Group Messaging: The Next Big Thing

This post has been written by Amy Vernon on request. Group Messaging took a huge jump in Q1 2011, where media attention was all over the start-ups and applications from established companies like Google.

Is Group Messaging the next Big Thing, Hype or Here to Stay?

No question mark there - the sudden abundance of group texting apps in the past six months indicates there must be something there. The platforms were all over the place at the South By Southwest Interactive festival, and last quarter’s entry into the space by Google (via its Slide startup on a domain the company bought for $255,000) more or less cements it as the idea whose time has come. All the apps strive to solve one main problem: How to coordinate events with groups of people at a time, when email just won’t do. Maybe not everyone in the group has a smartphone; maybe the data connection is really slow; maybe you just need the immediacy of a text message rather than the length of an email message. So here are some of the top apps getting buzz these days (in no small part due to SXSW), their main features and the pros and cons.

Disco

Disco Goup Messaging from Google There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Disco, due to its Google ownership. Google does so much so well - not least of all Gmail and Gchat - that most are willing to overlook the whole Wave debacle. And probably the best thing about the app is that you don’t even need the app to use Disco - you can create groups or add members to groups via the web, app or text and you can sign up to use it on the web. That’s a good thing, because the app’s “add member” functionality is completely broken and crashes the app. Every. Time. (It’s not just me - lots of comments in the iTunes App Store attest to the same problem.) Update: the Disco App seems to be fixed now! But I was able to add people to groups via text and the web just fine and all was peachy. There’s no limit to the number of groups you can create, nor the number of members you can add to each group. You can delete groups via web or app, but only leave the group via text. Pro: Super-quick activation: First time you launch it, you plug get a message to text to Disco to activate your phone. Then you put in your first and last names. That’s it. You can go online later and create a password if you want. Con: The app was broken at launch, for many users at least. Some seemed to do just fine (TechCrunch had nothing but good things to say about it), though who knows if they were adding people to groups via text or web. May you be one of the lucky ones. Also, the app doesn’t sync to the iPad.

Kik

Kik Group Messaging Kik scans your address book (if you ask it to - nice to be asked by an app for a change) to see who else has the app downloaded. That’s the key, however: Only users of Kik can send and receive texts. You have to have it downloaded (iPhone and Android only for now). Somehow, however, it has decided I have no network connection on my iPhone and can’t find any of my contacts who have it. So, no texting for me! Setup isn’t terribly complicated, but if you download an updated version, it logs you out and you have to remember your password to get back in. I’m not a password-remembering kind of girl, so I had to reset my password. And then it forgot the people I already had as connections. And then decided I had no network connection and refused to find them. Pros: You can share photos with the app and easily see who has received and read the messages you sent. Cons: You have to have Kik to receive your friends’ messages. And Kik also has to recognize that you have a network connection, which it refused to on my phone after the latest update.

Grouped{In}

GroupedIn Group Messaging Grouped{In} had the second-longest signup of all the apps I tried. Not only did I have to put in my name, email and phone number, but I also had to create a password (which I usually leave to my LastPass secure password generator). Then I had to validate my email and THEN log in. Not very good for starting up on the go. I suppose I could have signed up via Facebook Connect, but I’m a bit wary of giving any one site access to everything in my life. You can still connect to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, though, to follow group members’ streams in real-time (not exactly sure why I’d want to do this). You can add anyone from your contact list to a group, whether or not they have the app, and toggle the FB/Twitter settings in each group as well. You can also find groups that are nearby (if there are any), as well as “featured” groups - in this case, groups set up for SXSW. That stuff is public content, and a way for brands to reach out to you as well, and you can opt-in to receive offers. Pros: More public options; access to offers from brands. Cons: Yet another way for brands to reach you, as if there weren’t enough already. Add that to the long signup of all, and it wasn’t very attractive to me.

