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GigaOM Pro at Mobilize September 2, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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GigaOM’s big mobile event, Mobilize, will be coming to San Francisco on September 26th and 27th. There, industry luminaries and our analysts and writers will look at the new opportunities presented by the intersection of cloud computing and the mobile Web. Here at Pro we’re compiling an anthology of analysis on mobile topics including platforms, advertising, commerce and payments. Keep an eye out for our coverage.

While you’re at the conference, be sure to save time to meet with some of our GigaOM Pro analysts. Bob Egan, JP Finnell, Phil Hendrix, Laurie Lamberth, Chetan Sharma and others will be there. They will be doing interviews and panels onstage, and they’ll be networking between sessions. Research VP Mike Wolf and I will also be around. Track the Pro team down and ask us your toughest questions.

The Pro team will be hanging out at the GigaOM Pro booth and at the cocktail events, and we’d love to chat about GigaOM Pro or anything else on your mind. We are always looking to hear from our subscribers about how we can better supply you with the info and analysis you need to make critical business decisions. So be sure to swing by the Pro booth and say hello.

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Facebook apps need their own sites August 22, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Social games and app developers got a bit of a shock when Facebook snuck in some platform policy changes last week. Facebook rewrote some rules: forbidding cross-promotion to competitive social networks and tightening up the use of sponsorships that use virtual currency, the big revenue source for most games. What does this mean for apps and games developers trying to gain an audience and revenue stream from Facebook?

Even a minor change in how Facebook developers can communicate with their customers causes huge waves. When Facebook phased out mass gaming updates some time ago, customer acquisition costs went up 30 percent for some apps developers. Sending what Facebook might think of as spammy promotions can attract the wrath of Zuckerberg, with the terrifying potential consequence of being shut down.

Facebook says it’s not preventing games from promoting their apps that run on iOS or Android, at least. And Facebook’s promo ban is consistent with its advertising policy. But according to Google, even messages from individuals that mention competing social networks get spiked. Facebook claims the story-ranking algorithm on its news feed was only demoting less-relevant messages and indeed, CNET didn’t see the effect that Google was protesting. But clearly, it’s hard to use other social networks within Facebook, other than importing Tweets.

Using Facebook with “protection”

So what can an app developer do to get the most out of Facebook and insulate itself as much as possible from Facebook’s policy changes? Build its own site. Yes, in all likelihood, most of the activity around the app will come within Facebook, but an app can promote its own site and use a site to multiply revenue opportunities for several reasons:

  • Besided promoting its site with its app, developers can use Twitter – which may be more influential than Facebook fans – for site promotion outside and inside Facebook. At the same time, Facebook seems to take kindly to sites that use its Connect Like, sign-in and commenting functions outside Facebook. Those are proven audience builders, and while they cede some control to Facebook, they assist in two-way content syndication between the site and Facebook.
  • Given Facebook’s strict controls over its Credits, it is unlikely that an app site could bring in its own or alternative virtual currencies and integrate them with Facebook’s via some kind of currency exchange marketplace. However, an app site could offer richer advertising opportunities (branded sponsorships, video ads, coupons) on its site than it could inside its Facebook app. And a developer could provide in-app placement on its Facebook app the way, for example, that Electronic Arts’ new Sims app integrated Dunkin’ Donuts, which could complement and drive traffic to a site sponsorship.

Opportunities for new platforms?

When Facebook reversed an earlier policy and opened up user comments on company pages run by pharmaceutical companies, many were caught by surprise and chose to shut down their pages to avoid compliance and regulatory issues. Facebook risks getting a Twitter-like reputation for inconsistency in managing its platform and API usage policies, or at least being justly accused of a lack of transparency or clarity. Could this open up opportunities for competing social networking platforms?

Google just announced limited games support on Google+. Kevin Chou, the CEO of game developer Kabam, thinks Google will challenge Facebook as a game distributor and has already forced Facebook to create some new game-promotion tactics in response. But Google has yet to roll out APIs for Google+, and its developer support is thin. Google+ is only starting to add the mainstream users that play most social games.

If it doesn’t kill them, competition usually makes competitors better, and that goes for partnering with developers. For example, Google’s promising to take a smaller cut of virtual goods sales than Facebook does, at least for a while. Sure, developers with enough resources can try out Google+, and Myspace still has a large, if shrinking, audience. But for now, Facebook’s really the only game in town.

Question of the week

What other activities could an app site feature?

Google v. Facebook: Defining groups for social networks July 11, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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At last week’s product announcement, CEO Mark Zuckerberg contrasted Facebook’s approach to creating “groups” with that of Google, saying, “The definition of groups is . . . everyone inside the group knows who else is in the group.” Pretty clearly, he was responding to the Circles feature in Google+ that’s been attracting rave reviews from early adopters. Groups are critical for unified communications, content sharing and filtering, application interaction and distribution and identity management. In time, they may become important for advertising and marketing.

