Why I’m All-In on Social Music App Smule

Photo Jul 06, 12 09 25 AM

It’s amazing what a good song can do to connect people and bring their worlds closer together. Think about the legacy Coca-Cola created and where it would be today without their iconic “Hilltop” ad? Or the music that defined Apple marketing over the last decade and a half? Hell, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t hear a certain Seger song and think about my employer.

But beyond brand taglines, a good song can change everything from moods to cultures.

If you’re in a bar and a certain song comes on and the vibe is just different, it evokes the kinds of things that you want to feel, and if music can do that it’s a very special thing.
– Julian Casablancas

Over the last 3 months I’ve fallen in love with performing music again, and  Smule has helped enable it. Founded in 2008, they’ve used the nearly $90 million dollars raised through seven rounds of investment to create a number of music-related applications like Sing! Karaoke, Magic Piano, Guitar!, and AutoRap.

It’s estimated that they have over 200 million users and 35 million engaged content creators from around the world. Consistently ranked in the top 5 best apps in its genre, Smule has created a social network powerhouse all on its own. Built around the concept of singing duets with complete strangers, on any given day I may sing a song with someone in Australia, Indonesia, Brazil and Canada.

What I find the most fascinating though is how Smule has incorporated mainstream artists organically, with huge engagement numbers to back up their platform as a vehicle to launch new songs.  Want to sing Grace’s new single “You Don’t Own Me”? Or NE-YO’s “Let Me Love You”?  JessieJ’s song “Flashlight” has been listened to nearly 8 million times through the app, with thousands of duet performances. While the duets are asynchronous, there’s an authenticity in the Smule community’s reactions to singing with artists that suspends belief and makes you think for a fleeting moment that “OMG…Mary Sue is singing with Luke Bryan!!!”

What’s next? I don’t know. I’ve gone on record saying that I truly believe they have the opportunity to become the next YouTube. Partnerships with mainstream music-based television shows such as X-Factor and The Voice are natural extensions. Singing Selfies? Yes, they’re a thing. True brand integrations? Why couldn’t Hilltop be recreated through Smule?

The first seven years of Smule’s existence, they’ve been under the radar, despite extremely high user engagement. I think the next seven will prove just how powerful the intersection of mobile, music and social media can become.

In the meantime, if you’d like to connect on Smule, you can find me here.

I’ve always felt that the quality of the voice is where the real content of a song lies. Words only suggest an experience, but the voice is that experience.  – Jeff Buckley



Gaming The System: Cheating Your Way To Mayorships On Foursquare

On the day that Facebook Places went live, Foursquare gained the most new user signups in their history, and given Facebook has a platform to teach 500 million users how to “check in”, it’s no wonder they saw such exponential volume in new users. The new wave of integrating game theory into social networks has captivated millions of people and will continue to do so for times to come, however just how vulnerable are these location based social media services that reward users through social currency?

After trying up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a, select, start,I realized that classic cheat codes to skip to the head of the Mayorial line aren’t too far off from the realities of these platform exposures. In fact, according to a recent Slashdot submission, Foursquare can be gamed in 9 Perl statements, and invites readers to “submit more succinct versions of the code to game the system.”

Think “Social Phreaking” is going away? Think again. Yesterday a similar post was written regarding Facebook’s Places and how to spoof its location based services features.

What Does This Mean For Marketers?

In my opinion, the implications are obvious. As advertisers and retailers integrate incentives into “check-in” related activities, the audience they think they’re targeting may become discouraged if they know they may never make it to the top of the leaderboard. This becomes incredibly relevant at a hyper-local level where personal relationships with local retailers may even further impact and subsequently damage relationships between brands and loyal consumers.

The reality is, is that not a single piece of software in market today doesn’t have some level of security flaw. This however, the crux of Gowalla, Foursquare, Booya, and Places amongst future companies, will become more troublesome as word of mouth carriers the issues that could impede a positive experience amongst their user base when value exchanged for loyalty is compromised.

We’ve seen just how transient social communities can be – from Friendster to Myspace and beyond. There is no reason to think history won’t repeat itself if poor user experiences aren’t fixed quickly.

Look Qik! AT&T Video Share Makes A Comeback

I remember a few years ago salivating with envy as my Australian friends would flaunt their video streaming 3 phones. Their phones had “external” and “internal” cameras so they could stream their surroundings, as well as have a more traditional webcam-like personal chat experience. Suddenly, anyone could break news, streaming events live, etc.

One day last summer as I went looking for a new blackberry at the AT&T store, I noticed a small display promoting “AT&T Video Share”. Were my eyes deceiving me? Did this day really truly come?

Yes and no, as the sales rep took me through a demo, it was painfully apparent AT&T’s network wasn’t fast enough to support streaming video. Not coincidencely, when I returned, the Video Share display was gone, as well as their only streaming phone, the CU500.

