Does AT&T Prove Telcos Are Sleeping Giants Of Mobile Marketing?

It's all about the data, right? We've all heard endlessly how it's the new oil, and so it's little surprise to see that the holding companies are getting in on the act. Just this week, IPG confirmed it is buying Acxiom to dive deep into the data that power modern digital marketing.

It has attracted a lot of attention, and so it should. But AT&T's purchase of AppNexus most be at least as important, surely? Sure, it got covered but I would suggest the marketing press is in the process of making more fuss about IPG than it did AT&T, and yet the latter may be the more interesting.

A discussion with Itamar Benedy, CEO of Glispa, the other day confirmed this for me. He runs a mobile monetising business that has at least a partial bet that telecoms will wake up to the power of their data and how they can use it in advertising. Glispa does this through a service that can pre-load apps when a telco ships a mobile phone, create a smart folder with news apps suggested (based on behaviour) and through on-screen notifications. I mention this to flag up straight away that he very much has a dog in this proverbial fight.

However, anyone who went through the past two decades will remember the argument that at some stage the telecoms companies were going to start making money from the networks they run -- whether through the entertainment they now carry or the advertising that accompanies this content. The talk always used to be of incredibly smart companies building dumb pipes, or words to that effect.

Now there is a major reason to resurrect the enquiry because digital marketing is moving away from the desktop and to the smartphones they sell. Benedy can't reveal the names of any telecoms that Glispa is working with or running trials with (none are in the UK currently) but the premise make sense. The telco knows the customer and has their data and has the potential to glean a lot from app downloading behaviour (data laws permitting). This is why his company is aimed at monetising that data and using the relationship the subscriber has with their telco.

Regardless of that approach, it does raise the question we kept coming back to in our chat -- are the the telcos the sleeping giants of digital marketing?

AT&T clearly believes this is the case and can see itself opening up a whole new revenue stream, combining the data it knows about its own customers and the vast data banks AppNexus has and will be able to collate in the future.

However, this is aimed at advertising where people already expect to find it. Buying a mobile programmatic exchange isn't opening up a new channel -- it's combining what you have with what they already have and hoping the result is bigger than the two constituent parts.

There is nothing wrong with this approach -- and it is likely it will not be the first major foray, particularly if the venture works well. However, for the telecoms operators to fully become digital marketing giants, they need to not only buy in to the advertising infrastructure that exists, they really could do with inventing something new. 

Benedy at Glispa is effectively pitched at turning telcos in to a discovery rival to the Apple AppStore or Google PlayStore. It will be an interesting one to watch. O2 has famously tried to get proximity marketing off the ground, but it's one of those things that has just bubbled away in the background. It rarely gets much coverage and it's rare to see a notification tell you about a local offer (and I am an O2 customer, by the way). Remember that Regent Street was going to be a new front for beacons? Again, that didn't exactly work out or, if it did, they have kept it very quiet.

Here's the rub. At some point a telecoms provider will have to be brave enough to begin trying to market to its customers through the device they have likely brought from it. That means notifications, recommendations and proximity alerts and all of these stretch their bravery. Would opening up a new channel put customers off? Have telcos been reticent to act for good reason, or are they just too unimaginative and need to believe more in the power of their relationship with customers.

I honestly don't know what the answer is, but I do know one thing. At some time a telco will try it and if it works out, the rest will follow. If it doesn't, the industry will beat a hasty retreat.

Is there an unmet demand -- or conversely, just because your telco knows a fair amount about you, does that mean you want it to act on it?

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