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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

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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?

Facebook and Google: lessons to learn from Myspace July 5, 2011

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Last week, News Corp. unloaded Myspace for a pittance. Understanding why Myspace failed to maintain its early dominance in social networking is critical to determining whether Facebook is similarly vulnerable, and whether Google+ is on the right track.

BusinessWeek’s cover story on the fall of Myspace blames the usual reasons: Rupert Murdoch lost interest, Myspace got a rep for sleaziness, it went through a crippling technology transition and users lost interest and migrated en masse to Facebook. Other critics fall back on the tired idea that Myspace’s do-it-yourself design led to garish personal pages that scared away mainstream users.

The real story? Myspace was done in by technology and business model failures that Facebook is explicitly countering. Google’s social strategy is less clear. Although Myspace embraced third-party developers’ apps and widgets, it never built out a robust technology platform of APIs and services they could use, let alone syndicate across other sites. And Myspace signed an initially lucrative advertising deal with Google that distracted it from cultivating relationships with “classier” advertisers instead of cheesy direct marketers, and from building out innovative social marketing programs.

Not every online media business has to be a platform, but an ambitious social network does, and it can’t ease up on the innovation pace. Myspace was never a very connected network: it focused on self-expression at the expense of communication and everyone “was in your extended network.” More like Geocities than Friendster, Myspace only recently adopted a feed-based UI.

In contrast, Facebook launched APIs early, syndicated them offsite with Connect, Likes and Comments, copied and/or acquired its feed – and pushed it, despite initial user resistance – and is a leading contender as a unified communications hub. Google’s first social technologies were flawed as platforms: Orkut was a standalone effort, Wave was too complex, and Buzz had no central viewing place or reason to participate. Now, Google appears to want its innovative, communications-oriented Google+ to gain traction among digerati users before it shows any APIs, but its distributed +1 Like-button wannabe has a better pitch for publishers (use it and improve SEO) than for users.

On the business side, Facebook has surpassed Myspace’s early lead in ad targeting, though it’s still highly dependent on low-priced cost-per-click advertising. But Facebook is building relationships with brand advertisers and agencies through an advisory council and social marketing test bed. Moreover, Facebook collects ad revenues and virtual currency fees from its apps ecosystem members, something Myspace never mastered.

Meanwhile, some of Google’s social impetus is defensive, geared to protect its paid search business by ensuring access to social “signals” for ranking search results. While it’s currently unconnected to Google+, YouTube counts as social media and is signing big deals with premiere advertisers and experimenting aggressively with video ad formats. Unlike Facebook’s social platform, Google’s search, maps and mobile platforms offer its ecosystem a ready-made revenue stream from Google’s ad networks, a boon for developer relationships and lock-in. Presumably, Google will offer that for its social platform. I’d give Facebook an A for its social tech platform and a B- for its social media business model. Google gets an incomplete on both fronts.

As for Myspace, it’s been acquired by Specific Media, a top-ten online ad network that already reaches 79 percent of the U.S., according to comScore. Myspace’s user information will be useful for Specific’s ad targeting, although Specific says it’s more interested in becoming a media company like Yahoo than in Myspace’s data. Myspace had some interesting ideas on curating entertainment content via professional and semi-pro editors – if Specific is smart, that effort won’t succumb to layoffs.

Myspace doesn’t seem poised to regain much past glory. Under Specific, it could survive as a low-cost, medium-sized entertainment portal. It still gets about 30 to 35 million monthly users in the U.S. and has fairly strong relationships with the music industry and Hollywood. If it works hard on sponsorships and can secure access to some entertainment exclusives, it may be able to overcome the baggage of its tarnished brand.

Question of the week

Why did Myspace fail, and what does that imply for Facebook and Google+?

How to Rate Network Effects in Social Media May 23, 2011

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Part of the excitement driving LinkedIn’s IPO last week comes from investors associating social media with network effects. You know, the principle that the value of a network increases dramatically with the number of its participants. That’s the engine that drove Windows and eBay, not to mention the public telephone network. Markets with network effects tend to have explosive growth and can end up with winner-take-all market share.

But not all effects are equal, and assessing the valuations and competitive positions of social media companies depends on knowing which network effects are actually at work and how those could play out.

Types of Network Effects in Social Media

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote a thoughtful piece on network effects last week for Business Insider; it includes some analysis on how companies focused on market niches eat away at generalists who benefit from network effects. And as Matthew Ingram notes, network effects can work go ways: For example, Facebook supplanted MySpace, which supplanted Friendster.

