Commentary

In Tepid Defense Of Amp'd

Being a veteran of the pre-bubble Web years, I love a good new media crash-and-burn as much as the next guy. From theGlobe to PseudoTV, TheDen to that insufferable sock puppet, I watched many descend from the heights of dotcom hubris with requisite holier-than-thou glee. After a while, it became a ritual. The insider notes of staff dissatisfaction and managerial malfeasance would pile up at F**kedCompany.com, culminating in an end-of-service post at the Web site. These closure notices started becoming works of art, their wording scrutinized by Web watchers like me.

But I am not especially happy to see history repeat itself with the end of Amp'd earlier today. Sure, it echoed much of the dotcom excess. VCs rushed into it to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Following the classic dotcom script, the company threw money at building brand and awareness quickly, hoping to push other youth-oriented MVNO contenders out of the box. Its annoying and "edgy" TV spots were everywhere (at least on youth cable). And like so many of the Web projects I covered years ago, this one had "exit strategy" written all over it: Make the company attractive enough, fast enough, to convince one of the Tier-1s to buy it as the carrier's discrete youth brand.

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I will let the hand-wringers kick over the Amp'd ashes, and perhaps it deserved to follow PseudoTV into oblivion. But I think there were a lot of things to like in the service that are worth preserving.

The interactive TV-like interface at Amp'd was not necessarily efficient, but it did invite content discovery, and it tried to be entertaining. The animated menu aimed toward a next-gen slickness and teched-out feel that may have seemed garish, but it sold the goods. There was a proto-iPhone quality to the smoothness of the menu transitions, as if the console were morphing effortlessly at your touch. Before Steve Jobs set his crack team at cracking the deck code, the Amp'd interface designers were among the first to make the deck itself a fun experience.

The video short atop every menu gave a five-second grab of a show or feature and told you precisely where to go on the deck to find it. When merchandising content on the deck seems alien to most carriers, at least these guys had a clue. Of course, the promo video on each page quickly became tiresome, almost forcing you to make a choice, just so you didn't have to watch the looped video again. Maybe they had a clue about merchandising, but no one told them about frequency capping.

Making the network 3G-only was also a good decision because it helped make and match the expectation of the audience for a rich experience. When I spoke to the Amp'd team before its launch, they seemed to understand that slow take-up of mobile media as a platform had something to do with the uneven quality of the network, handsets and end-user experience. Their choice to limited handsets and use only a solid EV-DO network (via Verizon) let them manage the experience both for consumers and for their media partners. Guaranteeing content providers that their brands would not look like pixilated, burping crap on handsets was a sensible part of their strategy.

On the content side Amp'd also was true to its marketing, in that the programming was wholly focused on the youth market and much of it had a raucous and irreverent tone. Having a small deck serve multiple demos without any customization or targeting is part of the problem for major carriers. By targeting the audience and narrowing the taste set, Amp'd content encouraged exploration and sampling, because users could be confident that whatever they tried would not be too far off the mark. Whatever its failings, Amp'd did generate outrageously high ARPU from its subscribers. Ironically, per reports, Amp's failed, in part, because it had trouble collecting payment from its own edgy young content buyers.

While part of its strategy all along had been to generate mobile-only properties that could leap to other platforms, only one creation, the terrible "Lil' Bush," made the transition. The only good thing about "Lil' Bush" coming to TV is that it may have taken attention away from the even worse "Lil' Hollywood," another "Amp'd Original" off the air. Still, the company made a sincere effort to program for the platform and for a specific audience.

Amp'd may be dead, but the need for more targeted approaches to mobile content and marketing is not. On the same day Amp'd goes black, the poster child for MVNO success, Virgin Mobile, is ramping up for a $500 million IPO. Unlike Amp'd, Virgin always led with its affordable plans, cool phones and pre-pay model rather than content. But its focus on music from the outset helped underscore the youth-appeal of the rest of its model. At the same time, Virgin always kept messaging and minutes at the forefront. Its service found a balance Amp'd could not -- between making their devices communications tools first and media platforms (a strong) second.

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