Facebook and Google handle group management quite differently. Understanding their strategies will help competitors and partners gauge one another’s chances for success and identify opportunities for complementary products and services.

Differing approaches

Facebook refined Groups last October; its previous Lists approach suffered from a low 5 percent adoption. Facebook wanted Groups to facilitate focused sharing and communications, while Lists would remain as a news-feed filter for power users. Facebook made Groups a two-way membership dependent on invitations. Besides assuring common membership, that tactic was geared to jump-start adoption by harnessing behavior similar to photo tagging, where a minority of participants does all the work.

Google’s Circles is easier to use and better integrated than Facebook’s options, and it functions as both filters and focused sharing/messaging. Since Google is starting from scratch, it has the advantage of practically forcing users into setting up Circles upon sign-in. But Circles is not reciprocal: While a user can follow contacts à la Twitter without requiring a two-way relationship, there’s no easy mechanism for creating single groups with common membership.

Outlook for success, opportunities

In a survey of 451 GigaOM users, many respondents explicitly called out Circles as having a competitive advantage over Facebook, praising its real-world affinity and its granular control over content and privacy. Early adopters see high rates of sharing. Meanwhile, since October, over 50 percent of Facebook users have become members of Groups, according to the company, lending some validity to the “power-inviter” concept. But there’s no telling how representative those Groups are of real-life connections.

In the end, organizing the masses on social networks into relevant groups will probably take big-data analysis that produces auto-suggestions that users can apply. That kind of approach may be coming soon. Similar types of sorting for relevance are well under way, with Google an early innovator.

Google makes its living analyzing relevance and has proven its capabilities with search results. It’s starting to demonstrate expertise in social relevance via its Gmail priority inbox, though its social search efforts may be stymied by the expiration of its Twitter data licensing. And Facebook applies its own EdgeRank algorithm to sort users’ news feeds by relevance. Users’ results may vary. I’d bet on Google getting group relevance right, but then again, Facebook has a lot of social graph data and plenty of money to hire scientists.

I’m surprised Google+ doesn’t pre-populate Circles already, although perhaps Google fears that that would creep people out. It could test reactions by offering the feature to existing priority inbox users. Likewise, Facebook automatically suggests adding members to Lists, but, oddly, not to Groups.

What kind of opportunities does that leave for third parties? Consider the following:

As noted, Google has advantages in defining groups, due to its existing expertise and the fact that it doesn’t have to retrofit a solution. But there’s already a hack to “Circle-ize” Facebook Groups. If either approach gains momentum, the other will no doubt copy it. Let the games begin.

Question of the week

Who will win in social network groups?

How Much is Facebook’s Market Power Worth? January 10, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Perhaps you heard some noise this week about a $50 billion valuation for Facebook. Or mumblings about a nine-month profit of $335 million? Or a potential IPO in 2012? Putting a value on Facebook is beyond my pay scale. But it is the most important player in social media, and social media — along with mobile — is driving innovation across the entire technology spectrum. To better compete against, partner with or invest in Facebook, it’s worth evaluating its market positions, strengths and weaknesses.

Facebook itself is a consumer company, playing in the still-ripening consumer Internet fields of communications, content and commerce. It’s also a platform player, and platforms with rich ecosystems of developers are one of the best and most defensible businesses ever — just ask Microsoft. And Facebook’s platform is not just about scale; it has a shot at a being a real network effect, with the accompanying implications of high growth, customer lock-in and winner-take-all opportunities.

Platform and Ecosystem

Facebook has established itself as one of the largest Internet companies in terms of audience reach, frequency of usage and ability to drive traffic to other online sites. It’s social media ecosystem is healthy and growing. It continues to spawn investment in advertising and marketing services, and the success of companies like Zynga hint at how other developers in entertainment apps, location-based services and social commerce could build solid businesses.

Facebook’s APIs, Likes and Connect are widespread. Its messaging strategy could provide a universal inbox — or even presence manager — for some of its users, but isn’t suited for corporate or marketing email, and isn’t likely to replace personal email for most consumers online. While Facebook has a chance to make its platform the single most important one in social media, I suspect the current proliferation of APIs and mashups from many players, including Twitter, Google and Microsoft, will continue. There’s too much data being created now for a single social graph to dominate.

Net: Facebook should remain a leader in consumer technology, but likely won’t establish a winner-take-all platform.

Advertising

Advertising is Facebook’s primary revenue stream, and advertising is a business driven by economic cycles and demands ever more cross-media campaign coordination and ROI measurement. Facebook makes less money per user than does Google or Yahoo. It offers self-serve, relatively low-cost display advertising and is just beginning to exploit the rich targeting capabilities of its social graph for those and other display ads. When it does, and as it builds out sponsorship opportunities and measurement systems, it will be able to raise prices and garner more brand advertising spending.

