November 11, 2013

A Look at the Increasing Complexity of Mobile Marketing

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Benedict Evans, a freelance analyst and tech consultant, published a detailed look at Instagram and the state of mobile photo-sharing apps over the weekend. He notes that while Facebook purchased Instagram hoping to solve the “unbundling” trend prevalent among younger users, it hasn’t really succeeded, largely because Instagram isn’t the dominant photo-sharing app. While users share approximately 55 million photos a day on Instagram, over 450 million are shared each day on Snapchat, and around 400 million on Whatsapp.

Evans rightly points out that mobile users have a greater fluidity between apps (even ones with the same ostensible purpose – sharing photos) than desktop users have ever shown. It’s not that people are using Snapchat instead of Instagram, but rather using both for different purposes and with different regularity. This behavior is enabled by a few key factors. First, photo sharing or group message apps almost all rely on a user’s contact list. This allows users to easily start sharing with friends, without having to important names or numbers. Second, mobile apps have very low barriers to entry. In order to gain users, many apps don’t require a formal sign-in process or account creation beyond a screen name. This helps draw users in, but also makes it easy for them to leave or try out other services – after all, they’ve invested little effort.

For Facebook these trends are worrisome, although their impact is debatable. Facebook users share about 450 million photos each day (a large portion from their phones), which puts it on roughly equal footing with Snapchat and Whatsapp. Facebook also has a much larger userbase however, which either means users are sharing fewer photos individually, or a smaller percentage of overall users are uploading photos. At the same time, Facebook photos have a much longer (perhaps permanent) life, so it’s not exactly a numbers game. My feeling is that as long as Facebook can maintain its role as the default long-term photo storage service for social media, it can continue to grow alongside other, more ephemeral apps.

In terms of marketing, the situation presents both an exciting opportunity, and an interesting dilemma. All of these services are looking to monetize through advertising. Facebook already does (pretty successfully), Instagram just started, and Snapchat is currently implementing the functionality to. When thinking of mobile strategy, marketers will have more options than ever before. This diversity isn’t a problem for mega-brands such as Coca-Cola, Apple, or Google, who can afford to advertise across every platform. Smaller companies, with limited budgets and specific target audiences however, will need to prioritize these services in terms of importance and relevance. That won’t be easy, for a few reasons:

1. The field of photo-sharing (and group messaging) apps is still expanding. Big names like Whatsapp, Snapchat, Intagram, and GroupMe are all growing rapidly, while smaller services (Loom, Path, Cluster) continue to pop-up with VC funding and support. As users (in the US and the world) continue to switch from desktop computers to mobile devices, the market for such apps will expand. Most services will monetize through ads, presenting more options for companies to choose from.

2. There’s certainly overlap between users, but the exact level is unclear. Not only that, but the patterns are unclear too. How many Snapchat users also use Whatsapp? Do Instagram users tend to use Groupme as well, but not other services? If a company targets Whatsapp and Snapchat are they covering as many unique users as they would with a different combination?

3. The social context of these apps is unclear. The best marketing is tailored not only for the right demographic, but also for the medium in which it appears. Print ads are very different than television ads, even for the same product. Similarly, brands will need to figure out exactly how their audience uses each of these apps in order to effectively advertise on them. That will be easier for some – the first Instagram ad deftly aped the service’s aesthetic nature – and more difficult for others – is Whatsapp being used to coordinate group outings or as an email-thread replacement?

These are just a few of the issues that companies will soon need to wade through when devising a mobile marketing strategy. The key to success will be figuring out not only what demographics use which apps, but in what context they do so. In addition, determining which services overlap targeted demographics will allow companies to make informed decisions regarding ad density, budget, and ad variation. While sitting out on these new platforms could be a costly mistake (and allow competitors to establish themselves), companies will need to do as much investigatory legwork as possible to ensure their advertising dollars don’t vanish faster than, well, a Snapchat.