Is Viral Broken In Mobile? Yes. My Thoughts on How to Counteract It.

October 23, 2009 by Lisa Oshima | Consulting, Developers, Mobile, Monetization, Social Media

After listening to the podcast I did on Wednesday with Motodev on how to incorporate social media into mobile applications, Matthäus Krzykowski (a fellow mobile consultant, freelance writer for VentureBeat, and fascinating guy) tweeted: “@motodev @lisawhelan is great, enjoyed the podcast. However, as @danshapiro says viral broken is in mobile. Thoughts ?” It’s a good question.  The short answer is “he’s right,” but while the mobile ecosystem sorts itself out, there are things developers can do to make their apps more viral…

The article that Matthäus referred to is an excellent blog post written in May 2009 by Dan Shapiro, the CEO of Ontela: “Why Your Mobile Strategy in Mobile is Destined to Fail”.  Shapiro gives a great rundown on how viral marketing works likening it to the spread of a real virus.  (Read the post because it is far more eloquent than my paraphrase to follow.)  He explains that the reason why viruses don’t take over the whole world is because viruses impact various species differently.  Just because a virus infects one type of living thing doesn’t mean that it will infect all living things because the world is heterogeneous.  Put simply – some species are immune to viruses that other species are not.  Likening this to the mobile universe, because there are many types of handsets, OSes, distribution models, etc. in the mobile ecosystem, and only a small percentage of people have data plans, Shapiro argues that creating a truly viral mobile application is theoretically possible but unlikely:

“…like poplar blight in a forest, apps can move virally in little niches—between businesses that standardize on BlackBerry, or in the venture community where the iPhone has 60 percent marketshare and 100 percent mindshare. Services that leverage common infrastructure, like Twitter via SMS, can skirt this problem almost entirely (but there’s a reason the growth didn’t take off until nearly everyone had SMS capability).”

I agree with Shapiro.  Anyone who knows mobile well knows that many parts of the mobile ecosystem are broken.  Cross-platform virality is just one of the missing pieces of the puzzle.  While mobile doesn’t currently (and may never) see comparable levels of virality to the web, the ability to create viral momentum in mobile is changing slowly and incrementally for the better, as disruptive technologies are introduced into the evolving mobile ecosystem.

Today, if you’re targeting a specific segement of high-end consumers, mobile viral growth is possible through iPhone and Blackberry.  Both of these platforms have solid distribution strategies and critical mass among a specific demographic.  However, the number of available apps for these platforms is, in my opinion, outpacing demand, and app discoverability is a growing problem. In addition, as Shapiro points out, these are just two of the many mobile platforms available.

Of the current mobile platforms, I think Android may be the best long-term bet for mobile developers – especially when it comes to initiating viral mobile marketing campaigns.  Android is based on open standards and can (and will be) deployed across a range of devices -not just high end smart phones, but low-end mobile phones, toys, household devices and more.  While it hasn’t reached critical mass yet, I believe that the Android ecosystem will grow over time, ultimately giving developers a massive ecosystem of users and devices to target virally.  And, because, Android is open and Google knows how to test and optimize it’s web products (and will hopefully transfer those learnings to Android Market), my hope is that increased competition will make discoverability of Android apps across distribution channels better and better over time.  Alternatively, if you believe some of the folks from Google and elsewhere, in time, as mobile browsers get better, the traditional mobile app may go the way of the dinosaur – being replaced with robust, mobile web experiences, in which case, virality on a mobile will be as seamless as it currently is on the web.

For now, while creating virality in mobile remains difficult, it’s not impossible – especially for developers that also leverage the web. When I talk to mobile clients, I recommend that they develop products that solve problems and/or entertain users – not only while those users are on mobile phones but also while they’re at their computers.  Developing an outstanding application or service that targets both mobile AND web can help developers spread risk and increase virality of their mobile service.  Most of the ‘mobile developers’ I know that are making a lot of money are also ‘web developers’ with a dual mobile and web strategy.

There are people out there who will say that developing for both mobile and web increases product development costs.  I argue that since every good developer should invest in a robust website and social media marketing, the costs of making that website (and/or social networks like Facebook) part of their ‘mobile’ product should be minimal.  If you’re a mobile developer, link your mobile applications with web applications (i.e. your website, Facebook, etc.), and use social media, gaming strategy, and viral tuning to drive users of one channel to the other and back again.  If someone discovers your app on a social network but doesn’t have the right kind of mobile mobile device to use it, give them some amount of web, wap, and SMS-enabled functionality to engage them – even if in a small way.

Look at what other developers are doing to drive growth of their applications by playing mobile and web off of each other.  Flirtomatic is a great example of a company that does this well.  Check out the Flirtomatic campaign example I shared in my slide show yesterday.  Before developing a mobile app, you should also consider:

  • Which mobile platform(s) most overlap(s) with your target audience today?
  • Which mobile platform(s) has/have the greatest growth potential?
  • Which mobile platforms have the best distribution channels (app stores) and most favorable developer terms? The platforms I’d develop for are Android, Apple, and RIM. While there are other popular platforms out there, in my opinion, the distribution models, features, and store terms are less favorable.)
  • Which geogaphies you’re targeting?  Depending on your geography, leveraging SMS and MMS (which anyone can get- regardless of their OS or device) is also a useful strategy to increase virality. (Note: It’s important to know your audience… Many US consumers get annoyed by unsolicited incoming texts because they’re charged for them, while European consumers aren’t charged for incoming texts and in my experience don’t mind receiving them- as long as they’re not spam.)
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