Facebook barely participates in the biggest sector of online advertising — paid search. It has a promising Microsoft partnership, but there’s little evidence that users will do commerce-related searching on social networks. Facebook says it has no plans to build an ad network to tap its social graph outside its own site, and doesn’t charge brands for status updates, its closest equivalent to email marketing.

Net: Facebook is well beyond critical mass and has achieved mass media status, with plenty of growth opportunity. That said, Facebook is an Internet-only media company that should focus on and beef up its efforts in brand advertising, and establish partnerships for search, ad networks and email marketing.

Other Markets

Virtual goods from social games provide Facebook with $250 million in revenue, but the company shows no interest in other digital goods like music and video, perhaps due to their competitiveness and thin margins. Net: Facebook is strong but limited in digital goods, a profitable, but not huge business.

E-commerce may provide some opportunity for Facebook retail storefronts, but the online mall approach never worked for portals like Yahoo and Aol. Net: Facebook is well-positioned to play a social commerce role in customer acquisition and retention, but unlikely to have significant influence in online or brick-and-morter retail transactions.

Question of the week

Just how strong an industry force is Facebook?

Why Facebook “Groups” Matters October 11, 2010

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The digerati’s reaction to last week’s Facebook announcement was entirely too focused on privacy. That’s partly Facebook’s fault, as the company presented the three new offerings under the headline of returning control to the user. But one of those offerings, Facebook Groups, is less about keeping secrets than it is about making the Facebook experience more relevant, and thus valuable.

Groups is the big deal in this three-pronged announcement, even if its initial implementation is very basic. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called Groups a “fundamental building block of the social web” because it’s so much more like reality. The resulting blocks could have a big impact on communications and identity management, and on viral application and content distribution as well.

Can Facebook Jump-Start Groups Adoption?

Before Groups makes a big impact, people will first have to use it. I agree with Zuckerberg: Most people don’t want to interact in the exact same way with all 135 (or 250 or 1,000) of their “friends.” In the real world, individuals belong to multiple groups based on things like shared interests, geography and family; if Facebook users put their online friends in groups, more relevant communications and experiences are likely to result. This would increase Facebook’s value, and with that, its usage. That’s the theory anyway.

Prior to Groups, Facebook users organized their friends by creating lists. But only 5 percent of Facebook users make lists; most make only one, according to the social network. In contrast, the company says, while the majority of users don’t upload photos regularly, 95 percent have a photo of themselves that’s been tagged. The “power taggers” do most of the work. And while many of the tagged remain passive, the point is that they’re included in the dialogue. Facebook believes Groups will repeat this pattern, eventually leading to 80 percent coverage of users. That’s also why Groups invitations are opt-out — to the consternation of some — at least in the service’s initial implementation.

What Groups Is Really About

If Groups’ adoption becomes widespread, those aforementioned “building blocks” could generate powerful results inside and outside of Facebook. Groups are woven into the Graph API; apps can make use of Groups. And Facebook intends membership and interaction to be syndicate-able outside of Facebook, similar to its Like button or log-in.

So where could Groups make real waves?

  • Feed filtering and curation. Users will filter their Facebook news feed — that includes aggregated updates from Twitter, Foursquare, and others — by Groups. This could prove more efficient than using search or topical taxonomies. It could also give Facebook more advertising inventory that’s targetable by highly relevant information.
  • Identity management. Users will be able to engage in social media interactions in the appropriate contextual modes. Imagine Groups for shopping, entertainment recommendations, professional communications, etc. Groups could essentially offer federated authorization (among members) to different apps and services.
  • Unified communications and presence management. Groups could enable better presence management — you’re available only to after-work friends, for example — than we’ve seen in email or IM applications.
  • App interaction and distribution. Facebook recently changed its social gaming policies to better direct relevant updates to gamers instead of non-gamers. Similarly, Groups could filter and enhance social commerce and other applications.

Who Should Pay Attention?

Marketers can’t make Groups, just Pages. But don’t think Facebook won’t develop appealing promotions and targeting techniques for its own advertising platform. I doubt advertisers will ever be able to target individual Groups. The contextual information within the content of Groups, however, should produce topics and keywords that would be a very accurate representation of interest — catnip for advertisers.

Companies that provide content aggregation (Yahoo, Digg, Yelp) and/or real-time information streams (Twitter), or add value on top of those streams (Google, TweetDeck, Seesmic) may need to counter or support Groups. Otherwise they risk being just one less-useful and less-monetizeable feed in a Facebook viewer.

Facebook does not offer robust enough security or content/communication management features to threaten enterprise collaboration players like Microsoft, Salesforce.com, or Box.net. Lighter-weight services like Yammer should keep alert, though.

Related Research: Four Ways Facebook can Conquer Mobile

Question of the week

Where will Groups have the biggest impact?