Teenagers, Facebook and The Rise of Visual Messaging

“It’s is Dead to Us. Facebook is something we all got in middle school because it was cool but now is seen as an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave.” That’s how a 19 year-old American student described his generation’s relationship with the social media site in a widely circulated blog. This is not really a revelation. His views were evidenced by a teenage trend away from Facebook that was first identified by Pew Research in 2013 (and confirmed by the social media site themselves). In October 2014, a study by GlobalWebIndex found that Facebook’s user base grew 2% in the previous six months. The low growth is hardly surprising when you consider their user base is close to saturation point. However, the significant stat from the study was that teens were using the channel much less. 37% of young respondents said that they were ‘bored’ with the social network. Over the same period Tumblr saw an increased use of 120%. Popular with teens (and ad agency folk), its uptake has been driven by the humble ‘gif’. The ancient web-format has gained a new lease of life with highly sharable animated gifs of cats and celebrities. Facebook has been aware of their teenage problem for sometime. They understand that young, early adopters are fickle when it comes to their digital channel choices. And thanks to mass smartphone adoption, that switch is happening faster than ever. There has been, for example a shift in messaging from SMS to What’sApp. The teen messaging channel of choice has quickly grown to over 700m users – nearly 3 times Twitters’ active user base. Fundamentally, teenage audiences are most active in messaging channels – and they’ll go where it is easiest, cheapest but above all, they’ll go where their friends are. A few years ago, they were using BBM. Before that, MSN was popular. It’s interesting to see, therefore, that the one Facebook product that remains relevant is their messaging app. Another GWI study found that adoption grew by 50% in 2014, across all age groups. Whilst messaging is still the driver of teenage online activity, the significant change has been the growth visual messaging. For today’s teens, pictures are better than words. This new found popularity of has been driven by smarphone cameras and apps such as Snapchat. Another GWI study found that the picture app grew 57% – the fastest of any messaging app. UK teens especially love Snapchat, with 39% of them saying they use it compared to 15% globally (GWI). There’s an element of teenage rebellion about Snapchat. Part of attraction is that their parents (who are all on Facebook these days) don’t see the point of it. However Snapchat is also a bona-fide messaging app. Whilst it has gained a reputation as a place for ‘sexting’, it is an unwarranted tag. A 2014 University of Washington study found that the behaviour represented only 1.6% of users. The main use for Snapchat are is not to share amazing portraits or beautiful sunset pictures, but to share quick snaps with added comments or scribbles. The real winner in the visual message channels is Instagram. Sure, it’s good for showing nice filtered photos, but spurred on by hashtags, selfies and numerous celebrity accounts, it has become the channel of choice for teenagers. By the end of 2014 it had overtaken Twitter’s user base and it continues to grow. Understanding the teen challenges, Facebook has been pretty shrewd in addressing them. When they bought Instagram for $1bn in 2012, observers thought it was an excessive sum for a company with just 13 people. In hindsight, given the level of uptake, that price seems like a bargain. After sniffing around Snapchat for a while (who reportedly turned them down), Facebook ended up buying What’sApp for $19bn in 2014. Facebook are aware that ultimately, no site is safe from a mass exodus of their users. Just look at the fate of Friendster or Myspace (and BBM or MSN for that matter). However, if Facebook are simply going to buy their most popular messaging competitors, then the chances are, they’ll still be going in a few years time.

2015 Predictions: Mobile, Wearables and Connected Technologies

It’s a pretty safe prediction that iBeacons, Apple Watch, drones, 3D printing and VR will continue to receive a considerable amount of hype next year. Who knows, someone might attempt a Crowd Sourced 3D-Printed QR Code Live Streamed Via Go Pro for real? A combination of cheap computing, rapid prototyping and new funding will bring many more gadgets and connected devices. All very exciting, but what’s hype and what’s actually interesting?

In 2015, don’t get too excited about:
Beacons. They will not save retail . In some unsurprising news, a study in 2014 found that consumers think beacons are largely annoying. There are some opportunities where the technology can offer a good solution to problems. The (award winning) Nivea Protection wrist band is a good example of where this type of technology works well.

Is anyone really interested in beacons?

Wearables, whilst popular with techies, don’t expect an uptake like that of smartphones or even tablets. In fact some categories such as fitness bands may become redundant through smartphone health monitoring apps (think, Apple’s Health apps)

Smartwatches will not simply have to compete in the tech space – they also competing in the fashion accessories market. So consumer choice is not simply about functionality but also about image and style.

– Brands may try, but wearables are probably not a place for advertising (although Indian Company, Techsol have announced a wearable ad server). For brands, it’s isn’t simply a matter of down-sizing for a smaller screen – they will need to consider the whole engagement.

AR/VR in the form of Google Glass and Oculus Rift will remain as essentially prototypes. There are specific industries or applications, such as medicine, that will benefit but this does not make them mass market.