GroupMe

GroupMe Group MessagingIn order to get a free grilled cheese sandwich and soda (could have gotten a beer, but it was only noon!) at SXSW, I sent one text to get started. Didn’t even have to download the app. I later downloaded it and hit a few quick buttons to get my account set up (took me about 15 seconds) and it remembered my SXSW text. You can choose (or not) to link your friends from Facebook, Twitter and/or Foursquare, or just add other people to groups as you desire, so long as you have their phone number. Messages are shared via your data plan, switching over to SMS if your data connection isn’t so great (hello AT&T customers in NYC/San Fran!). You can make a group “joinable,” meaning that the topic is visible to your friends and they can request to be added. If you do not make it joinable, the group is completely private. You can share photos, turn the group text session into a conference call and add a location to your messages, which can auto-check you in on Foursquare and show all group members on a map to help your directionally impaired friends find their way to your party. Pros: No app needed. A friend set one up for her family, which included some members who were not the most adept at texting, and they all managed to use it just fine. Cons: Though the default is for any new group not to be joinable, I could see that being activated accidentally on a chat that really needed to be private. Be careful what you name your groups.

Beluga

Beluga Group Messaging Given that it’s owned by Facebook, I chose to connect with Facebook rather than set up a new login. I forgot to uncheck “post on my wall that I’m using Beluga,” however. Hate that. Groups are called “pods,” given that the app is named after a whale. You can add people who don’t have the app and all they need to do is respond to reply. Like GroupMe, there’s photo and location sharing, and it automatically puts your Facebook friends who are using the app in your contacts. The app can only be downloaded to iPhone and Android phones, however. It’s touted as “BBM for iPhone and Android,” so I guess that explains that. But the texting works on any phone, whether or not the app is installed. You can access your messages via phone or web. It says text messaging fees don’t apply, but I’m curious if folks who have old-style phones would find that to be true. Pros: Easy activation, especially if you use Facebook Connect. Took me all of 10 seconds, as I was already signed into Facebook. Cons: Native apps only for iPhone and Android, though I’d imagine that Facebook will rectify that, adding apps for BlackBerry and Windows phones. Stay tuned.

Mogwee

Mogwee Group Messaging Well, that’s annoying. I tend to almost always choose “no” when I’m asked if I want to allow push notifications on a new app. I did that on Mogwee, but when I tried to sign up through the app, it said I had to enable notifications in order to get the invite to join. Except that it won’t let me exit the signup menu to go back and change it. So … I had to delete the app and all its data and re-download it. Still didn’t work. So I couldn’t use it at all. Poor design. And it’s from the Ning folks, though it doesn’t say that anywhere on the Mogwee site. Right now, it’s only available as an iOS app, though you can text people who don’t have the app. Android and web-based versions are “coming soon.” Plus, there’s sheep tennis. Yep, a little game you can play with your team members. Pros: Probably sheep tennis, but I’m not positive, as I was unable to use the app. Cons: Poor design for setting it up.

Fast Society

Fast Society Group Messaging A quick text message composed by the app and sent by you activates Fast Society, and it immediately asks if you want to use your contact list. It’s nice, as it just extracts the users for whom you have a mobile number. Most of the other apps allow you to add people using their email address, but to me that kind of defeats the point. You can see past “teams” you’ve created by hitting “Go back in time.” You can share photos and your location, too. And you can create an end date for your chats, so they can truly be event-specific and won’t bombard you with messages long after the date they’re done with. It creates “teams,” giving the feeling of competition, though I’m not sure why. It kind of made me feel stressed out, even though the app is focusing on the party crowd (“Built to Party!” is its tagline). You can turn your groups into a conference call, too, which is an attractive feature available on only a few of these apps. Pros: Fastest activation ever; ability to set end dates. Cons: Native iOS only right now, and you can only create up to five teams at a time. Most other apps allow unlimited numbers of groups.

