From Messenger to Slingshot to Paper to Rooms: How successful are Facebook’s new apps?

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Facebook attracts more than a billion mobile users each month and 66 percent of its revenues come from this channel. In fact, mobile users spend 20 percent of their mobile time on Facebook!

Facebook’s success on mobile, whether from the point of view of the audience size or monetization, is unparalleled.

Instagram and WhatsApp (acquired respectively in April 2012 and February 2014) are two other social apps also with phenomenal audience success, although several notches below. They’re not profit centers yet and will not be discussed here.

What about the blue giant’s mobile diversification strategy beyond the main app and purchased successes?

We won’t consider the challenges of monetization here, only the one of user base growth that is so crucial in the social media sector by virtue of the network’s effect. In any event, today being able to capture a large and sticky audience is enough to guarantee monetization in one way or another at some point in the eyes of the Silicon Valley barons.

We won’t look into apps intended for a restricted public such as Facebook Mentions (for public figures and organizations) and Facebook Pages Manager (for marketers). We’ll also leave Home aside as it’s a very unique Android-only app, (it lets Facebook take control of the home screen).

To date, Facebook Inc. has launched 9 apps for the general public:

  • Facebook Messenger (launched in August 2011, 500 million monthly users, between 500 million and 1 billion downloads from Google Play to date, and also the most downloaded app in the US across all sectors on Android and iOS this month according to App Annie)
  • Facebook Camera (launched in May 2012, presented by the media as the answer to Instagram, shut down in May 2014)
  • Facebook Poke (launched in December 2012, presented by the media as the answer to Snapchat, shut down in May 2014)
  • Facebook Paper (launched in January 2014 only for iOS, the 30th most downloaded news app in the US this month, but absent from the top 1500 overall as well as the social media top 1500)
  • Slingshot (launched in June 2014, presented by the media as the second answer to Snapchat, less than 500,000 downloads from Google Play to date, and 530th most downloaded photo/video app in the US this month)
  • Bolt via Instagram (launched in July 2014, approximately the 150th most downloaded photo/video application this month in the secondary markets where it has been launched like in South Africa or Malaysia)
  • Hyperlapse via Instagram (launched in August 2014 only on iOS, 60th most downloaded photo/video app in the US this month and 645thin the US overall standings)
  • Facebook Rooms (which was just launched at the end of October 2014)
  • Facebook Groups (launched earlier this week)

How to make sense of all these mobile experiments ?

First, it is beneficial to first read the “Gospel According to St. Mark,” from which it appears that Facebook Inc. is a 3-stage rocket:

  • The original Facebook, which is racing far ahead.
  • The big audience successes that are Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, “They will probably be the next things that will become businesses at Facebook. But you want to fast-forward three years before that will actually be a meaningful thing.”
  • Everything else, which is assigned to the new “Creative Labs” launched in January 2014, and or which Mark Zuckerberg is happy to take his time. “Maybe in three to five years those will be in the stage where Instagram and Messenger are now.”

It is therefore understandable that Messenger must be separated from the 7 other applications mentioned earlier because for them, it appears, there is no hurry.

To explain just that, Josh Miller, Rooms Product Manager, likes to refer to Twitter founders  (“Look, a year and half in with Twitter, we weren’t really sure if it was working. The growth was kind of flat,”) and even Snapchat (“Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, tweeted me that Snapchat took a year before it had any growth at all, and a lot of products these days he thinks see this unnecessary pressure to grow quicker.”)

Facebook’s mobile strategy must also be seen through this duality:

A. “The great unbundling,” or the creation of applications specifically focused on single popular features from desktop Facebook,  so as to increase their use on mobile by making them faster to load and more frictionless. These applications would require users to login with their Facebook account.

B. Experimenting with new concepts while questioning the sacrosanct Facebook login.

Now let’s look at Rooms, launched just weeks ago. On Rooms, you can create a mobile-friendly discussion board without the need for a Facebook account or even an email address to sign up! This is a revolution for Facebook!

Rooms isn’t an application where to be anonymous like on Secret. Facebook distinguishes the anonymity of the “pseudonymity.” And for Josh Miller, Rooms Product Manager, the danger doesn’t come from pseudonymity or anonymity per se, rather from from a lack of regulation. This is another new lottery ticket, and once again chances to succeed are very slim.

So it’s not easy for Facebook to create new successes by itself on mobile outside of the “big blue app.” Buying out each new shooting star at very high prices is a radical way to stay in the game. But are there other ways?

One might think that with Facebook’s audience, it would be a no brainer to launch new applications in the blink of an eye by promoting them a bit. But this is actually very misleading, because before even considering doing so, there must be evidence of the new app’s stickiness, otherwise it’s like trying to fill up a leaky barrel in vain. So it comes down to the same problem: uncovering a concept that gets an audience to come and come back.Cross-promotion on Facebook, as exemplified to an extreme extent with Messenger, can and should therefore only be used to kickstart a concept with proven retention.

Along with the “great unbundling,” here’s what Facebook could do if it was ready to dance with Machiavellianism: why not repeat the strategy initiated with the Poke application, but push it all the way through?

That is, Facebook should make sure to watch the latest trending social apps, detect which ones are not far off an exponential growth, then copy them as much as the law will allow, and finally promote these copies through Facebook advertising.

This must be done quickly enough to prevent the originals from going mainstream. Facebook will inevitably risk lawsuits, but very cynically this approach should prove less costly than a buyout once it is too late, and provided the target is also up for sale (remember Snapchat).

When the Poke app was launched, Snapchat, although growing strongly, wasn’t even in the top 500 most downloaded photo apps in the US. If Poke, which copied Snapchat almost to perfection, didn’t require a Facebook login, and if Facebook had continued to promote it to the right target audience as it could have, its chances to overtake the original app would have been significantly augmented.

It must be said that this strategy is not laudable, and we hope for Facebook to find its next social hit on its own, but this pragmatism à la Rocket Internet sadly appears to be the most rational and economical strategy to prevent new entrants from stealing the prize in the next social super-jackpot.

Thomas Jestin (@ThomasJestin) is the co-founder of Facebook Markeiting Partner @KRDS, an international social and mobile agency.