Interestingly enough, as always in mobile innovation, it’s the little guys who typically lead. Startups such as Qik.com, have empowered a small but very influential group of adopters such as Robert Scoble and Digg founder Kevin Rose. Qik supports over 100 phones across multiple carriers in 55 countries.

So as Qik begins to gain momentum within social communities such as Facebook and Twitter, AT&T has quietly relaunched video share. With 3G network coverage becoming more robust (on the East Coast at least where I can keep a 3G signal from Manhattan to ext 117 on the GSP), the relaunch of Video Share makes sense.

What I hope however is that AT&T understands the business model. It’s too utopian to think that every cameraphone with streaming video capabilities will be activated and if the web is a model for video, the percentage of producers of streaming video content will most likely be very small relative to the total audience. AT&T’s sweet spot should be owning the web/mobile destination and subsequently the advertising around the viewing environments.

This is a great step forward for mobile innovation and I’m hopeful we’ll be rewarded with new content, new perspectives, and new ideas that stem from mobile video streaming.

Rethinking The Mobile Interface

Recently I was lamenting on Twitter regarding my desire to drop voice calling and use a text-centric device only. This isn’t anything new, as I’ve always been fascinated with text over voice (even with text messaging being a total consumer rip off). With VoIP clients such as Skype readily available and my laptop being in my backpack 24-7, I find myself using mobile for voice less and less.

With that said, the traditional QWERTY keyboards, especially on my G1 are frustrating to use. QWERTY’s are better than the alternative however but I keep hoping we continue to see innovation not just with the applications we use, or the XMPP protocol that makes Google Talk so great, but also in the interface.

The iPhone and G1 were great starting points, but what about the other 800 lb. Gorilla? Well, a year ago I was closely following a partnership between Microsoft and Mitsubishi. Researchers at Microsoft and Mitsubishi are working on a new pseudo-transparent touch screen system that allows users to type text, click hyperlinks, and navigate maps from both the front and back of a portable device. A semitransparent image of the fingers touching the back of the device is placed on the front so that users will be able to observe what they’re touching.

Only one problem.

At the time, the prototypes were the size of a tablet PC (see above).

No longer however. As the above video demonstrates, a lot of progress has been make in a year to reduce the size of the transparent interface yet without compromising the concept of using both the front and back of the device for typing.

I always thought Microsoft had something really special with Surface. To take the Surface idea and mash it up in the context of a mobile environment is exciting and innovative all at the same time.

Instinct Says The iPhone Is In For A Fight

I’m home from CTIA. To be quite honest, the show was a bit disappointing.  It seems there’s a lot of new faces in telco running the carrier and portal strategies that will shape the future of the industry. Because everyone’s so new, there was a sense of timidness in sticking one’s neck out in order to make head turning decisions. 

But that’s ok. We’ve waited 8 years for mobile to finally gain traction, and I firmly believe (this time) that we’re almost there.
Speaking of almost there, Sprint unveiled their iPhone competitor, the Samsung Instinct. The instinct has many of the same features as the iPhone but with 3G Rev A and a neat haptics system. Scheduled to launch in June, the rumors floating the CTIA showroom were that Apple took notice and will move up their Summer iPhone 3G update to late spring. 
Priced to compete against the iPhone, I’m interested to see how it does. The interface looks similar, as does the user experience. 
The one variable unaccounted for however is the cult-like following the iPhone creates every time it’s mentioned. Buying into Apple culture is no different than buying into Starbucks or Tag Heuer. The brand value far exceeds the standalone features that make products like the iPhone unique. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a sick device, but there’s a reason the iPhone still ships with white headphones. 

Delta Working To Improve Airport Logistics

    Delta Airlines has recently gone through an entire revamping. I know because every day on the 7 train a few months ago I would see their advertisements for in-flight MP3’s, games, etc.

    All of these are nice add-ons once I’m on the plane but what about when I’m en route or in the airport? One of the most frustrating experiences a traveler faces is checking in for their flight . Well Delta is taking a big leap forward and giving their travelers the option of checking in via mobile device.

    What’s even more exciting, is that they’re doing this through traditional bar codes. I’ve debated with a ton of my friends in the mobile industry as for the need for QR codes, Semacodes and Shotcodes. They certainly serve a purpose in pushing WAP url’s to mobile devices efficiently, but they also require a user to load 3rd party applications on a limited number of mobile devices that support them (kiss Verizon goodbye as I don’t believe that there’s a BREW based QR code app to support the standard – if I’m wrong let me know).

    So if phone resolutions continue to improve, is there a point to use anything but bar code technology?

    The travel industry gets knocked all the time for lacking innovation. I’m glad to see Delta Airlines sticking a thumb to that mis perception.

