Commentary

The Speed To Share

Much of the mobile industry is in sunny, 60-degree Barcelona this week for 3GSM, gushing over mobile TV. Good for them. I sit here in frozen Delaware scrutinizing mobile usage numbers and squinting at all the new WAP sites and video channels these guys are announcing. Hey, someone has to do the reality check. Although I sure wish I could do it in shorts and sandals.

M:Metrics released some detailed stats to accompany 3GSM that are at once heartening and sobering. The addressable universe of 3G users is at about 52 million across the major Euro and U.S. markets, the company says. And more to the point for marketers, the uptake of data services seems tied to using higher speed mobile networks. Not surprisingly, people running fatter pipes are twice as likely to use data services generally. This is a no-brainer, and pretty much follows the patterns we have seen in broadband adoption. I am not so sure, however, that we can draw a direct cause and effect relationship between adopting 3G downloading more games or passing more photos. After all, people who go for the fancier phones and the data packages are doing so in part to engage in all this wireless goodness they have been hearing about. On some level, it is a self-selecting group.

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But not always. Some mobile data formats enjoy greater and lesser usage bumps when it comes to speed, and that should tell us something about the genres most likely to dominate in the coming years. For instance, instant messaging remains a very minor pursuit no matter how much you fatten the pipes. Only about 4.8% of non-3G subscribers ever use it in a month, while 9.3% of 3G users do. IM on mobile has always taken a back seat to SMS, even though the platform would let the same youth demo bring their online buddies with them to handsets.

The best news for marketers in M:Metrics' number is the way in which 3G correlates with increased usage of what I would call Internet-like data. About 12.1% of non-3G users access news and information every month, but 29.3% of 3G user do. I think the more meaningful stat in here is the big spike in once-or-more-a-week access, from 3.3% (non-3G) to 8.8% (3G).

Similarly, on mobile search, only 1% of non-3Gers use it once or more a week, but that stat nearly triples on 3G to 2.9%. To be sure, only 11.5% of 3Gers use mobile search at all in a given month.

Still, what interests me is how higher speeds correlate dramatically with habitual, routine use of handsets for media gathering. This is the stat that indicates frequency, which is something that mobile marketers can plan against. TV, newspapers, or even the Web would not be much of a promotional tool if users turned them on once a month. In the late '90s we kept getting weird and meaningless metrics reports on how 20%, 30%, nay-40% or so of Web users had accessed a video clip in the last three months, as if that meant anything. In fact, those numbers didn't mean anything for another five or six years, when a technical curio became a habit, and when the speed of broadband satisfied the impulse to view a video seamlessly.

But the most striking number in M:Metrics' goodie bag concerns photo-sharing, which skyrockets to 45.1% monthly penetration among 3G users, up from 17.1% of non-3Gers. And again, it is the habitual usage that really spikes, from 5.4% who use the non-3G network to pass photos once or more a week to the 15.3% of 3G users who do so.

Not only does image-swapping leave all other data services in the dust when it comes to penetration, but that habit goes ballistic when it gets on speed. Users seem to be telling us that personal media sharing is what they really want to do with this mobile engine when you tune it up and fill it with gas. Familiar media consumption will be here, to be sure, and it will give everyone ample opportunity to seed those banners and interstitials, pre-rolls and text links to millions. But the writing is already on the wallpaper: media sharing will be more important than media consumption. In that world, you don't place ads so much as you release assets. You give multimedia mobilistas stuff they want to spread around, to make part of their ongoing conversations. You make media that begs to be re-communicated.

I got a lot of press releases here in cold Delaware out of sunny Barcelona this week. Many were about this and that big brand shoveling themselves onto 3G pipes. Funny, I can't recall any that mentioned how they would more effectively get themselves into the most important content gusher of all -- shared media.

Did it suddenly get chilly in here, or is it just me?

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