Social Video Apps Are Trending, But Will They Hit the Mainstream?

Mobile video startups are apparently blowing up, gaining popularity with both investors and users. Socialcam and Viddy have been fighting over the spotlight lately, trading headlines about funding, and trading places atop Apple’s list of top free iOS applications. Facebook has also crowed about their success, talking about how they’ve skyrocketed in terms of monthly active users. But the big question on everyone’s mind is if this represents real growth, or an artificial spike triggered by Facebook auto-posting practices.

The answers behind the growth of both apps probably don’t lie in any one area; Mike Isaac of AllThingsD goes through a litany of possible reasons and finds that it’s most likely due to a combination of factors, including changes in the way Facebook has been prioritizing mobile video sharing on its site, and the decision by Socialcam to start encouraging content scraping from other popular video sites like YouTube. In the end what matters for these companies, and for those who hope to explore the possibilities in this area, is whether this trend is here to stay in the long-term.

The success of other apps that have had strong performance on Facebook’s monthly active user (MAU) charts could be a good indicator of what’s in store for social video apps. Some, like Zynga’s stable of casual games, enjoy consistently high engagement via the social network. But others, and especially ones that deal in content delivery specifically, have been less consistent. Social readers, for example, recently appeared to be losing ground at a rapid pace compared to engagement numbers that formerly indicated a high rate of use.

Recently, the Washington Post told TechCrunch that drop-offs in engagement on Facebook with its reader weren’t due to users losing interest, but to changes made by Facebook in how reader content appears in news feeds. Whatever the actual cause, it shows an inherent weakness in depending on Facebook to be a primary vehicle through which users share your content; to a large extent, Facebook controls the breadth and duration of your success.

Even so, the apparent trajectory of these two companies (and others like Chill also operating in the same space) has brought an old discussion back to the fore in tech news: Who will be the Instagram of video? It’s a question that’s been asked before, often hand-in-hand with debates about whether such a feat was even possible for video sharing apps. The argument against it is that video can never achieve the same kind of mass adoption as photos, since it’s more involved than still photography, requiring more time and effort to prepare, shoot, upload, share and view.

Despite this kind of success, it’s still not entirely certain that those barriers have been overcome. Unlike on Instagram, many of the videos popping up on people’s feeds from Viddy and Socialcam don’t originate with the user; if they don’t come from YouTube, as mentioned above, they’ve often been recorded by someone else and are being shared virally. That doesn’t mean they won’t eventually see the same kind of user base that Instagram does, of course, but it does mean that they’re more easily replaceable. If YouTube refocuses its own sharing features, for instance, it could likely steal a lot of steam back from these mobile apps.

HighlightCam, a mobile app competitor to Viddy and SocialCam that puts more emphasis on user creation, might fit better for the analogy of Instagram for video. Its marketing chief Steven McKnight told BetaKit in an interview that while Viddy and SocialCam have definitely achieved success, it might be more a reflection of strong marketing than successful product design.

“Video sharing sites Viddy and SocialCam have posted huge numbers of registered users, with both user bases now totalling in the tens of millions,” he said. “[But] both companies rely heavily on Facebook to drive massive numbers of users to their respective websites and require all these users to create an account before they can ever view a single video. And when that user views a video, the action is then posted to the user’s feed so their friends can see it. I applaud their marketing efforts, though their actual active and mobile user bases aren’t nearly as large.”

Whether or not this kind of growth can lead to a real trend that finally sees mobile video become a truly mainstream hit will likely become apparent as this space progresses over the next few months. On the one hand, mobile devices are getting better at sharing video, and LTE networks make uploading and playback easier than ever. On the other hand, mobile bandwidth limits could rain on mobile video’s parade, and Facebook has proven time and again that how its product works is constantly in flux. Also, Socialcam recently introduced feature changes that make it easier for users to turn off auto-posting and remove the app from Facebook. Either way, it’s probably still early to be drawing conclusions about the brave new world of social video sharing.

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