Looking closer, there are several different types of network effects that work in social media:

  • Core network effect utility: There’s a difference between economies of scale and the magic of adding connections to a network. Groupon is building a user base, a sales force and relationships with thousands of merchants, but until it uses its sales data to offer personalization, targeting and other marketing programs to merchants, it won’t achieve much beyond scale. Even then, once critical mass is achieved, additional connections don’t add as much.
  • Viral growth: LinkedIn and Facebook initially grew their networks the old-fashioned way: Users invited other users to join. Viral pass-along is a key growth driver for social commerce and games, but now services and apps can hitch a ride on existing social networks, leveling what was once a steep playing field.
  • Business model that reinforces the effects: Gobry’s wrong about Google. While there are minimal network effects for its search users, there are huge ones for its advertising network. Google’s $25 billion in extremely profitable search advertising depends on attracting advertisers to its dominant search audience and insuring a liquid marketplace via bidding and enforced relevance to create an unbeatable paid search business. Plus Google lets developers using its services and APIs tap into that revenue stream with minimal effort.
  • Participant lock-in: Technology platforms create positive business opportunities for developers. But they can also achieve customer lock-in for their originator by making those same developers dependent on APIs. End users can be locked in, too, via familiarity (e.g., the QWERTY keyboard) and data storage (e.g., contact info, photos, message repositories) that raise switching costs for members.

network_effects

Source: GigaOM Pro

As illustrated in the table above, here’s how network effects are shaping competition in selected social media markets:

  • Social graph: Though there are network effects aplenty, consumers tend to belong to multiple networks (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare), meaning would-be data miners must target multiple data sources. And the industry is only just beginning to harness that collection of big data into reliable revenue streams.
  • Likes and log-in networks: Facebook was smart to hang Likes and Sign-ins off its Connect network, as each feature complements the others and assists in distribution; now LinkedIn and Google are trying to do the same. Bolting an ad network on top of those networks could provide missing revenue reinforcement.
  • Social commerce: As noted, most social commerce is more scalar than social. Without the additional services for consumers and merchants previously mentioned, single-market entry barriers and switching costs will remain low.
  • Unified communications: A cross-channel communications hub would sponsor habitual consumer usage. But so far, interoperability requirements have restrained the potential to lock in customers.
  • Social games: Many social games don’t depend on competition between users to be fun. Facebook’s distribution channel and cross-vendor virtual currency enforce interoperability — that’s good for growth but bad for Zynga’s or Playdom’s user lock-in.

Based on that framework, Facebook is well-positioned to build on its influence and add revenue streams. Its platform is a legitimate beneficiary of network effects, even in the face of competition from tech worthies (Google) and startups. LinkedIn has a solid business, but its platform aspirations remain just that: aspirations. Besides viral growth and some network utility, it’s not clear that other social networks (Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram) have network effects behind them.

Question of the week

Where are the real network effects in social media?

What the Google-Facebook Battle Is Really About May 16, 2011

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Facebook’s silly scheme to plant anti-Google privacy stories further highlights the bitter rivalry between the two companies, but it also points at what they’re really fighting over. The competition is not so much about each company’s core business — search vs. advertising-powered social networking — as it is about future products and services, and each company’s respective role as a technology platform provider. And potential partners and competitors need to know which battles these two competitors will take seriously so they can adjust their own priorities and investments.

Here are the key areas of competition for Facebook and Google:

  • The “interest graph:” In contrast to a social graph of information about relationships between people, an interest graph based on topics might actually be a better indicator of purchase intent than what friends — who may not have similar tastes — like. Facebook Likes and Google search results feed such a graph — though Twitter may have more easily collectible info here than either.
  • Web navigation: Facebook hasn’t proven it can drive shoppers to commerce sites the way Google can, but it’s becoming an important source of visitors to online media sites like the New York Times, CNN and HuffPo. Consumer platforms depend on habitual use, so Google can’t risk losing ground as an overall web-discovery vehicle.
  • Communications: It’s unlikely social media will completely replace email, but both Google and Facebook are competing to be a user’s unified communications hub by integrating mail, chat and posts with contact lists and presence management. Such a hub would generate constant use and potential customer lock-in, and be a rich source of contact data.
  • Identity management/authentication: Facebook tries to enforce a single, authentic user identity, but it isn’t very good at letting that user manage his relationships between different types of friends or groups. Google does offer a sign-on service, but its Profiles are mostly for search personalization. Authenticated identities could play a big role in payments systems and professional/career relationships.
  • Ad networks: Google ad networks dominate search and are strong in direct-marketing display. In theory, Facebook’s Like network could serve context- and behavior-based advertising on sites web-wide. Facebook’s complaint that Google scrapes social information without explicit permission might be based on potential privacy legislation. One bill under consideration would give companies with formal consumer relationships more freedom to use data for advertising. That would give a company like Facebook an advantage over third-party ad networks.

Build, Buy or License?

