How Facebook can turn its Achilles’ Heel into its biggest asset

With Facebook just days away from its IPO, there’s a cacophonous buzz that mobile is a major vulnerability for the mammoth social network.  To its credit, the company has been aggressively stepping up its mobile game in the last few weeks. This week it acquired Lightbox, a developer startup that created the popular Android-based photo-sharing application, in a move that follows the $1 billion pickup of Instagram. And it has taken a page from Instagram’s playbook by tweaking its mobile apps and website to display full-size pictures that take full advantage of the smaller screens. But Facebook can become a behemoth in mobile in its post-IPO era by focusing on a few vital things.
Simplicity and speed

This week’s redesign is a step in the right direction – TechCrunch has good before-and-after images here – but I think Facebook’s mobile site and apps are still too cumbersome. Liking or commenting on a photo, for instance, takes at least three clicks – one to expand the image, one to bring up the menu and one more to execute the action – and the layout remains cluttered. Facebook could streamline things by removing icons at the top of the screen like friend requests or messages when they don’t offer any new information, presenting them only when there really is a new request or message. Also, it must continue to upgrade its in-app messaging service that may already have begun eating into carrier SMS revenues — because consumers will tolerate sponsored ads if it means they can save money on their SMS plans.
Even more importantly, Facebook must move aggressively to make its apps faster and more responsive. The app itself often takes five seconds or more to load, which is far too long for on-the-go users, and scrolling through feeds can be balky and slow. And as my colleague Kevin C. Tofel points out this week, the apps often seem to slow down with each screen tap. Apps hold tremendous promise for mobile advertising because they’re often easier to use and can deliver more compelling ads, so while its mobile site is still vital, its mobile apps must offer a superior user experience.
Location, location, location
Hyperlocal advertising holds tremendous promise for mobile, as we’ve covered at length, and few players are as well-positioned to tap that space as Facebook. Not only does it claim an enormous worldwide user base, it encourages users to broadcast their whereabouts to friends via check-ins, which presents an opportunity to deliver highly targeted ads based on location as well as likes, demographics and other factors.
Location can also be combined with Facebook Offers, a Groupon-like service that was recently rolled out to retailers nationwide. Deals can be offered free of charge through users’ news feeds, and when offers are claimed the action is broadcast through news feeds and timelines, creating a viral effect. While Facebook (like everyone else) has a very long way to go to build out its hyperlocal advertiser base, it eventually could deliver location-specific offers to users within certain proximity of a business. And those pitches could be very compelling if they’re delivered to the right users at the right time and place.
The App Center
Facebook recently unveiled plans to create an app distribution service that integrates with its website to enable developers to distribute their wares to iOS and Android users as well as via the Web. The App Center, as it will be called, will be available free to developers – initially, anyway – and is designed to spur usage and activity among Facebook users.
The App Center will direct users to Apple’s App Store or Google Play to download the Facebook-integrated apps, but its real potential lies in the mobile Web and the advancement of HTML5. As Web-based apps become increasingly powerful, our usage of OS-based apps will slowly give way, weakening the grip of platform providers like Apple and (to a lesser extent) Google. So Facebook has a tremendous opportunity to stake an early claim as a distributor of Web-based apps that increase activity on its own platform.
Facebook is learning that mobile is a very different game than the traditional Internet. And it knows that failure to exploit wireless users and devices would be fatal as we become an increasingly mobile world. If it makes the right moves, though, its current Achilles’ Heel could become its most powerful asset.

Question of the week

Will Facebook emerge as a force in mobile in the next few years?