a question to any friends within their social network, the question is also automatically submitted to ChaCha. ChaCha rapidly returns an answer from its huge database of hundreds of millions of answers. ChaCha will show up as another friend with an answer to the Facebook user along with answers from their network of friends. Users can also select "add to profile" to get a permanent "Ask ChaCha" prompt on their profile pages.

Additionally, Facebookers can select "share" when they submit a question, and the question and answers will post to their friends' Facebook walls. Individuals receive points for questions they answer for pure recognition and fun, and based on points attainment, users receive different titles which are displayed on a leader board.

It allows users to ask select members of their networks or the entire network. 

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There are a few interesting things going on here in my mind:

  • This turns ChaCha into a Yahoo Answers-like service on Facebook
  • Facebook has this capability itself but it hasn't really developed fully on its own; this app (if successful) might further accelerate the creation of a Q&A culture on Facebook
  • ChaCha makes money through mobile advertising and by showing ads on its PC website, so it is relatively "agnostic" about where questions come from 

Google just bought Aardvark for $50 million. ChaCha might be attractive to Microsoft or another potential buyer for similar reasons; however 90%+ of ChaCha's answers are coming via an index of previously answered questions for cost/efficiency reasons. That database will provide the answers for these questions rather than real-time human responses; Facebook provides the human answers in this case. 

The company also says it's answering a million questions a day. Though very impressive that's much smaller volume than a conventional search engine.

ChaCha has raised $52 million in several funding rounds.

Related: ChaCha Growing, Now It Needs More Advertisers

Update: CEO Scott Jones provided the following clarifications and addition information to me in email:

Yes, we are at a million answers a day… which is less than online search, but perhaps a better comparison is that we’re ahead of google’s mobile text answers service which has been out for a few years AND it is radically higher than aardvark’s daily answers (through both web and iphones).

In addition to facebookers answering questions, we also will continue to have guides answering questions. Both human/social ingredients are important to provide relevance (which google lacks), accuracy (which google also lacks, hence the million results dumped in your lap for you to figure it out), and speed (which aardvark lacks even when they sometimes do provide an answer).

Google Buys Aardvark for $50 Million

After Google's failed acquisition of Yelp and on the heels of its launch of Buzz, Google has agreed to acquire "social search engine" Aardvark for $50M (per TechCrunch). A deal had been rumored for several weeks. I received confirmation also directly from the founders.

I'm a fan of Aardvark. (See the discussion of the company's distribution of queries.) It doesn't work in every situation, but it often does and when it does, it works better and more efficiently (in mobile in particular) than Google. In a vaguely ironic sort of way, this is a return to "Google Answers," a peer-to-peer paid answers service that was shut down following the rise of the free Yahoo Answers service a few years ago.

The acquisition also marks yet another -- and perhaps the most radical -- step in Google's attempted transformation from "machine" to human-powered network, or at least one partially powered by humans. 

Google will undoubtedly geocode all of the Aardvark questions/answers and push them out to Place Pages and, perhaps, Buzz (at least in mobile). Indeed, there are a range of ways that the company could integrate and utilize what is effectively a loosely knit social network of people. Among them it could push Aardvark answers into search results in the same way it indexes any content. It could also prompt people to ask a person (Aardvark) if the algo results didn't satisfy.  

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Facebook's 100 Million Mobile Users

Officially there are 400 million people on Facebook around the globe. Of that number 100 million are "active" mobile users, meaning they access Facebook on mobile devices. According to the Facebook blog post announcing the milestone:

This usage happens on almost every carrier in the world and comes less than six months after we announced 65 million people on Facebook Mobile.

The company overshadows all other "mobile social networks" (but see GroundTruth's assertions to the contrary). In my view it has forced mobile-only social nets such as Loopt to change their models. In order to survive as a "social network" in mobile, you either need to bring a "built-in audience," as with Facebook itself (or Yelp), or offer some utility or novelty that Facebook itself does not. Examples of the latter category include Aardvark or FourSquare. 

However the generic term "social network" will likely diminish in mobile because of Facebook's dominance. Companies will want and need to position themselves somewhat differently to avoid direct comparisons.

The following are comScore data regarding Facebook's PC metrics and performance for full-year 2009. 

