Ad Technology

Could Pokemon Go Rob Mindshare from Facebook and Twitter?

Tom HeadshotHow can a new app, in less than a week, beat out Twitter in daily usage?

If you’re into mobile marketing, that’s a nagging question in a world when countless apps launch each week and a scant few attract any sort of notice.  A lot has been written about Pokemon Go this week, mostly about its explosive growth – it now surpasses Twitter in daily usage.  But while I’ve seen plenty of press about Pokemon Go’s pros and cons, I haven’t seen much about why it’s able to threaten other, more established apps.

There’s a rather simple explanation – one that might get your wheels turning with respect to mobile apps’ share of attention.  Unlike other apps, Pokemon Go requires the game be active and on your screen in order to play it.  Run it in the background and the app is damned near useless.

Unlike Twitter or Facebook, which will both send you notifications on your mobile device if something exciting happens, Pokemon Go won’t do anything if you’re doing something else on your phone while walking around.  Which begs questions about how much attention it might be sapping from Facebook, Twitter, and anything else that requires real-time attention.

In the past, we’ve seen mobile usage expand to accommodate new apps, with new offerings not directly stealing significant attention share from one another.  Never has it been a zero-sum game until now.

A zero-sum attention game should scare many of the top mobile players, particularly with a game as attention-grabbing as this one.  In order to make any significant progress in the game, players need to venture out into the physical world with their device, visiting various locations called Pokestops, which tend to be located around various landmarks.  If you thought we had a problem with people walking around with their noses buried in their phones before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  A recent reddit post even showed a dispatcher for a delivery company warning its drivers that Pokemon Go was often prompting players to walk into the street without looking, thus meriting a warning to be extra cautious.

For all the criticism, though, Pokemon Go is earning praise from many parents who have seen their kids playing the game and heading outside, rather than spending their summer as a couch potato.  Perhaps you’ve noticed from your social media feeds that the game is also crossing traditional age and gender demographics, with young parents often being pulled into the game for a bit of nostalgia – Pokemon was something of a phenomenon for 90s kids.  (“I’m 38 and I caught Jigglypuff on top of my washing machine” reports a mom from my local Facebook group for parents.)

If the wide appeal doesn’t scare Facebook and Twitter, perhaps the head start Pokemon Go has in the virtual reality gaming space should.  Niantic, the maker of the game, pulled many of its features and gameplay from one of its earlier VR games, Ingress, which launched in 2012.  While Ingress wasn’t the runaway success Pokemon Go appears to be on a trajectory to become, it was a fully-baked game and Niantic’s experience of running that environment may give anyone thinking to develop a clone some pause.

Pokemon Go does have its detractors – privacy advocates who don’t like the leeway Niantic has on data-gathering, law enforcement folks who have new crimes to be on guard against, and people in charge of landmarks that have been designated Pokestops that perhaps ought not to be.

But with the cons come a handful of powerful pros, not the least of which is a compelling reason for young folks to get off the couch and go take a walk outside.  As for commercial applications, businesses that rely on foot traffic can invest in some game credits to lure Pokemon to their location.  (Huge has done so, setting up gameplay in its agency café.)  Niantic, taking a page from Ingress, set up churches as Pokemon Gyms within Pokemon Go, and if I owned a hot dog truck, I’d consider parking it in a church lot this week to capitalize on the extra foot traffic.  I expect smart business owners with storefronts might adopt similar tactics.

The potential B2B applications give Niantic a range of revenue options, and given that the company is partly owned by Google, it’s a fair bet that integrating some Foursquare-like options for driving foot traffic could be in Pokemon Go’s future.  If not, in-game currency and data could sustain it for quite a while.

If this doesn’t have the makings of a formidable potential competitor for some of our mobile leaders, I don’t know what does.  And given the zero-sum attention game Pokemon Go is playing, strategic minds within Twitter and Facebook should be a bit worried.