Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Use Facebook to make Conference Calls - You Could Win an iPod Touch

I don't normally promote contests, but this one is of note for a couple of reasons.

Fellow Canadian colleague and Iotum CEO Alec Saunders pinged me the other day about a special promotion they're running right now on Facebook. For those of you following Iotum, you'll know that they recently launched a free conference calling application for Facebook users. So, just like Skype, you can use their app to organize a voice-based con call with all your Facebook buddies.

To be fair, I should clarify that the free part of this is organizing and hosting the call. Each caller still needs to pay long distance, since the bridge number is not toll-free. That's where Iotum - and Facebook - makes their money, and in return they provide this capability. Fair enough, at least here in North America, where LD costs are pretty low.

Alec provides more detail about this on his blog, as well as explaining what you have to do to be eligible to win an 8 Gig iPod Touch.

So, why is this worth blogging about? Well, aside from trying to support a Canadian startup that has a really great app running on Facebook, it's a good segue to the whole topic of what people use sites like Facebook for. I think the takeup of early stage services like this will be important indicators as to whether social networking sites can become Web 2.0-style communications platforms - or simply places to check up on your friends and do stuff that's fun and free like IM.

It's neat that Iotum is using a contest to drive usage of their app, and I guess we'll find out soon how well it works. These things can be very effective - or not at all. There's always a risk out there that nobody is really paying attention, especially to use a service that's going to cost you money. As we all know, monetizing these platforms at the end user's expense has been very difficult to do. I would argue that Skype still hasn't figured out how, and nobody else really has either. However.... if the app truly has value - which conferencing can have - then we've got a winner here.

This brings me to the second point of the post, and it's really an exension of the above. In between the time I learned about Iotum's promotion and now, Stuart Henshall has put up a link to an interesting post, basically saying that VoIP apps aren't getting much traction at all on social networking sites.

Alec Saunders has since jumped in with his take, and covers both ends of the issue. First, he concurs with Stuart's view that there's little reason for people to make voice calls using apps on social networking sites - 'minutes stealers'. Why bother, when our local rates are so cheap, and there are so many cheap/free options available elsewhere, including mobile. Agreed.

At the other end, Alec takes issue with Iotum being grouped in this mix of "VoIP apps" that just aren't going anywhere on these sites. He's right on a technical level, in that Iotum's calls are toll calls, and not VoIP. So, the flip side there is you're getting PSTN-quality conference calling, but of course, you have to pay to do this. Intuitively, you might say that nobody would bother to do this since people using social networking sites don't spend money there.

That's what my reaction would be, but the good news, as Alec shares, is that people ARE making conference calls using Iotum on Facebook, and if that trend continues (beyond this iPod promotion), it would be reasonable to conclude that this is really is a value-added app, and that would be great news on several fronts. We really need proof points that social networking sites can succeed beyond being aggregation points for online advertising.

In my mind, Iotum's conference calling app is very much a 1.0 service, and that's not very exciting. However, if they can make money with that, it will be the next generation of 2.0-style apps from them that we'll really want to see. I don't know what those would look like yet, but I suspect Alec has some ideas about that - right, Alec?

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