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Aardvark: Mobile Users More Active

We've been writing about Aardvark since before its launch. I originally characterized it as an "answer community," but the company recently adopted the moniker "social search engine," which is a bit more familiar and something of an established "category" of search engines.

Last week Aardvark co-founder Damon Horowitz (one of the architects of its algorithm) and Sepandar Kamvar (who was behind Google's personalized search and now teaches at Stanford) wrote a research paper called “Anatomy of a Large Scale Social Search Engine." The document is something of an homage to an earlier paper written by then Stanford grad students Sergey Brin and Larry Page "Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine."

The paper goes into how queries are analyzed and routed among people and offers a great deal of interesting information and data that I won't summarize here. You can get the report and take a look if you're interested. What I'm going to highlight is the distribution of queries:

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Source/image: Aardvark

A substantial portion of these fall into the traditional "local" (offline) categories as one might expect. But the range of queries is quite broad: people looking for advice and general information from "experts." Furthermore, here's what the paper says about mobile usage of Aardvark:

Mobile users had an average of 3.6322 sessions per month, which is surprising on two levels. First, mobile users of Aardvark are more active than desktop users. (As a point of comparison, on Google, desktop users are almost 3 times as active as mobile users.) Second, mobile users of Aardvark are almost as active in absolute terms as mobile users of Google (who have on average 5.68 mobile sessions per month). This is quite surprising for a service that has only been available for 6 months.

We believe this is for two reasons. First, browsing through traditional web search results on a phone is unwieldy. On a phone, it’s more useful to get a single short answer that’s crafted exactly to your query. Second, people are used to using natural language with phones, and so Aardvark’s query model feels natural in that context. These considerations (and early experiments) also suggest that Aardvark mobile users will be similarly active with voice-based search.

Mobile usage is more active than PC usage; this makes sense given the many information sources on the PC (alternatives to Aardvark), as well as the challenges of using conventional search on mobile devices (notwithstanding voice search). 

Aardvark, kgb and ChaCha exist along a continuum in a broadly similar category of peer-to-peer search -- a kind of DA 2.0. The three have different business models and different degrees of usage and penetration. Aardvark, similar to Siri, ultimately seeks to make money from affiliate referrals (but may develop a premium version for certain segments of users). ChaCha is entirely ad supported; kgb uses a more traditional per query consumer-pays model.

Pew Millennials Data Shows Mobile a Critical Medium for Reaching Youth

This may sound like data you've heard time and again (and it is): mobile phone ownership among younger people is nearing saturation. According to Pew, 75% of teens and 93% of 18-29 year-olds in the US have mobile phones.

New survey findings underscore that mobile is a critical medium (and by extension SMS because of its ubiquity) for reaching younger audiences. Here are some mobile-specific excerpts from Pew's recent millennial social media survey data:

  • Among teen cell phone users, more  than a quarter (27%) say they use their cell phone to go online . . . 35% of adults report that they access the Internet using a cell phone or other handheld device.

Extrapolating from the 35% number, which is admittedly self-reported survey data, that would mean something approaching 80 million US adults are accessing the Internet on mobile phones. Nielsen's number is 68 million; our survey data from 2009 argue that 27% to 29% of mobile users are accessing the Internet on mobile handsets.

Here's demographic data regarding US "wireless" Internet access by device category and age: 

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Daily teen activities, showing the primacy of SMS:  

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Related (per Nielsen): "American teenagers are using 3,146 messages a month, which translates into more than 10 messages every hour of the month that they are not sleeping or in school" 

VZ Navigator's Survival Depends on Facebook

Verizon just launched VZ Navigator 5.0. New and improved features include:

  • Improved Customer Experience – No need to wait for the entire route to download before starting their voyage because data will now be streamed, causing display screens to populate more quickly
  • Enhanced Points of Interest – Access to premium places of interest with detailed descriptions, clearly branded by Map Icons
  • Traffic Crowd Sourcing – Opt-in to anonymously send real-time location and speed to the VZ Navigator traffic reporting service, allowing quicker notifications and improved accuracy for all VZ Navigator users
  • Alerts for Other Road Attributes Graphic notifications for tunnels, U-turns, traffic circles and toll plazas  
  • "Say it Mode" – Select BlackBerry® smartphones and Windows Mobile® handsets allow customers to verbally search for and update destinations

The most interesting thing here is Facebook integration:

The service is now integrated with Facebook, allowing users to keep up with their friends, family and social networks by updating their Facebook statuses directly through VZ Navigator, with the option to include and share their locations.

