I remember the early days of mobile video, when carriers were trying to lure big media onto their mobile channels as marquee offerings. A mobile video producer for a non-name supplier of comedy clips told me that some of these network operators quickly regretted having cut sweetheart deals with the broadcast news divisions when the actual usage patterns emerged. It turned out that eyeballs were rushing to his cheaply-made stand-up routines and short skits -- but surprisingly few ended up going into the news headlines where everyone expected mobile viewers to rush.
Of course, it wasn't as if brands didn't matter at all on theoe early 3G decks. The surprise hit for mobile video in those days was kiddie content. When I handed a first-gen MediaFLO handset to my then-14-year-old daughter, she was unimpressed by being able to watch TV on a phone. Until...
"Ooh, Spongebob. This is neat. Do you need it back right away?" Who knew that the best use of those early $20-a-month VCast accounts was as a reliable kid pacifier? Got a noisy kid in the back seat or embarrassing you in the airport waiting area? Just navigate over to Dora the Explorer and toss the handset over to them. Problem solved. Talk about turning content into a service.
Which only goes to show that consumers themselves don't really know how they will use an advanced mobile device of any sort (be it phone, e-book or iPad) until it weaves its way into their lives.. And the brands that people really are attached to may not be the marquee brands that have been used to sell so many platforms like cable TV and Web portals in the past.
According to a new study of U.K. consumers by TNS, about 13% of people identified content and apps as the single most important factor when purchasing cell phone. That 13% is actually quite strong, tied with handset brand as the second most popular response. 29% still cite the look and feel of the device as the biggest influence on the purchase.
On the other hand, the role of content diminishes dramatically when put in a group of other considerations. In that case only 33% include it as an important factor, near the bottom of a list that also includes input method, network brand, etc. The upshot of this is that superficially people may be attracted to the availability of content on a handset, but as they consider the purchase more deeply, the role of content drops away.
Despite the early carriage deals between carriers and media, the content brands frequently complained that the network operators not only suffered from decks that were hopelessly ineffective at merchandising content, but that they rarely leveraged the larger marketing relationships very effectively. More than a few biz dev execs at major media wished for the day of more open platforms and the mobile Web when they could take the marketing into their own hands and leverage all of those wonderful cross-platform assets to promote mobile.
How content brands actually work with and relate to users on the mobile platform seems to me an open question that is not explored enough in any rigorous way. Lest we forget, one of the most successful media brands on mobile today, ESPN, punctuated its journey to handsets with a colossal misfire. The original ESPN MVNO scheme was at the leading edge of a two-year push to lead the mobile data charge with media brands in the lead.
Remember Amp'd? There was a time when some content brands thought they could sell phones. Consumers disproved that notion in less than a year, but it is unclear what relationship with content the users really do have. We know that Facebook is a killer app of sorts on smart phones, but that is because Facebook is a conduit for the truly important relationships people already have. Google is extending some of its Web dominance onto mobile despite its own crappy mobile search results and the half-baked lab experiments it drops in the market. But that seems to me a messy and dangerous way to extend a media brand onto mobile. It reminds me of Time Warner's arrogant and ill-fated Pathfinder strategy of assuming offline reader loyalty would transfer easily onto the Web.
But now that the "garden walls" have lowered and a larger mobile Web and app universe is here, it's still unclear how media brands make use of all those assets -- and whether legacy media, Web media or endemic mobile brands will win the day. When I look at the popular apps on the iPhone and Android platforms, it is a mob of analog, digital and mobile-only players. Very few legacy or even Web media brands stand out as impressive in their mobile execution.
This is all very reminiscent of the Web circa 1997. You had a lot of old media players making noises about their commitment to digital, but only a few were really doing more than "having a presence" on the Web. On mobile we have a lot of old media toes in the water but very few that are all in.
It seems to me that the commitment of major media to the mobile platform is going to be a critical part of marketing's eventual commitment to the medium. As the first run of branded apps demonstrated, it is incredibly difficult for a consumer product brand to cultivate its own audience. The iPhone App Store is littered with forgotten branded tip calculators and drink recommenders that never made the cut with users because the brands were out of their element. They had no experience building and maintaining an audience, and I think many users engaged most of these apps as clever one-off tchotchkes that rarely deserved a second look.
A number of media brands that are dipping into mobile tell me that the brands are moving more towards piggy-backing onto, or integrating with, content brands that have established audiences and are tooled to keep those audiences coming back with fresh content. Interestingly, it is the magazine brands that are making the most of these RFPs that are looking for app sponsorship opportunities. Vanity Fair's Hollywood app has a very good integration of sole sponsor L'Oreal. Just this month Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit 2010 app used a good freemium model where Universal Pictures underwrote a free "lite" which pushed users to a $1.99 paid version. According to the media brand, over 400,000 people downloaded the free app, which I guess translated into millions of prominent banner impressions for Universal's slate of action flicks.
My point is that after all of the bluster about product brands using mobile to make direct contact with consumers, many seem to be veering back to media. But is media really ready? Are many content brands moving aggressively into mobile and doing enough creative executions to attract enough users? There are the topline brands like ESPN, Weather Channel, USAToday and, to some extent, Yahoo. But beyond that it looks like a lot of toes making small ripples here. After spending so much time wondering when marketing interest and money are really going to move to mobile, I wonder if the next big question should be, when are the media going to start innovating here?