PingChat

PingChat Group Messaging PingChat is the largest of all the apps - 21.9 MB, to be exact - so I couldn’t download it directly to my phone. So, to get it set up on my iPhone, I had to download it to my laptop, sync my phone and then start the laborious process of signing up. To sign up: Choose a username, a password and put in your email address. You’ve got to verify that email address, too. Then you can’t do anything until you fill out your profile (in fairness, just putting in your first and last names). You can’t exchange messages with your friends unless they’re already on PingChat, either. And if you want to remove ads, you have to download one of their partner apps, which range from a free Ask.com app that removes ads for 10 weeks to a paid “Supermarket Game HD,” which removes ads for 24 weeks. Pros: Available on iOS, BlackBerry and Android platforms. Cons: You can only exchange messages with others who have the app; ads; longest signup process.

HighNote

HighNote Group Messaging Well, that was easy. Put in your mobile number, get an activation code. Took about 15 seconds in all to sign up. But then gives you a screen to opt-in to all sorts of quizzes about music (thus the “Note” part of its name, I suppose). While it’s completely opt-in, it took me a couple seconds to see how I could avoid doing so. Text rates don’t count if you’re sending messages to other HighNote users, and you can send photos, videos, maps, audio and music. There are one-button responses for certain questions, and you can create up to nine slides per message as well. If you send a HighNote message to someone without the app on a regular old flip-phone, they’ll receive a text with a web link where they’ll be able to go to see all the cool stuff you sent them. There are a lot of pre-decorated greetings, too. For example, you could send a “Day of the Dead”-themed happy birthday message to a friend, adding photos, audio and music. Pros: You can send more types of media, easily, than pretty much any of the other apps. Cons: People are bound to get a little too fancy with all those options, cutting out the utility and adding a lot of noise to the conversation.

Top Image credit: pouwerkerk under Creative Commons

Comments

  1. Thos says:

    Have you tried texting “SMX” to 90210? That’s my answer.

    1. Amy Vernon says:

      Oh, Thos – I’d be scared to do it if anyone else said that. But knowing you, I’ll get a custom-quote T-shirt out of it. ;-)

      1. Dennis says:

        @Amy,
        But it will be a great Tshirt from Black Shirt SEO!
        Check out the shirt he made for me: LUMPS

        1. Amy Vernon says:

          Ha! Thos – If this SEO thing doesn’t work out for you, you could start a great custom T-shirt shop. ;-)

          1. Dennis says:

            I would have the perfect domain for him… TShit.com
            Although Thomas already has a pretty good one which goes with his brand: Black Shirt SEO

  2. Jon L says:

    Exactly what I was looking for! Great post Amy, I will have to fool around with Disco right now!

    1. Amy Vernon says:

      Thanks, Jon! Let me know how it works for you.

  3. I still use GroupMe regularly for a group of 6 of us. We basically shoot the shit and sometimes make plans. It’s a really great tool that allows this group of friends to stay close and get closer where we wouldn’t have normally done so.

    1. Dennis says:

      Hi Damien,

      Thanks for your comment.
      The point is, you all need to use the same service right?
      You are all on Groupme…

      What happens if you come across people with a different service, will you change your app?

      DG

      1. Amy Vernon says:

        @Dennis – GroupMe is one of the better-designed apps, I think, because the people receiving the texts don’t have to even have the app downloaded. They don’t even have to be on a smartphone. They wouldn’t be able to start a group, but they could be part of one. Definitely gives it a leg up over some of the apps that don’t have that functionality.

        1. Dennis says:

          @Amy
          Seems like a winner to me.
          Question is, do they have what it takes to win the market.
          Not all best products are winners… depends how much traction they will get and how deep their pockets really are!

          DG

    2. Amy Vernon says:

      I was trying to coordinate lunch at BlogWorld this week with two friends and used GroupMe to do it. It was a lifesaver, honestly, because the thought of texting one, then the other, then having to text back to the first, etc., gave me a headache.

      1. Dennis says:

        @Amy
        I will need to try at one point.
        Since I have a BlackBerry, I really feel left out of the cool crowd.
        I might just buy a iPhone or Android just for the experience and keeping up…

        DG