Fragmentation Prevents Viral Marketing in Mobile

Marketing in the mobile industry is stuck in the past, and that is seriously hurting the ability of developers to achieve success in the market, an executive speaking at the Mobile Northwest conference in Seattle said Monday.

Application and technology developers rely on old-fashioned marketing strategies, such as convincing an operator to market their product or buying television ads, not by choice but by necessity, said Dan Shapiro, CEO of Ontela. It would be better to hope for the same kind of viral marketing that has driven the major success stories of the Internet, he said.

On the Internet, sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace grew so big so quickly based on word of mouth, he said. People told their friends about the sites, and those people told their friends, who immediately could use the sites on their computers. Growth didn't depend on huge traditional marketing programs, he said.

But that kind of viral marketing doesn't work in mobile. "We do not succeed or fail by building brilliant services that people tell their friends about," he said.

He blames technology fragmentation. A mobile application can't go viral if most people don't have the systems that the application was written for, he said. For example, if an Android user tells a friend who uses Windows Mobile about an application, chances are the app won't be available to the Windows Mobile user.

Shapiro pointed to some other reasons why viral marketing doesn't work in mobile. If a person wanted to tell friends about a new mobile application, that person would find that 65 percent of their friends didn't have a data plan and so might not be able to use the app. In addition, 75 percent of the friends wouldn't be on the same operator, and if the service were specific to the carrier, those friends couldn't use the app. If the application were an iPhone app, 98 percent of the person's friends wouldn't be able to use it because those friends wouldn't have an iPhone.

"It's so heterogenous that it's virtually impossible for your customers to tell their friends about your service" and expect that they will also be able to use the service, Shapiro said. "This is deeply depressing. ... We will not see the Facebook or Twitter or Yahoo of mobile services until this changes."

The question, however, is how to change this environment. One way would be for a single OS to become a monopoly. "It's not so clear that's a great solution," Shapiro said.

Alternatively, developers can target a niche. For example, a user of an enterprise application on a BlackBerry might tell a friend who is also a business person about the app. Since BlackBerry devices are widely used among business people, that friend has a better chance of also having a BlackBerry and thus being able to use the app, he said.

Developers could also simply wait. "Things are getting better, slowly," Shapiro said. For example, an increasing number of people use smartphones, and technologies such as Java and Brew have emerged that help developers build applications that can work across an array of phones.

"But we won't see anything like the Web for a while," he said. "Until that happens, we're stuck in the world of 1970s marketing."

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