It's this kind of value-add and expanded feature set that is key to the product's survival. Because it costs money ($9.99) and because the future of navigation is generally going to be free (see, Android 2.0 and Nokia), this product likely cannot survive absent big feature enhancements and price drops ($4.99 is probably sustainable or as part of a "bundle" with a more expensive data plan like Sprint provides). 

Putting aside the fact that there isn't an Android version available (Droid is a Verizon handset), there's no reason to purchase this if you're using a Google phone. I've been using Google Navigation and it works very well. That means the addressable market is Windows Mobile and RIM handsets. 

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That's a fair number of handsets but a thriving business it does not make. 

FourSquare's Future Emerging in Bravo Deal

Yelp adds check-ins, Facebook "is working on a Foursquare-Killer." How will the crafty location game/social net survive amid better known and more visible rivals? We're seeing how, first in a partnership with Harvard and now in a much more significant partnership with Bravo TV (owned by NBCU, in turn owned by Comcast). 

According to the NY Times' story:

Starting Monday, Bravo will begin offering Foursquare players “badges” and special prizes when viewers visit more than 500 Bravo locations. The locations will be picked by Bravo to correspond with select Bravo shows including “The Real Housewives,” “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” “Top Chef,” “Kell on Earth,” “Top Chef Masters” and “Shear Genius.”

This is the way FourSquare becomes "mainstream" (my persistent complaint/critique about the service), generates revenue and stays ahead of rivals. Forget about selling coupons to SMBs, which isn't really scalable for the startup. This is a much, much bigger opportunity. 

It's appropriate that I just wrote about QR codes and the way they extend the value of traditional media and make them more dynamic. Here's an analogous function for TV -- a way to engage viewer-users in the real world when they're not watching TV, and extend the value of the brands involved. 

Again from the Times' article: 

“We really want to tap into the power of Foursquare by engaging their audiences and bringing our Bravo viewers these unique experiences on a national level,” said Ellen Stone, Bravo’s senior vice president for marketing. Mrs. Stone said Bravo would start creating on-air TV promotions telling viewers how to play the Bravo-enhanced features of Foursquare.

This is huge for FourSquare and puts them on the path toward acquisition. Other networks and shows are probably calling Dennis Crowley right now. 

Microsoft Tag: 'Hyperlink the Real World'

CNet showcases Microsoft Tag, a nouveau QR code for traditional media publishers and products. Most QR code systems, including Microsoft Tag, require a download of software that can read the 2D barcode. On smartphones this is not the problem it once was. New market entrant JagTag doesn't require specialized software.

Microsoft Tag works with feature phones that have a camera as well. 

There are lots of companies in this 2D barcode space and lots of proprietary formats. Standardization would push the whole industry forward. Microsoft may have success with Tag because it's, well, Microsoft. Companies such as Geovector and NeoMedia have patents in this area and we'll probably see litigation eventually. 

Putting all that aside, this phenomenon of "hyperlinking the real world," is going to be massive -- capital M. Phenomena like SMS marketing and QR codes/Tag proliferation could actually move much faster than "mobile advertising" overall. Because they help measure consumer response as well as make traditional advertising more dynamic -- you can put anything you want behind a Tag including video, websites or coupons -- industry and publishers will adopt these technologies in the very near term. Indeed, they already are. 

People and most industry observers don't realize how pervasive this will be in say three years, provided that there's some standardization that helps remove uncertainty over which system to use. Consumers are already using traditional barcode readers in stores to get price and reviews information. I've both done this and witnessed this extensively (over the past Xmas shopping season). 

Imagine a code/Tag on every product, in stores on displays, on TV, in newspapers and magazines, vending machines, yellow pages directories, outdoor ads (e.g., movie posters). These codes will be absolutely everywhere. It's just a matter of time. 

As a side note, we're also likely to see 2D barcodes integrated into location gaming in the very near future . . . 

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Related: Jagtag Extends 2D Barcode System To All Major U.S. Carriers

Will FourSquare Survive Facebook's Onslaught?