      Loopt, CBS Mobile, and Location Based Services

      A year and a half ago I sat in a conference room in Discovery HQ when their CMO at the time turned to me and asked what I thought the biggest trend in emerging platforms would be for 2007 and without hesitation I blurted out Location Based Services.

      Okay so I was off bigtime.

      But my crush on LBS has been ongoing for a while now, ever since I watched my former Simplewire co-founder triangulate locations through cell towers via SMS 7 years ago.

      My obsession continued, amplified bigtime upon my introduction to Joe Waltman and the Boost team last year. When I was able to see Loopt in action for the first time, I saw what I knew was going to be a major hit. The Boost commercials validated my assumptions.

      At the time, Boost had some form of exclusivity on Loopt. No longer, as Sprint is in on the game now. Sam Altman, Loopt CEO is currently negotiating with other carriers to bring his services to their customers.

      So imagine my giddyness this evening as I stumbled upon Jamie Wells’ blog post on a CBS Mobile/Loopt LBS Ad deal. I’m not going to regurgitate Jamie’s POV so instead I’ll link to it here.

      Okay great, I can find friends, and serve ads that lead people to my client’s products/services. But where’s the excitement? Well it’s in the numbers my friends:

      • There are some 130 million GPS-capable handsets are in use in the US
      • Approximately 13 million mobile consumers downloaded a mobile application on their phone.
      • LBS accounted for 51% of the $118 million generated in revenue by downloadable mobile applications such as LBS, weather applications, chat/community, and personal organization tools.

      As it stands today, LBS has been used primarily for directions. With the Loopt deal, we’ll begin to see mainstream embrace “LSS” or Location Social Services

      2D Barcodes Enabling Mobile Commerce In Europe

      When it comes to your mobile phone, one of the most cumbersome activities met with high level of annoyances has little to do with the phrase, “Can you hear me now?”

      No, for those of us who still own Non-QWERTY enabled handsets, it’s the multi-tap frustrations of typing in a WAP address into your phone browser.

      Enter the world of 2D barcodes. Otherwise known as QR Codes, Semacodes, and Shotcodes. All three describe the same function: to ease the ability to access content via your WAP browser.

      What originally started as a way to track inventory in Japanese warehouses, quickly spread across the globe as an alternative to the Common Short Code – embedding everything from WAP pages, ringtones, wallpapers, j2me games, etc.

      What sparked the domestic rise of SMS was the introduction of Premium SMS services. As 2D companies such as Scanbuy or Neomedia begin to introduce marketers to their services, they should take a look at what’s happening with brands such as H&M – one of many examples of what we’re seeing in Europe.

      H&M is starting to integrate Semacodes into their print campaigns. What makes this unique though is that H&M is tying their Semacodes into billing services. See a sweater you like? No need to go online to order – just point and click with your camera phone and presto! You’re sweater is on its way and the cost will end up on your mobile phone bill; just like a credit card.

      H& M is even printing premium Semacodes into the fabric of their clothing as well – logic being that “women compliment each other all the time on their clothing…”

      So though significant research remains to determine what impact 2D codes have in impacting consumer response to mobile enhanced marketing initiatives, the still relatively nascent world of mobile marketing marches on trying new ways to innovate.

      Qik.com: The World Is Getting Smaller

      As I spent an afternoon twittering, an interesting tweet made it across my screen:

      “I’m streaming from my mobile live right now!”


      My interest was certainly peaked. I’ve been following streaming video since 3 launched video chat in Oz a few years back. It’s an exciting proposition, kind of Dick Tracyish and I certainly would be a heavy video chat user (as I am online).

      So off I went and clicked on the tinyurl which quickly redirected me to Qik. After a few moments of poking around it certainly looked like a live video stream.

      As it stands, with all new mobile technology, it seems as though you need a Simbian OS but I’m sure our friends at Qik are figuring out ways to port their software onto Samsung, Moto and LG handsets as well.

      Before I closed my browser, I took a screen shot of the homepage of Qik, which featured a Qik member streaming from a live event. This reminded me of my time down in San Antonio speaking to my friends at AT&T. We were talking about AT&T’s launch of streaming video services along with America’s first “true streaming video phone”, the LG CU500. I was very excited, yet apprehensive about the idea of turning everyday consumers into the “Moborazzi”

      Don’t bother looking for the url, it’s taken.

      Additionally, I thought about the licensing rights to events such as NBA games – who’s going to be made culpable if game footage is streamed live on 18000 handsets to the web? I have a feeling AT&T didn’t want much to do with that one and subsequently, their video sharing phone and service mysteriously disappeared before it had a chance to get off the ground.

      Qik.com is just scratching the surface. With 2008 following the trend of embracing convergence, I wonder with open speculation what lies next to continue to spark a mobile industry that once laid dormant.