BlackBerry’s accidental youth phenomenon could become a strategic web changer

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Recent surveys spell out the depth of the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) fad amongst teens, but what will it take for parent company RIM to join the dots and take the mobile-social web to yet another level?

In the US this week, BlackBerry has announced a new mobile payment app for use in Starbucks outlets, managed through an online account and barcode technology.

This could be the first move in what could make BlackBerry the dark horse of the internet world. The potential of rolling out mobile payments across a network of retailers, and all BlackBerry devices, could be monumental.

Why would this be bigger than any other technological advance, or bigger than contactless payment technology itself? Because BlackBerry’s story is one of unintended growth among a surprise new core audience thanks to a practical, straightforward, but somehow genius application.

It might be pin-striped City boys that were BlackBerry’s early adopters, but it is the pink finger nailed youths attached to their equally pink and sparkly Blackberries that are the accidental target audience that catapulted RIM’s device out of the boardroom and on to the streets. They are the champions of BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM in the language of the young, who latched onto the free service and now use it in lieu of text messaging. It is even now a deciding purchase factor for many young people, with mobile phone retailers heavily advertising the feature.

According to statistics released at BlackBerry’s Innovation Forum events held late last year, BBM is the world’s largest mobile social network, with more than 50 million global users in over 175 countries.
BBM was designed for work colleagues to keep in touch with each other at all times, without the cost of texting and with more immediacy than email.

But RIM is one of the lucky companies, whose products have centred on a trend, with the company having engineered solely the product and not the trend itself.

Where online chat services like AOL and MSN must be downloaded as apps to a phone and have disparate user bases, BBM is native to BlackBerry devices and it’s a given that someone who owns a BlackBerry has BBM. So there is little legwork involved in tracking down and building your BBM buddy network.

Someone under the age of 25 somewhere along the line inherited their dad’s old BlackBerry and began playing with the BBM function, told a few friends about it, and hey presto, BBM became a youth phenomenon without RIM even realising it.

RIM recognised the trend as it came to life, and, accepting, nay, embracing its new unanticipated following, poured significant marketing budget into a campaign mid-last year aimed at building its brand around BBM lovers and BBM as an essential social tool.

Its response to its trend watching appears to have paid off, despite the company not initially predicting the trend. BlackBerry’s affinity among teens was validated in exclusive research Marketing Week published in October last year, which saw BlackBerry (along with its rival iPhone) cemented as not only the device that gave the most value, but was the most wanted and most important.

In this week’s trends feature, out in the magazine on Thursday, Carat Global and Stardoll reveal the results of exclusive research of a panel of nearly 10,000 girls aged 18 and under. The study showed that 19% of girls in this age 16 to 18 regularly posted updates to their social network via their handset. Device brands weren’t specified, but I’d hazard a guess, based on the people I see on the bus home, that a significant amount of them are BlackBerrys.

If the use of BBM was snowballing even before BlackBerry invested in its youth marketing campaign, then BlackBerry’s mobile payments app could equally snowball if RIM develops the functionality for it to be shared over BBM.

Imagine the potential of someone being able to treat you to a Starbucks coffee via BBM? Or, teens in particular, sharing vouchers from any brand via BBM? Imagine further the possibilities – brands being able to stage sponsored celebrity web chats via BBM? Or run competitions via BBM?

BBM then has the potential to be Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter and Groupon all in one, for an extremely loyal, ever growing audience. But, this depends on RIM and its willingness to take on the internet brands in question.

If RIM didn’t pick up on the youth BBM trend until it was already well and truly happening, perhaps it might not join these dots together either.

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