In the wake of the tremendous amount of exposure provided to group messaging platforms during SXSW, including GroupMe, Beluga (now part of Facebook), Fast Society, etc., it is easy to think these platforms have a clear value proposition and a straight shot to broad adoption.
My friends in the “industry” are constantly asking which service I prefer. I set out to answer the question, but instead found the better question to be, “Should I use any of these group messaging services?”
To stick with my formula of giving you quick answers, regretfully, I have to say, “No.”
In more detail, the answer is: Only if you find it fun to play with these kinds of things, or need to be up on the latest apps for your job (both apply to me), and then you should be playing with all of them.
I actually spent a good amount of time this weekend trying to move a variety of different “groups” to one of these platforms as an experiment. What I found was that it was too hard to make it worth while.
My main justification is that these apps don’t actually make it easier for your groups to talk. Not only are the features not materially superior to pre-existing solutions, but the switching cost of convincing people not predisposed to using new modes of communication is not worth the effort.
The important question everyone asks is, “Can’t we just use email?” The two rebuttal responses don’t hold water:
- Some say Email is old-school and chat feels instant: It really isn’t true in a world of iPhones, Droids and even Blackberrys. Those of us with smart phones are accustomed to receiving email on our devices. Email is quick, provides OS/Launcher-level alerting and allows us to interact with any number of customized groups of people. All of the major mobile OSes have taken great steps towards integrated messaging platforms such that it can be kinda tough to even figure out whether a message was email, txt or IM. Email is also quickly accessible from the phone and desktop alike, has superior archive and searching functionality built-in, and is free under existing data plans (unlike txt). No clear win for group messaging here.
- Others point out that group messaging, unlike email can be accessed from feature phones: Feature phones (aka phones without app store support primarily used by Luddites, the elderly and those for whom work will only pay for the data portion of their smart phone) do make email challenging, and the ability to hit up multiple people with txts is theoretically a winning solution. Unfortunately, the practical reality leans the other way. Those who carry feature phones have several complaints ranging from: “I don’t like fancy new apps,” to “how am I supposed to keep up with (and pay for) dozens of text messages rather than a simply email thread?” There’s no good response in a world where texting costs $20 a month for an unlimited plan. These folks would rather get an email and I can’t blame them. If everyone on the smart-phone side were on board, they might feel left out of the conversation, but (see #1 above) it just doesn’t feel that way today.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some cool features on these services including: on demand conference calling; the map that allows you to see where your friends are; and the ability to create chat groups without having to share your actual phone number (FastSociety only, I believe, and used for ad-hoc communication with groups you’d rather not keep in touch with), but these features are nice-to-haves right now, not things that make adoption a no-brainer.
Ultimately, as a hack-day solution to a small problem, I think these services are awesome. There may be times when I would find them invaluable. But, as an everyday means of communication, the world just isn’t ready yet, and you don’t need to rush in. Maybe Facebook will make this awesome, or perhaps the AOLers out in Palo Alto can help speed things up, but for now, you’re ok sitting on the sidelines.
UPDATE: I have continued playing with these services, and can now recommend Beluga if you do decide to use these services at all. It works much like BBM in that if you both have the app, no one gets charged for texts and when you look at it as an SMS replacement app *with* group messaging, rather than the reverse, it starts to look attractive… starts.