This might actually be a good use of Google Glass

Things to be (slightly) more excited about in 2015:

Messaging channelsWhat’sApp/Line/WeChat will continue to grow in place of SMS. Visual messaging through Snapchat and Intsagram will also see growth, especially with a younger audience. Significantly, Instagram’s user base overtook Twitter in 2014 – perhaps the latter has reached its peak.

– For brands the challenge in social is an interesting one. Users, especially younger demographics, are switching channels rapidly. The role of Facebook and Twitter as content channels will be less important. In fact, some are already predicting the demise of Facebook. Whilst brands would do well to focus their attention on delivering service in messaging apps, although they will probably struggle to get the attention of a younger audience.

As home screen notifications/replies become more common, we will see fewer app openings. That’s a problem for the likes of Facebook, but it’s also going to be a challenge for brand advertising. What’s the point in buying ads in an app if it’s not going to be opened?

– So what will be the successful apps of 2015? In essence it will be those that bring an additional the service layer beyond the functionality, especially those that make clever use of gamification and APIs. Good examples are Duolingo or City Mapper

– Along side service layers is the growth of the collaborative economy, delivered through apps. Think AirBnB, Waze, or Hailo (I’m NOT advocating Uber as a good example of the collaborative economy though)

– The mobile payment space will become a key battleground for brands in 2015. Many people were exciting by the potential of Apple Pay but it has already run into corporate obstacles

Peer to Peer Payment is set to grow in 2015. Barclays PingIt is a (rare) good example from a brand – it has become their largest channel for new customer acquisition. My money is on the third party providers though. P2P creates opportunities in the startup space, as demonstrated by the excellent Droplet. My guess is that’s where the success will be and brands/corporates will be playing catch up.

Big Data is interesting (really, it is). The true potential hasn’t been realised yet and amazing things could happen if we combine the potential of the vast amount of data from personal devices (wearables or smartphones) with the AI development from Google or IBM’s Watson. (or even this simple idea)

Here’s a few trends that might be interesting in 2015.

The Internet Fridge. Something not to get excited about in 2015. Or ever.

The Rise of The Phone Zombie

Earlier this year the picture below was trending on Twitter, with the ironic statement (and I paraphrase) ‘What on earth is this guy looking at? The World or something?’. It looks like we’ve become a society of phone zombies.

Instead of engaging in conversation with our friends or family, it seems we are constantly distracted by our smartphones. As if proof were needed, a recent IPSOS study identified this trend. They surveyed 16,000 people in 20 countries and 60% of them agreed that they were ‘constantly looking at their screens’. In the UK though, 71% said they were glued to their phones (second only to China). Perhaps our zombie behaviour is best summed up by Buzzfeed’s, 23 Pictures that Prove Society is Doomed. This phenomena doesn’t just impact on our social lives, there are other risks. One cyclist, writing in London’s Metro paper, explained that phone zombies were the most frequent hazard she had to contend with. Maybe in the future our smartphones will need proximity sensors to alert us of traffic hurtling towards us.

Is the phone zombie good or bad for marketing? A decent ad person would spin the problem into an opportunity. For example, we reach for our mobiles within 15 mins of waking and check them up to 150 times per day. That’s a lot of marketing opportunities. But perhaps, just perhaps the best thing we can do is to help society act a little less like the living dead and occasionally speak to other people. The Brazilian beer brand, Polar tried to do exactly that. They created the phone nullifier. A bottle wrapper was able to block the phone signal for anyone within a few feet, thus nullifying the phone zombies and ensuring that people enjoyed their drink, whilst conversing with their real friends.

Arguably though, the phone zombie could be seen as a natural behavior. Humans, especially the younger variety, enjoy media that distracts us from the real world. The Victorians complained that young people spent too much time reading books. Television and video games have constantly been blamed for corrupting teenagers. Perhaps the phone zombie is just another example in a line of media distractions. Before smartphones, commuters were hiding behind newspapers on their journey to work. And maybe the only reason the man in the picture is looking at The World was because on that day, his battery had died.

Beacons, the Saviour of Retail? Probably Not.