Facebook is the dominant "mobile social network." We know this from Opera, Nielsen, our surveys and other third party data. We know for example that more than 70 million Facebook regularly access the site on a mobile device. No other network appears close (notwithstanding GroundTruth's assertion that MySpace is the largest mobile social network). 

Silicon Alley Insider now reports that "Facebook Is Working On A Foursquare-Killer." As a digression it's lamentable that "Fill-in-the-blank Killer" has to appear in every third technology headline. Having said that, here's the relevant part of the discussion:

A source briefed on the matter tells us Facebook is working on a feature that will allow users who access the network from mobile devices to "check-in" and broadcast their current location to all their friends.

If Facebook does add check-ins for mobile devices does it "kill" FourSquare? My answer would be "no." Facebook has a massive mobile user base, true, but FourSquare has a loyal following. Just as various Google products were launched in many instances with the moniker "X-Killer," only in a few cases has this actually turned out to be true. Navigation is one of them.

However, Google Checkout didn't kill PayPal. Google Base (now closed) didn't kill Craigslist. Knol didn't kill Wikipedia. Lively didn't kill Second Life (yes, it's still around). Okut didn't kill . . . well, it hasn't done very well outside a few isolated markets. And Facebook hasn't killed Twitter, despite becoming much more Twitter-like over the past six months. 

I had predicted that Facebook would buy FourSquare, but instead the social media site appears to be trying to adopt some of its functionality. FourSquare founder Dennis Crowley is a smart guy and understands that he has to keep ahead of his competitors with new content and features.  

Quoting Crowley on his reaction to the report, SAI reports:

For his part, Foursquare cofounder Dennis Crowley told us he fully expects Facebook and others to launch "check-in" functionality, making it "commodity by the end of the year."

Dennis says Foursquare's survival depends on providing "the most incentive for a user to check-in." Right now, Foursquare awards frequent users badges and calls the users who check-in at certain venues the most "mayor."

"I think we're doing this better than anyone else and I think we'll continue to do so. We have so much stuff on the whiteboard that we haven't even touched yet... we're really just getting started."

FourSquare's movement further into the mainstream is what could be affected by Facebook, if the latter copies FourSquare's features. However simply adding mobile check-ins alone won't truly impact FourSquare. As I've said, check-ins predate FourSquare and it's not all that FourSquare offers to its users.

Opera: State of the Mobile Web for December

Opera released its December "State of the Mobile Web" report, which is based on user behavior from its installed base of Opera Mobile/Mini users globally. The latest report focuses in some depth on Southeast Asia. But there's also interesting full year data on social network site visits.

I'll focus and present the data from the US, UK and Chinese markets. That's followed by the full-year, fastest-growing social sites (among Opera users). I posted about the Opera November data here, for comparison.

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 Again, compare the GroundTruth top sites in the US (presumably from a mix of feature phones and smartphones). 

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Presumably we won't be seeing Google on the list immediately above in the near future as the company pulls its Chinese search engine (unless the Chinese government relents and allows Google to operate without censorship, which it won't do). 

Below are the global, fastest growing social networks for 2009 among Opera Mini/Mobile users:

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Will Mobile 'Revolutionize' Local Advertising?

There's a very strong piece in AdAge about mobile trends for 2010. Here are the top-level predictions:

  1. Mobile will completely revolutionize the way local advertisers can connect with potential customers.
  2. Growth in adoption of mobile shopping applications will continue to alter in-store consumer behavior, increasing the significance of mobile in point of sale decisions making.
  3. Brands and agencies will continue to build branded apps, but will also have more attractive display media options, thanks to Google.
  4. Advertising's outdoor real estate is fast becoming another connected channel capable of delivering high-fidelity digital experiences as unique, varied and measurable as more well-established mediums.
  5. Consumers have new power to express their opinions through social technologies from anywhere, anytime. Smart marketers will do all they can to encourage and act on this real-time feedback. 

I think all these are good observations and predictions in general. However I take issue with the first prediction. Yes, from a consumer standpoint, mobile is revolutionary when it comes to obtaining local information (which includes products in my book).

Here's what the discussion of that first point in AdAge goes on to say in part:

While online display advertising has been incredibly effective for many companies, it hasn't offered all that much value to small, independently owned businesses. For one, the web is good at scale, not so good at precision. It's difficult for mom-and-pops to reach the relatively small audiences that might reasonably be expected to patronize their stores.

