Poke: A misfire in Facebook's mobile strategy

January 2, 2013: 10:34 AM ET

The hubbub over Facebook's latest mobile app says a lot about what the social network needs to do better in 2013.

facebook-poke-01-531x535FORTUNE -- Facebook can't catch a break, from the furor over  Instagram's Terms of Service change, to more recently, the release of a new mobile app during the holidays called "Poke."

Early Facebook (FB) members may remember the original "poke" feature: that ability to virtually nudge other users. Now, it's reemerged as the name of an app roundly criticized for being a rip-off of Snapchat, a free photo-sharing app popular among teens. Users of the Poke app may poke each other, and send photos and messages that "self-destruct," or disappear after 1-10 seconds. As many have already pointed out, Facebook's crime isn't just that it so blatantly copied a product that probably didn't need to be copied, but also that it did it badly. And Facebook users seem to agree. Nearly as quickly as it hit #1 in Apple's App Store on Day One, it fell out of the Top 50. (Snapchat, meanwhile, hovers around #4.)

That Facebook is betting heavily on mobile is no secret. Well over 600 million of Facebook's 1 billion monthly active users reach the social network on their mobile devices.

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But if Facebook, which has been slow to take advantage of mobile, has finally caught up somewhat -- with the release of faster apps for Apple (AAPL) iOS and Google (GOOG) Android, for instance, and the Instagram acquisition -- it clearly doesn't have everything figured out yet. Poke was reportedly developed in just 12 days, another example of the social network's enduring "Hacker Culture," but it's a mess of a product that no one I've spoken to, from my 20-year-old smartphone camera-loving cousin to a thirty-something tech publicist, can wrap their heads around. If the dedicated messaging app, Facebook Messenger, already allows a quick shortcut to messaging, and Instagram allows a much better way to share photos, why crank out a redundant, poorly-made product like Poke?

"It's not an app I would stick with," confesses Alan Webber, managing partner of the San Mateo-based research firm, Altimeter Group, who argues Facebook simply made the app to stay relevant with the younger set. Worse still, it doesn't fit well within the company's overall mobile strategy, which includes making money from mobile ads. According to eMarketer, Facebook will pull in $340 million in revenue from mobile ads -- a number expected to more than triple by 2014. Can something like Poke become a revenue generator? In its current incarnation, and given its plummeting popularity, probably not.

Instead, Webber argues Facebook needs to take a more focused  approach to mobile strategy in 2013. Instead of trying to do everything, focus on its core products, team up with companies, and build and nurture an integrated ecosystem. While Poke's self-destructing messages may not be the best way to mine user data, other companies that Facebook may want to copy or acquire, could prove to be excellent opportunities where Facebook and  the third-party can benefit each another by say, trading visibility within Facebook for the sharing of user data. Says Webber: "Why try to recreate something when you can team up with someone who's already doing it fairly well?"

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About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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