Since Apple launched their iBeacons, a Bluetooth-based proximity channel, some marketers have seen them as the saviour of in-store engagement. Retailers from Macy’s to Tesco’s are trialling the technology. In France, the supermarket chain Carrefour is putting them in 1000 stores. However, beacons present a common digital marketing challenge; technology itself is never a brand marketing solution. In the late 90s nearly $200 million was put into a scanning device called Cue Cat. It was sent to over 1.5m million people in the hope that they would scan bar codes printed in magazines instead of typing in URLs. In spite of the backing from major brands and publishers, the project was a failure. From a user perspective it didn’t solve any problems. When Beacons first launched I wrong a blog, Bluetooth the Revenge, pointing out the limitations of beacons as a marketing technology. The two practical hurdles are that people need an app installed and their Bluetooth turned on. Whenever I have researched it, that number is around 30% of people (there’s some research here). So 70% don’t have their Bluetooth on. For brands, as always, the key is to get the engagement right. They need to give their customers some pretty good reasons to use iBeacons. I’m not sure if giving offers is enough. To get users to engage, brands will need to use it to solve real problems, not just encourage more purchases. There have been a couple of recent studies, that suggest, unsurprisingly, that users don’t want to be stalked by brands in store. Opinion Lab, for example found that 77% of people don’t want to be tracked in shops. Our phones are personal and it seems like we have enough marketing already. My worry with beacons is that they will simply be consigned to the dustbin of technology history. In a few years time will we look back and say ‘do you remember iBeacons’, along with the Apple Newton and the Cue Cat?

The Challenge for The Fashion Brand, Apple

Whilst some are calling the iWatch a game changer, many tech observers have missed the point. The iWatch is a fashion accessory and it makes Apple a fashion brand. Whilst previous products from the iPod onwards have had a lifestyle element to their branding, the watch puts Apple firmly into the fashion accessory market. The industry bible, Women’s Wear Daily pointed out that Apple’s real competition is not from other tech providers such as Samsung, but the from the mid-range watch manufacturers such as Swatch and Guess. Both of these companies are developing their own products due out within the next 12 months.

Apple understand the importance of being a fashion brand. They have made significant hires from Burberry and Gap, not to mention the addition of leading designer Marc Newson. A number of fashion and watch journalists were invited to the launch event, which further demonstrates the importance of the sector to Apple.

What was the fashion industry’s reaction to the iWatch? Generally favourable, but not totally blown away. It’s probably best summed up by Alex Blanter from A.T. Kearney, who specialises in fashion insight:

“Everybody is still trying to figure out how to make a smartwatch a truly must-have device, rather than an interesting and curious novelty,”

An interesting take on the iWatch came from HSBC Research who looked at the market for the product in China. They pointed out that luxury watches are bought not to tell the time, but as a status symbol. Is the iWatch a sufficient status symbol for that marketing? They pointed out that the most significant market in this area were as gifts. On that basis, Louis Vuitton or high end sporting goods are competitors as much as watch brands. Perhaps that is Apple’s biggest challenge. Whilst smartphones are (arguably) an essential item, the iWatch is not. As an accessory, watches are replaced much less frequently than smartphones. Whilst there is clearly a market amongst the early adopters, does it have what it takes to compete in the higher end accessories market?

One thing that is in Apple’s favour is that they’ve created a product that has watchmaker’s credentials. The Hodinkee watch blog declared the iWatch to be a bona fide time-piece, from the overall design, through to the straps, the astronomy face and the rotating crown. The review makes a convincing case for the iWatch as a genuine watch. An odd press release from Guess also suggests that Apple have made a significant entry (or threat, even) to the market. In A Letter to CEO of Apple, From CEO of Guess Watches, Cindy Livingston said:

‘We personally welcome this new challenge to remain relevant to our young, sexy and adventurous consumers.’

This is not the first time that Apple has entered an existing market saturated with products. Aside from the brief partnership with Motorola, Apple had never launched a phone before the iPhone. Whilst the success of the iWatch as a tech product remains to be seen, when it comes to a fashion audience maybe Apple have got it right.

Why Can’t We Use Mobile to Manage the Ebola Virus?

I recently spoke at an event about the role of mobile and big data. The two most useful examples related to health. The first was how the movement of mobile phones in Kenya helps to identify the movement of mosquitos and thus the spread of Malaria. The second was how Swedish and US researchers used mobile movements track people in the Haiti disaster area, and the number who had left subsequently. From this they could identify the number of missing people.

Could the same approach be made to manage the spread of Ebola? If health organisations could use location from the mobile operators it would be possible to see where people  from infected areas have moved to (including overseas). From this they could spot where the virus might appear next. That could deliver a much faster response and to isolate the outbreaks more quickly. Just a thought. Or maybe it’s already being done?

Mobile and The Big Data Question?

How can brand marketers leverage ‘big data’ to engage more users? That’s pretty much the question that I was asked to speak about recently at the DMA. The explosion of mobile is certainly creating a lot of data, from active channels such as social media updates or sharing, to passive data such as location services or WiFi connections. However, using that information in brand marketing is not that simple. Whilst it’s straight forward on a technical level, but even where individuals are not identified, they are wary of intrusion because mobile devices are so personal. Perhaps the answer lies in focusing on the user, being useful and delivering a better service. The best examples of this come not form brands, but from using mobile data to bring improvements in areas such as healthcare.

The following Slideshare is from my talk, ‘Mobile and The Big Data Question’.