Three sobering facts about today’s use of social networks and mobile media

It’s easy to get excited about the potential of social networks and mobile devices. We’re forever reminded that from a marketing perspective, there’s gold in them thar hills. Yesterday I was able to glean more of the unvarnished truth about both. I attended a couple of excellent panel discussions organized as part of the annual conference of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Although the emphasis of these discussions was on mediated publics (e.g., MySpace, Facebook. etc.), I made a point to ask a few questions about how cell phones come into the picture as a way to keep the network dialogs humming when the computer is back at home. Here are three eye-opening realities of these new media, according to the panel:

  1. People beyond college age are mostly using social networks for the following reasons:
    • Dating
    • Networking for business
    • Keeping an eye on their children (the evocative term that panelist danah boyd used was helicopter parenting)
  2. Ms. boyd was leery about how long the “over-35 crowd” will be on Facebook. She theorizes it will be two years tops before they realize there’s little of value for them on that network.
  3. Mobile marketing in the U.S. is hog-tied compared to the rest of the world, due to the incompatibility between carriers (what danah called the “carrier barriers”). I knew this going in, but it’s worse than I thought. Here are two constraints I hadn’t really considered against adoption within a key market segment:
    • Most high schoolers, and younger college students, are getting their parents’ antiquated hand-me-down phones. They are also often bound within their parents’ cell phone plans.
    • These plans rarely have unlimited texting, so every text is potentially another dime or more on the monthly bill. This can raise parental eyebrows — or worse, tempers. Bummer for us marketers, and for them.

All of this was a valuable splash of cold water about these emerging media. They will continue to “emerge,” but don’t expect mass adoption any time soon.

2 Replies to “Three sobering facts about today’s use of social networks and mobile media”

  1. I don’t know if I count as ‘beyond college age’ or not (I have graduated from college), but I use myspace/facebook (less so myspace) simply as a way to keep in contact with some of my friends who have scattered all over the country. This was actually the main reason why I started blogging so long ago.

    I’m not over 35, but I think if people really get into using facebook (ie blogging, etc) then it could be a lasting platform for them. Especially if there is positive feedback from their friends. One of the reasons I think I’ve been able to continue blogging for so long is the positive feedback from my friends who leave comments.

    Regarding cellphones: I long for the days when cell phone plans work like regular phone plans. ie: one fee, unlimited calls, texts, etc. I mean, seriously, it doesn’t cost verizon (or other carriers) any money to send a text. Imagine if your ISP charged by the byte?

    Of course the downside of the mystical fantasy world I described above is that my phone will surely be inundated with telemarketer calls and txt message spam…

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Matt.

    > I mean, seriously, it doesn’t cost verizon (or other carriers)
    > any money to send a text. Imagine if your ISP charged by
    > the byte?

    I agree. Ironically, the carriers could capture value through improved delivery of rich media — if only they weren’t hamstrung by their own exclusionary policies. Instead, they’re trying to squeeze profits by charging for what is, frankly, a byproduct of doing business. As you said, it’s a little absurd — like metering the air in a conference room.

    It’s also clever marketing, so for that I guess I have to admire their chutzpa.

    I got into a heated argument the other day with a friend about chicken wings. This popular appetizer is the invention of someone who said, “Why are we throwing this stuff away? How can we profit from the byproduct of selling the far more desirable cuts of poultry?” Before someone realized that heavy sauces and heavier promotion could turn lemons into lemonade (or, more accurately, lemon peels into lemonade, the wings of this flightless bird pretty much went to waste.

    Same goes for text messages. Google is the great party pooper. They crash the parties of various industries and really spoil the fun for the status quo. Why do I suspect that Google, as they get into the cell phone business, will make text messages free, while in some way improving them in a major and heretofore unimagined way?

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