As the battleground in social media shifts to mobile, is Facebook about to lose out to younger challengers?

That may sound unlikely given the impressive mobile statistics it has notched up, with a fifth of all time spent on smartphones estimated to be on its social network. By the first quarter of this year, Facebook was generating 30 per cent of its advertising revenue from mobile, barely a year after starting to make money there.

Yet a new breed of lightweight messaging apps threatens to disrupt this.

Unlike Facebook, they were conceived for the mobile world rather than being retrofitted from the web. Most started out by trying to subsume one of the killer apps of mobile: texting. Having embedded themselves on handsets, however, the new chat services are bent on devouring territory from broader social, games and media apps.

A sign of the high hopes for them came this week, in the form of a funding round that put an $800m valuation on Snapchat, an app that uses instant photos as the currency of its messages.

The pictures that its users swap – often with a piece of text overlaid – come with a gimmick: they self-destruct 10 seconds or less after being opened.

Although it only started in 2011, Snapchat already dwarfs Facebook’s Instagram in terms of the number of photos uploaded. Nearly a third of the photos shared online this year will be on Snapchat’s network, according to Mary Meeker, an internet analyst turned venture capitalist.

A bevy of other message-based apps has proved equally viral. And the competition that is developing looks truly global: networks that have caught on include WeChat, Line and KakaoTalk from Asia as much as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Viber. Internet and mobile companies with their eyes on this market include Facebook and Apple, as well as BlackBerry – which is set to open up its messaging service for use on other manufacturers’ devices.

Rather than winner takes all, this is turning into a market with strong regional and tribal patterns. That tendency is likely to be accentuated as national governments seek to suppress messaging networks they can’t control or monitor, and as cultural preferences win out.

Line, for instance, has exploited a liking for emoticons that has been strongest in Asia, with digital “stickers” that its users overlay on photos to personalise them.

Riding the viral wave, some of the newcomers have a good head start. Between them, WeChat, WhatsApp and Line claim around 750m users – as many as tap into Facebook’s mobile app each month. They are not only fun, but free, bypassing the mobile industry’s hugely profitable texting fees.

The real test, though, is just beginning. Can the chat apps break out beyond messaging – while finding a way to make money in a market beset by extremely low barriers to entry, faddish new trends and user distaste for the intrusion of advertising?

Apps such as Line and WeChat have moved furthest by setting themselves up as distribution networks for other apps or by adding more social features. These sort of moves give some clue about how money will be made.

It has long been a dream to use messaging networks to distribute digital content: that was one of the ideas that lay behind AOL’s ill-fated acquisition of Time Warner in 2000. But the definition of content has changed since those days.

Apps and virtual goods now represent the content most likely to spread on networks, and for which users are most likely to pay. Asian networks, again, have shown the way, whether through premium items inside games or enhanced content such as Line’s stickers. Whether this will spread to other regions remains unknown.

The second obvious source of revenue comes from social marketing. The chat apps have plenty to learn from. Their social networking predecessors experimented with mixing sponsored messages into streams of personal communications – a technique fraught with risk. More valuable for marketers will be commercial messages that users adopt and spread to their personal networks. Stickers and photos are set to become the currencies of brand marketers on these new networks.

None of this means that Facebook’s 750m mobile users will stop posting photos of their loved ones. But the social network has been more of a follower than a leader of late, from its copying of Snapchat to last week’s attempt to counter Twitter’s video-sharing app Vine. With others pushing the limits of mobile, the next viral hits look like coming from elsewhere.

Richard Waters is the Financial Times’ West Coast Managing Editor

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