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May 12, 2014

Why Teens are the Secret Weapon in the Mobile Messaging App Wars

By TMCnet Special Guest
Matt McDonnell, VP of Operations Famigo

Why did Facebook recently buy WhatsApp for $19 billion—an amount larger than the entire GDP of Jamaica?

Why is Whisper, an anonymous sharing app, currently valued at twice the amount of the media site Business Insider?

Welcome to the new reality of the mobile messaging app wars.

While one might think the creators of these apps are living inside a bubble, the reality is that these apps have long-term potential, and teens are the driving force.

Yes, today’s “digital natives,” take it for granted that you need more than one social platform: a popular one like Facebook to cultivate your public image, and a private one to share your real thoughts. From Secret to Yik Yak, app development companies are rushing in, not just to become the next secret place to gossip, but to capitalize on the subscription revenues and brand loyalty generated by teens.

A Bubble with Legs

With valuations like $200M (Whisper) and $3B (Snapchat), the messaging wars have “bubble” written all over them. The influx of money comes in the wake of college students and older Millenials who, after years of having everything posted on a timeline or in a history for everyone to see, demanded a place to express themselves without repercussions. 

The Snapchats and Whispers of the world are a reaction to that demand.

The long-term bet on these apps, however, has more to do with the power of their brands. Today’s youngest users are the first generation to grow up in a world with multiple social-platforms, where the private-messaging brand they use early on could become a go-to for the long term.

Just as malls and parks represent physical places for teens to express themselves out of parental earshot, private sharing apps are safe havens online. Whether as standalones or as a product line for larger brands, the private messaging apps are here to stay.

The Teen Version of Privacy, and Why It Matters

For teens, it’s part of the social norm to be visible online. Ninety-one percent of teens aged 12-17 post real names and photos of themselves, a 2013 Pew Internet report found. The majority share their birthdays, the town they live in, relationship status and email address; one-quarter post videos.

On the “public” Internet, which includes Facebook and Twitter, teens live and breathe by others’ perceptions, carefully curating their identities to reflect best-case scenarios—un-tagging photos, editing posts, even posting videos asking whether they’re attractive or not. At the same time, teens want a place to express what they really think, safe from parents, siblings and hostile cliques.

One option is to post cryptic messages that only certain friends can decipher on a “public” platform like Facebook. The other is to put juicier information on apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Yik Yak, Whisper, Tinder and Kik. Parents and other non-desirables won’t track teens down on those apps. Teens feel safe because they can remain anonymous, destroy messages and say anything without fear of being found out.

That need for a private haven to share is ingrained in human communities. Adolescents develop as autonomous individuals in part because they try on many different identities in the process of discovering themselves. This process is fraught with awkward moments and imprudent disclosures. The problem with social media to date has been the indelible record that it leaves of otherwise minor transgressions. Social platforms that allow for some degree of anonymity allow children to make the classic mistakes of youth in a way that won't penalize them as adults. 

The question now is: which brands will have the staying power to become the go-to safe havens online? I hope they’re the brands that can navigate a path through the most persistent pitfall of the Internet:  anonymous spaces devolving into mean spirited (or worse) environments.

The Race for the Teen Market

There are 20 million teens in America. They are responsible for $200B in annual purchases and boast an average weekly allowance of $15, according to a 2013 Global Association for Marketing at Retail study. They’re willing to subscribe to messaging services they perceive as valuable, and they tend to self-organize into niches based on brand.

It’s an online business’s dream come true. The winners, however, will be determined by the teens themselves—which apps are most sticky, which go viral most quickly and most importantly, which apps their friends use. 

The apps that survive the inevitable shakeout could become some of tomorrow’s most important social brands.

Matt McDonnell is Vice President of Operations at Famigo, an Austin-based startup providing safe mobile content for children & families. Follow Famigo on Twitter: @Famigo

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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