Worldwide social media use has now passed the billion-user milestone, and shows no signs of slowing down. And increasingly, people are networking on the move. In the United States, both Twitter and Facebook have seen mobile use soar in the last year. But the trend is particularly pronounced in emerging markets, predicted to be big growth markets for both networks in the next few years.
The latest report by the International Telecommunications Union found a "huge divide" between broadband penetration in developed and developing countries. But this isn't halting the rapid spread of social media. Instead, it means more people are relying on relatively inexpensive mobile devices to get connected.
While fast broadband connections reach roughly 26 per cent of the population in developed countries, this drops to only 4.8 per cent in the developing world. In contrast, mobile broadband penetration is 8.5 per cent in these countries - almost twice as high as fixed connections. Many more social media users get online using relatively basic, pay-as-you-go connections.
In countries such as Brazil and India, cost and patchy broadband coverage are the main reasons for the mobile preference. Unlike in the United States or Western Europe, many users are "mobile" only, meaning they rarely, if ever, use laptops or desktop computers. The Brazilians are some of the most "socially engaged" in the world. Although the government is pushing to increase broadband coverage, large swathes of the country are still not covered.
With its vast population, India has the fourth largest number of web users in the world. It's estimated that 59 per cent of these rely on mobile connections. Facebook recently announced plans to cater for these users, providing support for eight Indian languages via mobile phones.
This trend is not just in developing countries. According to ComScore, American users are spending more time using Facebook on their mobile phones. A recent report found that 72 million Americans used social media on the move last August, an increase of 37 per cent on the previous year. And Twitter's mobile user numbers grew a massive 75 per cent in the same period.
In fact, the majority of Twitter's global 140 million users (roughly 55 per cent) now use it via mobile. This is highest in Britain, where roughly 80 per cent of tweeters use it on the move.
Of course, this love of the small screen has created headaches for social networking sites, in particular Facebook. The social media giant's widely publicized stock market woes were partly due to its failure to capitalize on its increasing mobile users. Facebook had to make difficult choices between increasing revenues, and risking cluttering up the display with adverts and alienating customers. It had to warn buyers it does "not currently generate any meaningful revenue" from these users.
For social media marketers, mobile also demands a rethinking of strategies. Surprisingly, many global businesses still don't have mobile friendly sites, potentially turning off millions of users. Since social media can be a major driver of traffic to websites, this is a basic first step. It's also vital to consider how content will look on a phone. Keeping it simple is often the key, and limiting the size of images and downloads.
One way to take advantage of it is to embrace location-based marketing. Foursquare and Gowalla are among the best-known location-based networks, but now face stiff competition from Facebook Places. Even if a business doesn't have a physical presence in city or region, applications such as Twitter lists and directories can be a good way to follow local discussions.
As sales of smartphones and tablets continue to rise, there's little doubt mobile social media marketing will become more important. It can be a challenge, but it opens up opportunities to connect with millions of people, no matter where they are in the world.