The One C

Web veterans will remember the "three Cs" of 1999. Every dotcom business model had them: content, commerce and community. Back before we had those tiresome "holy grails," we got along with the "three-legged stools" as the reigning metaphor. The first leg, content, was designed to bring the eyeballs in, while community got them engaged so commerce (either as lead generation to a e-tailer or direct sales) could seal the deal and make some money off of this nicely balanced seat. Few if any companies ever succeeded in getting all three legs under the plan. Brands like CNet and Alloy got some of it right. Others like and didn't have (you saw this coming) a leg to stand on. I think of this 3C model when testing Virgin Mobile's new Headline mobile music magazine. It is that rare example of compelling content that seems to be an untapped marketing and merchandising opportunity.

Virgin is aimed squarely at the youth market, so its deep and ambitious Headliner service of customizable music news and information is right on target. This is essentially a music catalog with news, tour dates, reviews, discography, etc. wrapped around it. We get everything but a sales button. The app accesses a deep database of artist information and maintains a customized catalog of favorites users can dip into easily.

There are a lot of very good ideas at work here about how to access a huge database from a mobile entry point. The basic interface lets you move laterally across album covers to tap major current artists like the Dixie Chicks and Justin Timberlake. One of the problems with the major music download services from Verizon and Sprint is that the overall most popular songs or ringtones dominate a service without customization, so even the country fans get inundated by hip-hop. Headliner at least lets you pop into a genre quickly.

Initially, a category like music News in Headliner meets you with a cascade of headlines. For real music addicts, these headlines get updated frequently, but they are overwhelming. The real value-add for this program is its filtering capability. With just a little bit of effort on the user's part, she can declare genre interests, so that all the main menu selections in the program (news, alerts, concert info, etc.) are filtered according to her tastes. This is one of the first instances I have seen in a mobile app where customization really acts effectively to filter a massive news feed into personalized experience. In fact, the idea behind the Headliner design seems to be to offer an almost-overwhelming amount of news, concert, artist, and review info that the user filters into favorites she can reference easily. There are several kinds of filters you can lay across this database. By marking as a favorite an artist like Dixie Chicks or (on your 15-year-old daughter's insistence) All That Remains, you can drill into the Artists section and go directly to the latest news, reviews, concert info, etc. related specifically to those acts.

I have argued this point ad nauseum, but Headliner reinforces the argument: when the content is highly relevant to a user, then the usual limitations of the mobile platform become less important. We will spend an inordinate amount of time within the straightjacket of a mobile handset if the material interests us. Once you have a personalized catalog of artists at hand, you will drill endlessly. We can have depth and usability at the same time. If we find easy ways to let users apply filters to the flow, then it raises the relevancy. It is critical that content providers construct obvious and short paths to customization as quickly as possible and let someone find those passion points that engage them. Headliner is fairly efficient about doing this, and it is even enough to make up for the program's sluggish performance across Virgin's pokey network. I can only imagine how much more powerful an application and database like this could be if it folded behavioral tracking into the engine so usage patterns could refine the feeds.

The curious part about Headliner is that it does what well-targeted and well-designed content was supposed to do under the old Three Cs model online: whet our appetite for buying the goods. Being immersed in the topic only makes you want to experience the medium more directly, and this is where Headliner proves to be a big tease. There is no sampling or m-commerce here. You can't try or buy a ringtone or song. How odd and frustrating.It is not often that I find myself wanting to try and buy something anywhere -- let alone on a phone --and yet here I am locked and loaded for a purchase without a cash register in sight.

For under $3 a month, Headliner is reasonably priced for a mobile app and the value involved. But the missed opportunity here is simply to make a content-rich application like this free as a front end for the full track and ringtone m-commerce engine. Having this kind of customized content experience up front, and putting quick and easy purchase opportunities on the back end, is what mobile music needs. Just the alert system, which notifies you of new tracks, news and concert dates associated with your favorites, can be a powerful merchandising tool.

I don't know if the third C, community, even adds that much value to a model like this where the system pushes the content and commerce the user has already self-targeted. Good content, well-delivered, is still the best merchandising tool we have, but there is little evidence of this so far on the deck.

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