No More Downtime: The Death of The Social App

Attention is the currency of mobile apps and it’s a finite resource. As time goes on, our attention for social apps gets spread thinner and thinner. What can the next generation of apps do to combat shrinking attention spans?

The last few years have brought the rise of the “downtime” mobile-social app: Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tinder, the list goes on. These guys have a big problem and it’s only getting bigger: we only have so much downtime.

When smartphones came out, a whole new block of time opened up to app developers. We needed something to do while we waited in line (or ignored our friends). Now, there’s a plethora of options at our fingertips and each new one canabalizes the others. Photos I take on Snapchat or are photos I’m not Instagramming.

The iPhone and its kin are reasonably mature. We’re out of that unallocated time. Apps have to compete with each other for your attention. The homescreen is a great metaphor for this: we can only really use 16 apps a day, and even then, the majority of our time gets focused to 3 or 5 apps.

The good news for app developers and entrepreneurs is that there’s a work around. Smart developers are building apps that win the battle for attention by creating new time slots with less competition. Apps that define a new category use-case for the phone, find their way on to the homescreen with much less convincing.

Evernote is useful when you’re in a meeting or at the grocery store. Timehop is designed to be the first thing you do after waking up (they even send a push notification every morning to remind you). Venmo targeted the “you owe me money” use case. These apps are all social networks but, they’ve come up with clever hooks that help them sneak into our lives. They’re utilities that also happen to be social networks — not pure social networks.

Social utilities often have a specific cue that isn’t just boredom or FOMO. Uber has “I need to get there”. Foursquare and Yelp are vying for “I’m hungry”. Spotify has “I need jams”. The next generation of mobile apps will fit into existing (often offline) workflows and make them better by putting them in our pockets. Just last week I discovered GetMaid which fits into the “my apartment is dirty” cue. The number of opportunities that fit into a small but important use case is high.

Plus, these apps are easier to monetize. Since they’re solving real needs (instead of boredom or FOMO), they can actually charge to solve the problem better. I’m not accustomed to paying for brief periods of entertainment, but I am used to paying for a ride or to get my house cleaned.

The great news is that as phones become more advanced there are more and more triggers for social utilities. Google Glass, the inevitable Apple watch, Pebble, NFC — these are all things that will enable new types of apps.

What cue will your app fit into?

Thanks to Quinten, Nate, Ryan, Adii and the other members of my Brain Trust who told me that the first draft of this sucked and then helped me to make it better

Photo Credit: 55Laney69 via Compfight cc


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