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Mobile's Trojan Horse: Third-Party Platforms

Customers' mobile expectations have shifted, and if you aren't there for them in the moment of need, they'll find another service that is.


Facebook buys WhatsApp for $19 billion. Snapchat turns down a $3 billion offer. Line plans an initial public offering worth $28 billion. Tencent’s market value tops $100 billion. Mobile messaging apps may have started as feature-rich communication apps, but they have grown into massive platforms of users who mostly communicate, but now transact and engage with brands.

In fact, while our research has found that only 22 percent of online adults in the U.S. use a mobile messaging app at least daily, these platforms boast monthly active user bases in the hundreds of millions, and users spend close to 200 minutes per week on these apps.

What’s the draw? Despite a lack of revenue, these apps have been relentless in their protection of the user experience. Conversations are not littered with advertisements, as consumers can opt in to or follow brands that push out content. In addition, these platforms are aggressively lining up to watch and listen to your customers as they chat with their friends about everything from football scores to the newest product from Coca-Cola or Nike. Beyond the initial age, gender and country of residence, these apps see a phenomenal amount of information about purchase intent and product interest.

Mobile messaging apps are just the tip of the iceberg, though. Consider how the iPhone dislodged mobile carriers from their position of power with consumers in 2007. Until then, wireless carriers owned the mobile customer and the entire screen experience, but with the iPhone’s launch, it assumed this position of power — owning the real estate and setting the rules. Google followed with Android.

Today, a third crop of platforms are laying the groundwork to step into the powerful position of “owning the customer,” by serving them in mobile moments. Consumers expect to be able to get what they want in their immediate context and moment of need. They will reach for their phone for information and services. The issue is, most brands aren’’t yet there for their customers in this moment, challenged to even get customers to visit their mobile website or download the brand’s mobile app.

That’s where the platforms that dominate minutes of use, such as popular messaging and social media apps, come into play. It’s not hard to imagine a future where a small set of highly contextual and curated disintermediaries offer consumers a portal to the universe of services on mobile devices. Companies should consider the possibility of a future where their access to consumers is through this small set of disintermediaries, including:

  • Social media: Facebook not only boasts an audience size of 945 million monthly active mobile users, but also commands nearly one in five mobile minutes in the U.S. alone. Companies globally have recognized this potential — Apple sells iTunes gift cards within Facebook, while ICICI Bank in India allows its customers to bank within the Facebook environment.
  • Mapping: Outside of messaging apps, no platform is more powerful than maps. They serve as a search engine to most things that we need, from directions to Ikea to the nearest gas station. Context has many meanings today, but nothing is more powerful than the combination of location and intent to purchase.
  • Entertainment: Entertainment platforms are one of the few that successfully monetize mobile moments through in-app purchases. Take, for example. When the firm filed for an IPO with an estimated valuation of $7 billion based on $1.9 billion in revenue, most of the press focused on the longevity of a one-hit mobile gaming company, rather than seeing the firm as an entertainment platform with 93 million daily active users.
  • Commerce: Most commerce will remain local, so the open question is who will help consumers find what they want to buy locally. Traditional e-commerce giants like eBay and Amazon have realized for years that focusing on e-commerce alone limited their pace of growth. Both have rolled out services utilizing location, bar-code scanning, local inventory and pricing to help consumers understand the best price and availability. Will we see a new, more nimble competitor enter the space?
  • Payments: Where and how consumers spend their money has been a treasure trove of profitable data historically owned by a few credit card providers. Prepaid stored-value cards like those of Starbucks have inserted one layer of abstraction by allowing customers to reload cards from their mobile phones. In the future, expect mobile wallets like iOS Passbook and Google to consolidate transactions through a single portal.

Customers’ mobile expectations have shifted, and if you aren’t there for them in the moment of need, they’ll find another service that is. This means that companies that don’t already have a direct mobile relationship with the customer must consider engaging on third-party apps where the customer already devotes time spent. The data exhaust from mobile phones is massive — and the combination of GPS, sensors and observation of consumer behavior will lead to both powerful and unintended insights.

Julie Ask is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research and co-author of the upcoming Forrester book, “The Mobile Mind Shift.” Reach her @JulieAsk.

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