The article references FourSquare, Place Pages (Google) and GoWalla (but not Yelp) as a new and improved way for local advertisers to connect with customers. In isloated cases, it may be true that FourSquare is a boon to SMBs (See our related post: FourSquare Morphing into Mobile Loyalty Program for SMBs). Indeed, some advertisers might be able to find new business and improve loyalty and frequency with a FourSquare or GoWalla. But in another way these sites/companies simply add more noise to the local (SMB) advertisers' consideration set. 

I suspect the article's authors are not that familiar with local, small business advertising and are speaking at a conceptual level. They don't know that most local advertisers with any budget to spend are getting 10 calls a day before 9 am from sales reps of one sort or another. 

With an established brand, online reach (25+ million uniques), a strong mobile presence across platforms and, let's not forget, 200 telephone salespeople, Yelp is in a much stronger position than its newer mobile challengers to successfully sell to "mom and pops." 

The local world is full of clutter, noise, confusion and fragmentation. Yellow pages publishers and independent sales channels such as Yodle or ReachLocal are trying to knit all that together into a "network" or single point of contact and simplified selling proposition. Google, for its part, is almost in a unique position here (selling only its own traffic) because of its dominance of local search and huge mindshare. 

Beyond this there are lots of others selling to the local market: ValPak, daily and weekly newspapers and other specialized print publications (e.g., Pennysaver), other local coupon providers of one sort or another and others (the list goes on). Much of all this is "opaque" to the SMB owner. He or she is growing more savvy but doesn't have time to fully investigate all the options or test what works and what doesn't generally speaking. 

Most SMBs want a trusted partner that will help them navigate the complexity of online and mobile advertising. For those that want to DIY or go it alone, they're much more likely focus on a "brand" or big name: Google, Yelp, Facebook, even Twitter. It's very challenging for a little-known startup to get attention among SMB owners, let alone sell anything to them -- especially "at scale."

So while mobile and LBS on the consumer side is increasingly compelling and will lead to more connections between local buyers and sellers, local advertiers' lives are being made more difficult -- not less -- by the advent of more local-mobile players and options. 

Having said all that, I think that FourSquare has strong momentum among various segments of users and becomes a takeover target in the not too distant future by a larger player that has a stronger capacity to "monetize" the consumer traffic. 

Boku Raises Beaucoup Funds, Becoming 'Paymo'

Mobile payments platform BOKU has announced that it raised "$25 million in series C capital led by DAG Ventures, Inc. with continued participation from Benchmark Capital, Index Ventures and Khosla Ventures." This brings the company's total funding to nearly $40 million. 

BOKU launched in the middle of last year and is immediately one of the leaders (the other being Zong) in the mobile payments and virtual goods space, already worth about $3 billion globally and expected to be worth billions more over time. BOKU said has "relationships with over 1,000 game and application developers, including almost all of the top applications for virtual goods and currencies purchased on Facebook.  BOKU’s mobile payment service, Paymo, is enabled across 190 carriers worldwide in 58 countries, and reaches a potential 1.8 billion customers."

Almost identical to Zong in its approach, the company enables online payments by using a mobile phone number. The benefits of this are that a mobile phone number is easily remembered, hard to commit fraud with (given the authentication/confirmation system) and removes friction from online payments.

The company acquired competitors Paymo and Mobillcash and will be changing its consumer brand to "Paymo." BOKU will remain on the platform and developer side. The company's CEO is Mark Britto, who ran Ingenio before it was acquired by AT&T. 

I spoke yesterday to Ron Hirson, BOKU's SVP Product & Marketing. We discussed various future scenarios for the company. Right now BOKU relies exclusively on mobile carrier billing, which limits transaction thresholds (although BOKU's are higher than competitors). In the future it could add credit card account association, which Zong has done.

Hirson and I discussed payment systems such as Square, that involve offline payment acceptance via mobile devices. Hirson expressed some skepticism about the size of that opportunity.

BOKU wants to move into more traditional e-commerce, but for that to happen carriers need to reduce transaction fees (which can be as high as 50% in some cases). Hirson said that was slowly happening. In addition payment thresholds would need to be significantly raised (from their current $10 to $30). I'm not sure there's an appetite for buying big ticket items with carrier billing, expect perhaps by people who don't have credit cards (analogous to BillMeLater). 

