Mobile Carriers May Be The Quiet Giants Of Digital Data
For years mobile marketers urged the major mobile carriers to give advertisers greater access to the wealth of highly detailed data the operators had on tens of millions of customers. The conventional wisdom was that the carriers were sitting on a trove of unprecedented behavioral information that would allow for laser-guided ad targeting not only for mobile advertising, but for cross-platform campaigns. After all, for all of our ritual complaints about mobile phone companies, they have our number (literally) and our monthly billing relationship. And face it, they know (or can find out) where we are pretty much all the time. Like it or not, there is an intimacy we have with these companies on many levels no other service enjoys.
But carriers were always reticent about entering the mobile marketing world. They had this fat golden goose, the voice and data plan, and no one wanted to kill it by alienating customers with advertising on such a personal device. Hard as it is to recall, back in 2005 and 2006, it was still an open question whether consumers would rebel against any attempt to put promotions on their phones. To carriers, advertising represented such a pittance compared to the mother lode of monthly service charges, mobile marketing barely seemed worth the risk.
But now that the smartphone revolution has robbed carriers of control of the once-coveted phone “deck” (now ceded to Apple and Google), they are faced with a new challenge. Smartphone penetration worldwide will peak in the next five or six years, leaving these companies scrambling for new revenue. Not surprisingly, we find in recent years AT&T and Verizon revisiting the ways in which they can use their customer data, especially their companies’ persistent location awareness of the customer base, to develop new model marketing programs.
One long-time provider of location-aware programs to carriers, especially in Europe, sees the carriers now awakening to their unique position in a data-driven marketplace where only a couple of online entities seem to be commanding the greatest power. “I think we are seeing the emergence of super publishers,” says Alistair Goodman, CEO of Placecast, which powers AT&T’s localized SMS alerts to customers and just announced a similar deal with Canada’s largest wireless carrier Rogers. Goodman believes that as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple amass war chests of user data, the carriers are among the only entities in a position to challenge their scale and depth of knowledge about the customer.
“Facebook has been masterful,” he says. "Twitter acquired MoPub. Google and Apple are developing user IDs. There is a real shift to data and being able to carry that data across platforms. The carriers are all realizing they have a very rich potential data set to access and a trusted relationship with subscribers.”
Indeed, consumer trust becomes one of the critical elements some of these competing entities lack, especially as devices make marketing more intimate and localized. Having the data is one thing. Issuing relevant messaging related to someone’s location is quite another.
The problem for carriers has always been their inexperience as media companies. Back in
the day before smartphones, carriers controlled absolutely what programs appeared on people’s “decks” of downloadable content. But even then, when carriers appeared to be content
distributors, they never acted much like media companies. Much of the publishing and content vetting process back then was outsourced to content aggregators and other third parties. The carriers never
seemed to embrace user data and audience intelligence as resources they could effectively leverage with advertisers.
While it is true to a degree that “data is the new creative,” as former Carat chief David Verklin once quipped, creative is still the creative. As I thought back in 2004 when I started covering the hapless activities of carriers in the media marketplace, I think Goodman is quite right that the potential has always been there for wireless companies to be major players in the media world.
Still, I remain unconvinced carriers have
what it takes to become media companies. Maybe I am jaded by years of seeing how half-hearted their previous attempts in this market were and internal tensions that made it difficult for these massive
corporations to shift from building and promoting networks and minimizing churn to any other model.
But at the same time, their entry into the market signals another aspect of this data-driven media world. It is being commanded by so-called “media companies” that don’t produce media as we have known it. This new media world, which used to be controlled by real content producers, is now increasingly in the hands of platforms whose power comes from their data, not their own content or deep relationship with users.
Does anyone really love Facebook, Twitter, Google in the way we once had relationships with newspapers and magazines, TV shows and networks? Not really. We need these new companies and use their platforms. Intellectually we may admire their business creativity, growth and scale, But they have no discernible identity or special affinity with us.
How strange and apt that the term “relationship” becomes a dominant metaphor in characterizing consumer/corporate interactions at a point in history when few of us even like or care much about the companies claiming to have the best “relationships” with us.