Using Social Networks’ Mobile Apps instead of building your own

In the past I’ve been pretty harsh on the concept of building iPhone apps to promote businesses. If you can make one inexpensively, then sure, go for it. But given the number of  iPhones in service worldwide, it isn’t likely you’re going to see a huge return in traffic and sales if you invest heavily in one.

That having been said, iPhones – as well as G1s, Blackberrys and Treos – are changing the landscape, as they give more people more places to jump on line from. Large social networks are developing their own applications for these. So instead of developing your own applications for mobile devices, it makes more sense to look at the social networks that take better advantage of mobile devices themselves. If you can get a strong foothold on these, you can “be there” for the mobile phone community, without having to invest as heavily in development.

Look at this comparison of traffic between Brightkite.com, Utterli.com and 12seconds.tv:

I picked these these three sites because they are specifically Geosocial Networks. (Well, 12seconds.tv doesn’t emphasize the Geosocial aspect as much as they could.) Geosocial networking sites like these rely on a user’s ability to access them anywhere, anytime. Doing the same analysis on giants like Twitter, YouTube and Linkedin wouldn’t show smartphone’s utility as easily. (And three let you post from your phone, but they’re enormous for other reasons.)

As of September 2008, of these three only Brightkite had an iPhone app available.

Brightkite and Utterli both allowed users to post with a more commonly used cell phone with camara. (They still do, actually.)

Since most non-smart phones don’t offer video, 12seconds only allowed posting from their site or through an e-mail posting system. The average phone user could not take part.

When 12seconds debuted their iPhone application, their traffic started to increase. Conversely, Utterli, which started out better, dropped as more people started using apps instead of traditional cell phones for posting. On Utterli you can access the site from any phone, smart or not. They built their technology and audience around cheap, average phones. As more advanced phones came into use, their service looked more and more antiquated. Actual audio posts on the site are actually fewer and fewer, with most users leaving text posts. Since there are already enough Twitter clones, they’ve sagged considerably in traffic.

Brightkite has been steadily increasing in traffic with their iPhone and Android applications. These make it easier to post photos, text, and even use the phone’s GPS to post the user’s location.

The point of all this is that networks that use mobile media are smart places to gain a foothold for you and your brand, especially if what you sell is something people “on the go” would want. It’s about understanding how your customers access information. You wouldn’t be posting from your phone necessarily, but if you know the people you want to reach are on the go, this is where you would make your appeal to them.

For example, SkyMall reaches a large number of people on Twitter, but they could reach a more targeted collection of travelers on Brightkite, and the reach of that campaign would only increase over time as more people started using that site’s iPhone application.

Of course, SkyMall also has their own iPhone app. This means they need to generate their own traffic for people to use it, rather than piggyback another network’s application and message to its users. I have to wonder how much business SkyMall gets from their application. The purpose of these programs is to allow users easy and frequent access to their site.

Ebay or Yahoo! Shopping certainly have this kind of user base. SkyMall appeals to the impulse buyer. In order to make their app profitable, they need to develop their own traffic for the app, then make sure the application itself converts users repeatedly. With the phone market further splintering, that campaign will eventually need to create similar applications for all the phones coming out.

In the end, this turns into a lot of money spent just to be able to say you have an iPhone app – when it could be spent focusing on areas where you can get more customers.

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