Most interesting to me is the use of mobile as a credit card substitute in the real world. That's not a market BOKU is yet focused on.

I asked Hirson about who he thought BOKU's major competitors are/would be over time. He said PayPal, Facebook (potentially) and maybe iTunes, if Apple chooses to go in that direction. I said I also thought that Google would make a bigger play at some point and acquire someone, given that they largely missed the opportunity in round one with Checkout. 

Here's a video demo of how BOKU works: 

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Yelp Counters FourSquare with iPhone Upgrade

Yelp originally got into mobile in a kind of "back door" way a couple years ago, with Palm building the first Yelp mobile app in Q3 2006. Since that time mobile has become more and more strategic for Yelp, with each successive app release offering richer functionality, including augmented reality.

The rise of local-mobile "game" FourSquare and to a lesser degree Gowalla has threatened to steal some of the buzz and "cool factor" that is part of Yelp's public image and appeal for younger users. Neither of these sites has many users compared to Yelp and their "nature" doesn't yet make them mainstream enough to be a true threat to Yelp, which is a much more utilitarian site and app. (Local-mobile "check ins" or friend finding don't originate with FourSquare, BrightKite, Socialight and others had this earlier.) But Yelp isn't taking chances. 

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The new release of the iPhone app offers a number of features partly responding to perceived market demand and partly intended to match FourSquare et al and prevent them from stopping Yelp's momentum in mobile. Here's the upgraded feature list of the iPhone app update:

  • Yelp Profile: Not only are you able to log into your profile (v.3), but now you will also be able to see and interact with your Yelp profile as you would on
  • Yelp Friend Finder: You can now see and invite friends from your iPhone's address book to join you on Yelp. If you've connected with Facebook, we'll also let you know if any of your FB friends are yelping, too.
  • Yelp Check-ins: We've now added the ability for yelpers to "Check-in" to businesses. This includes being able to broadcast your whereabouts and send Quick Tips to your friends on Yelp, Facebook and Twitter who, if they opt-in to these updates, will be able to see your location both via "Push" alerts, as well as on a map. Active users of this feature may receive "Regular" status of highly-frequented businesses. This means they are part of an active group of people who patronize a business and this moniker will appear next to reviews and tips and on business pages in the app, as well as on the business listing on
    Sharing via Facebook Connect and Twitter: We've taken another online feature, offline. Yelpers now have the ability to share their check-ins and Quick Tips via Facebook Connect and Twitter while on the go.
  • Updates to Monocle: In addition to seeing reviews nearby in Monocle, Yelp's Augmented Reality feature, you can also see which businesses your friend's have "checked-in" to as well as a new "map" in Monocle view that will move with you. 

There will now be a leaderboard and a new category of "Yelp Regulars," frequent visitors or patrons of local businesses. This is a broader version of the FourSquare mayor concept. According to Yelp:

"Regular" status can be achieved by frequent patronage - or checking in - of a business. This title will show up on a user's profile, next to reviews and tips and on the business page in the iPhone app, as well as eventually on that business listing on The Regular with the most Check-ins will not only be featured on that business page, but get to wear the golden badge of honor. The moniker can also be lost if patronage wanes, so Regulars must visit a business often to keep it.

FourSquare is getting (or trying to get) local businesses to offer some incentive or deal (e.g., free drink, appetizer) to the "mayor," the most frequent visitor to a local business. In this way it is essentially morphing into a mobile loyalty program of sorts. Yelp is doing something similar with "Regulars" but with potentially much broader application:

Will Regulars get access to Special Offers or Exclusives? It'll be up to the business owner if they want to offer exclusives to Regulars, but it's super easy to upload a Special Offer. For almost two years now, Yelp has offered business owners the ability to post free announcements that appear on their business listing on and our iPhone and Android applications. In fact, businesses have posted over 200,000 special offers on Yelp to date.

On Yelp there will not simply be a single mayor but a larger category of "regulars," who might gain access to special offers, coupons and deals from local businesses. Here the pieces come together for Yelp, which has a 200-person-strong telephone sales force to promote mobile and special offers to local business owners. And the strength of the Yelp brand doesn't hurt either.  

This new version of the Yelp iPhone app sits at the nexus of social networking/mobile friend finding, LBS and mobile couponing and loyalty.