Regardless of size, nearly every mobile social media site has yet to significantly monetize. This is a major issue that threatens to dampen future growth. Companies will likely try various models until it's clear which represents the best path for long-term sustainability, as none of the businesses represented on the panel were profitable.
"We haven't found the sweet spot yet … but the model we think has the most traction is where the carrier is absorbing the cost and factoring it into the cost of the handset as a value-add," said Amir Hosseinpour, CEO of Juice Wireless.
Companies like Brightkite are taking the advertising route, and Linner said this is generating a couple hundred thousand dollars a month. The monetization issue is further complicated because the mobile social networks rely on mobile operators.
"You can't talk about business models without considering the links in the value chain," said Shawn Conahan, CEO of Intercasting. "It's literally impossible to bring the exact same business model to every carrier that acts as a gatekeeper to the users you want to reach."
Conahan said mobile social networks are just another form of communication, and people historically have been willing to pay for that. The mobile e-mail and instant messaging companies have been able to thrive and be profitable, and Conahan said mobile social networks should be able to do the same.
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