Not Mobile Customers, But Mobile Audiences

From the time I started this column several years ago, one of my persistent laments of the mobile industry has been that tech companies are not by their nature and culture media companies. It never was in their DNA to think of themselves as content platforms that need to market and merchandise media. They don't think of third-party publishers and advertisers as partners and benefactors with whom they share audience data in order to better target content. And, most of all, they don't really think of their customer base as an audience that constitutes an asset it can use in dealing with all of these third parties. These are the ways that media companies think, but not necessarily how technology companies think, let alone a telco.

The other day I heard an echo of these sentiments from, of all places, a back-end office and billing tech provider, Transverse. The traditional relationship between carrier and customer was simple, says COO Chris Couch. Customers bought services, access, even some content, directly from the single source, their carrier. As mobile emerged as a media platform, the models had to shift, even if the operators themselves were not quite ready. "These models change the relationship with their subscriber base to one of a multiparty eco-system with third-party brands wanting access to the subscriber base," he says. If the carriers just end up supplying access to a mobile Web, then they really do risk becoming a dumb pipe, a model their enormous cost structures can't tolerate. "One thing is for certain, the carriers have realized that if it comes down to access charges they don't have a play. They need to move beyond being an extension of the Internet but be a mobile platform play - to use brand and services to open up value to third parties," adds Couch.

In other words, carriers have to do what mobile marketers and publishers have been clamoring for since day one: cultivate and share the audience. Of course, Transverse's answer is its own back-end office and billing system that promises to manage customer data as an asset the carriers can share with third parties. The company made some news this week from a sponsored study that, not surprisingly, supports this notion that users are ready to share some of their data with third parties, even view ads, in exchange for decreased phone bills.

The top-line finding suggests that 61% of the 800 surveyed mobile customers were receptive to mobile advertising. The actual numbers are a little more complex than that. In the study Transverse shared with me, when asked "Would you be willing to view advertisements on your mobile phone in exchange for an incentive?" only 14.71% said "yes" outright, while 47.59% hedged their bets and said that it would depend on the offer. More than a third just reject the model altogether.

All such sponsored surveys are self-serving in some way, to be sure. Transverse is trying to make the argument, principally to carriers, that its users are ready to barter their attention for a value exchange of some kind. I couldn't say how accurate these numbers are, especially in light of the latest Mobile Marketing Association "Mobile Attitude and Usage Study," which shows only about a quarter of U.S. mobile customers "strongly" or "moderately" interested in mobile marketing.

But as we heard repeatedly throughout this poll-driven political season, the real interesting numbers here are the internals. One of the things I do like about this Transverse study, done with researcher iGR, is how it drills very specifically into what consumers expect from this eco-system. For instance, when asked under what conditions customers would be willing to view ads, about 36% were willing to do so in exchange for a 50% discount in their cellular service bill, and about 19% located an even exchange at a 25% discount. The lion's share of consumer interest revolved around overall price reduction on their mobile bill, with far less interest in incentives from third parties like free products or discounts. Reading into this number, I think consumers want a value exchange that is demonstrable and speaks directly to their own daily cost structure. This is the point at which you start to see mobile customers evolve into audiences, people with targetable interests and with attention spans that they value.

Customers pay us money for services. Audiences give us their attention, which we have to earn with a fair exchange of value and satisfy with relevant content. One of the most interesting stats from the Transvers/iGR study involves the main reservations people have about participating in an ad-driven incentive program. Outdistancing all other concerns, including privacy (49.63%) audiences worried about the "amount of time required to view ads" (53.95%). These people understand the context of accessing media on the go and the inherent value of their own mindshares.

While I am not sure how complex mobile audiences want their value exchanges with carriers to be, Couch has an ambitious and interesting vision of where a multi-party mobile eco-system can head. Carriers will exchange promotions and discounts with audiences and leverage their audiences more effectively with marketing partners. "The whole notion of mobile advertising is going to start to change," he argues. "The carriers will be more mobile-centric and subscribers will see tangible benefits. It will be a mixture of barters and exchanges with users: buy this and get credit off the phone bill or buy a car and get free service for hours a month." Ultimately, one-off deals would evolve into institutionalized discounting around bundles of services and promotions. "It will be about the carrier trying to increase the value of the asset that have. They provide discounts to capture more information and subscribers have more services to use."

Whether this vision pans out in quite the way Couch would like for his company is anyone's guess. It requires a substantial shift in thinking on the carriers' part about their business models and especially their customer base.

And, of course, it requires just as radical a move on the audience's part. Arguably, the digital media revolution helped audiences conceive themselves as valuable assets in the ad-supported mediaverse. People have gotten accustomed to giving up some information in exchange for free services. At the edges, programs like Virgin Mobile ads-for-minutes Sugar Mama program help surface a relationship that free media maintained implicitly with users for a century: we give you free media in exchange for leasing a slice of your consciousness to sponsors. Whether and how audiences want to take that next step and put cash value on their attention is unclear. Mobile seems the most likely testing ground, however. As the stats above suggest, this is the medium where audiences are most aware of the preciousness of their own attention.

Tags: mobile
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