Facebook doesn’t seem interested in building a conventional search engine, but Google sure is trying to build out some Facebook-like technologies. Google recently introduced +1, a competitor to Facebook Likes, where users recommend search results, ads and, eventually, web pages. Website owners will no doubt flock to +1 for its potential influence on Google search ranking. But, faced with yet another link-sharing option, users may ignore +1, especially since Google lacks an established equivalent of Facebook’s news feed to display links.

Neither company likes to license technology or data from other companies, with the exception of Facebook’s Microsoft partnership. Google seems to have some arrangement with Facebook that gives it access to Facebook company Pages, but the two have long bickered over sharing contact information.

Since they don’t like partnerships, how about acquisitions? Business Insider has a laundry list for Google, but two are big and might also appeal to Facebook:

  • Twitter: Either company’s ad business could instantly monetize Twitter better than Twitter can itself. But neither may need to buy into Twitter, as it seems pretty easy to get access to Twitter data.
  • LinkedIn: The professional social network is stingier about sharing data, has a working business model and could play an important role in identity authentication. But it’s about to go public, so would-be acquirers would have to act fast.

Question of the week

What are Facebook and Google really fighting over?

Predicting Twitter’s Best Business Opportunities April 5, 2011

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Last week, Twitter’s original CEO, Jack Dorsey, confirmed he was re-joining the company to head up product development. Dorsey returns to Twitter to correct some mistakes and address backlash from vocal digerati and, more importantly, from members of the Twitter ecosystem. Blogger complaints killed Twitter’s QuickBar, an iPhone app feature with a badly executed advertisement. Soothing the companies trying to build businesses around Twitter APIs will be more difficult. Twitter partners and competitors alike want to see how Dorsey will align Twitter products with its best business opportunities.

Dorsey laid out some of his early thinking at a Columbia University appearance. He conceded Twitter needs to be clear about its platform and product direction, and advised third-party Twitter developers to stay away from mainstream client apps. Rather, they should focus on integrating technologies like geolocation, recommendations, filters and mobile sensors. Actually, Dorsey acknowledged that Twitter client maker TweetDeck was great for a minority of high-value Twitter power users. Twitter itself, he said, should focus on attracting and serving more mainstream users — the ones that are consumers of Twitter content rather than creators.

Serving Mass-Market Consumers

Developing for the masses will help Twitter continue its evolution from an incestuous microblogging tool for techies, journalists and social media professionals into something a lot like a broadcast medium. ComScore tracks about 20 million U.S. monthly users of the Twitter site (undercounting mobile and client access, perhaps by 20 percent). One API watcher says the vast majority of Twitter accounts follow fewer than 10 others. Twitter must fix that if it’s going to bring value to mainstream content consumers.

Twitter’s history leads it to focus too much on connecting users to other users, rather than users to topics. Its first-screen promotions to “see who’s here” and view “Top Tweets” link to people or brands, or to individual tweets. Popular “Trends” displayed through a local filter on a user’s personal page is more topical, and more in line with mainstream online media approaches, where current headlines, “most popular” and local news/weather/events lead. Mass sites tell me “most popular” is far more effective in generating clicks than “related items.” Dorsey should prioritize collaborative filtering over complicated content management taxonomies.

But Twitter should also collect channels of topics to help unsophisticated users follow more relevant feeds. Twitter already partners with Sulia to deliver curated topic channels to other media companies based on Sulia’s editorial and algorithmic analysis of expert content. It should use those topic and time-driven channels itself. Twitter could promote recommendations with a smarter version of Twitscoop’s real-time topic cloud.

What About Advertising?

Though its ad platform is a product, Dorsey didn’t say much about revenue generation at Columbia. He admitted it was a challenge for marketers to tie together Twitter’s three current ad formats: Promoted Trends, Promoted Accounts and Promoted Tweets. Lately, Twitter has been telling advertisers to concentrate on Promoted Accounts and Promoted Trends at the expense of Promoted Tweets that run in a user’s feed.

In theory, the site takeover approach of a Trend could mimic timely, mass-reach advertising used by portals like Yahoo and AOL to great success for movie studios and holiday-themed sales. But a Promoted Trend now is a barely highlighted little text unit. Twitter’s attempt to feature it on the QuickBar attracted derision from digerati, who complained of its lack of relevance (and who probably use TweetDeck on their desktops, anyway). A smarter play would be a flashier ad unit on the Twitter.com site, where mainstream users congregate.

Better contextual targeting could alleviate some of the complaints about relevance. (Promoted Tweets show up as a result of Twitter searches.) If Twitter doesn’t want to manage a targeted ad marketplace, it could draw on the expertise of OneRiot, a company that’s trying to build a real-time ad network for other Twitter clients.

Question of the week

How should Twitter prioritize product development?