September 02, 2008, 4:14 PM — Within two years, I believe mobile social networking will become the most valuable business application since e-mail.
Instant messaging started out as a social life booster for teens, but evolved into a vital form of business communication. Social networking also got big first on MySpace, where teens decorated their pages with goofy pictures and the latest MP3s, but evolved into a widely used business networking tool on LinkedIn and other sites.
As we speak, the convergence of social networking and mobility is starting to grow worldwide among teenagers and young adults. ABI Research predicts that mobile social networking will reach 90 million new users over the next four years and rake in $3.3 billion.
Soon, like IM and PC-based social networking before it, the phenomenon will spread to business users for business purposes.
What is mobile social networking?
Mobile social networking is similar to regular social networking, but on a cell phone rather than a PC, and using location-based applications and hardware to augment social interaction.
Social networking is all about maintaining relationships and fostering community. Obviously, business people need to do that as well. But the mobile upgrade of social networking lets you get out of the office and connect with people face-to-face and take better advantage of in-person meetings and interactions that you're already having.
The idea of mobile social networking is to take advantage of four things:
The secret sauce here is location. Services will know where your phone is, and therefore will know where "you" are. That will improve the relevance of searches and facilitate real face-to-face interactions that will change how business works.
Who will provide the products and services?
The major players in this space, of course, will be existing carriers and handset makers and social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. Google plans to dominate this space, and I'm sure Microsoft will want to play eventually as well.
Google's Android platform may be widely used for the development of business mobile social networking very soon. But a lesser-known Google acquisition, called Zingku, may give Google a head start in mobile social networking.
Nokia acquired a company called Plazes, which provides location-centric social and product services.
But because this is an entirely new area, the field is up for grabs. Relatively unknown newcomers going after the youth social life market could grow to dominate business mobile social networking as well, or could be acquired by a major deep-pocket player and transformed for business. Some of these companies include AirG, Bluepulse, CenceMe, GyPSii, Mobimii, Moblr, MocoSpace, NearConn, WhosHere, Whrrl and ZKOUT.
One of the reasons everybody wants to play in this space is that business mobile social networking combines compelling, addictive, active usage combined with a kind of super-advertising or mega-marketing opportunity. Rather than just throwing advertising out there and hoping that somebody cares, mobile social networking uses location for relevance.
Why you'll love mobile social networking
The "killer app" -- the discovery of a nearby colleague with a one-button "hey, let's have a cup of coffee" feature.
Here's a scenario that may become common in the next few years. You're in Manhattan on business and walking down the street in the early evening after attending an all-day conference. Your phone beeps, and you've got a message from your favorite business mobile social networking service. It says that a person you pitched to a year ago is within 300 yards of your location. It automatically provides the context of that year-ago meeting, and a photo of the person. It informs you that he's a huge fan of Guinness beer, and asks you to "press here to invite the contact for a drink at the James Joyce Irish pub, one of the highest rated in New York (and also an advertiser), which is just around the corner.
The social networking service noticed that your contact accepted your invitation. Now the meeting -- its data, time, location -- is added to the "history" section of his contacts, and you'll be reminded of this meeting the next time his name comes up.
This unscheduled meeting caps off an enormously productive day, because that same social networking service informed you in the morning which of your previous contacts and colleagues were attending the same conference, so you didn't miss anyone.
Business people usually swap paper business cards when they meet. These exchanges take place during millions of interactions around the world every day. But all that contact information is already available online and in greater detail than a business card can carry. Already, LinkedIn provides an "invite" feature on its mobile browser service, where you simply add someone's name and e-mail address, and LinkedIn will invite that person to join your network of contacts.
What's missing is context. Future phones and future apps will add this auto-capture feature for both contact info and location.
Meeting people and capturing their contact information will become a two- or three-button pushing process. And getting contact history will be nearly automatic, a function of your calendar application, which will see who you're meeting with and pop up that information at a user-designated amount of time before the meeting.
With regular social networking, you make "friends" with people either by connecting online with people you already know, or you meet them online. With business mobile social networking, you'll be able to capture better information about the business people you're meeting. Snap a picture of the person's face, and enter in his name. Or you can electronically swap contact information, including a photo, to go into the contact databases. The phone will know where you are, check your calendar and link the meeting with the person. It will also capture the location. In the future, you can be reminded not only what the person looks like, but the context of your meeting. This will be far superior to exchanging paper business cards.
Of course, you'll be able to custom-configure settings for each contact to protect yourself against stalkers and aggressive salespeople.
The scenarios above are just those we can imagine now. As is the case with many new technologies, the real usage models are nearly impossible to predict.
Regardless, mobile social networking is coming soon -- big time -- and for business.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at email@example.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.