Commentary

Learning to Swim With Doddering Old Fools

As I approach age 50 this year, I am learning to appreciate youth again, if only because now it is a distant fantasy rather than an identity I can cling to. My teen daughter and youthful girlfriend seem to be egging me into decrepitude, forever underscoring all of the vital functions (hearing, seeing, memory, walking, etc.) I "really should have checked." "Did you just wheeze, Dad?" asks my daughter -- followed by Nurse Girlfriend checking my pulse.

Is it any wonder I find the childish enthusiasm surrounding mobile so invigorating and addictive?

Agility (and a pulse) are among the things you covet in these advancing years. And so I was fascinated by the learnings a young company caller Mixxer has had this year as it evolved into 3Guppies, a mobile media sharing hub. The original Mixxer plan involved only user-generated ringtones. An online editing tool let users and bands upload an mp3 file and edit a 30-second tone that Mixxer pushed to a cell phone. The company monetized the service by offering some premium ringtones with music from indie bands, who also helped promote the service via their own fan base.

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Business was okay, according to CEO John Dearborn, with about 2,000 to 3,000 "mobilizations" or downloads a day, but Mixxer reevaluated what seemed to be holding back its and other mobile content businesses. "The number of people sampling content is low versus the huge number of mobile subscribers," says Dearborn. And so, in transitioning from Mixxer to 3Guppies, the company was looking to find the choke points that inhibit wider mobile content adoption. "We looked at what kind of barriers exist today for adoption of user-generated content on mobile, and a lot of those barriers are self-inflicted and some inflicted by the phone itself," he adds.

Not surprisingly, the problem seems to be complexity throughout the value chain. Everything from signing up with services to uploading content to moving it to the phone, let alone moving it from phone to Web or other phones, is fraught with unnecessary steps and barriers to entry.

And so the new 3Guppies site lowers the entry barrier as much as it can by not requiring registration and by doing much of the device sniffing itself. Rather than requiring that users fill in those tortuous forms for carrier, phone type, demographic data, etc., the service will mobilize content off of your carrier and phone number. Membership (registration) has its privileges, of course, in the form of a content locker and more media-swapping functionality. But to sample the service and get users in the door, 3Guppies dispenses with the usual hurdles.

Dearborn confirms what so many other mobile content executives have told me in recent months. A high percentage of their off-portal customers are new to mobile content and are just learning what their own phones can do. The core challenge in this industry is not glomming market share from one another so much as growing the market in any way it can. "How do we get this technology to people so they see what they can do with a mobile device?" is the real task at hand.

3Guppies has also opened up its content model to include images and video, which users can upload for the service to transcode and pass on to the phones. These new media types have already grown to more than 50% of the business, and the rate of content downloads mushroomed from 2,000 and 3,000 a day a few months ago to 10,000 to 12,000 a day now. Web traffic is up to a half million monthly uniques. Shifting the content mix also affected the audience demographics, Dearborn says. With video and images available, a male-skewing membership has veered more female. So the company rebranded to the more friendly but hip "3Guppies," which seems designed to appeal to my daughter, whose tastes vacillate between screaming heavy metal and Hello Kitty.

Perhaps the biggest and most helpful change for the company is distribution, a new MySpace widget that lets users easily send content to and from their social networking page by phone. After all, if you are dealing with user-generated content, why not put yourself in the middle of UGC's most active stream, MySpace? Dearborn says the company has about 400,000 widgets in the field already and is watching the traffic climb as a result. The widget strategy is also applicable to advertisers. 3Guppies can build a custom widget for a brand's site so that the marketer can mobilize content from the site. This helps 3Guppies build traffic to the WAP pages that push this mobilized content and will carry CPC- or CPM-priced ads.

Who knows what 3Guppies will learn in the next six months? Clearly, its strategists have learned that simplicity and choice are part of the answer to the mobile content dilemma. These would seem to be no-brainers for a digital media world where iTune already came in and owned an entire category by following these principles.

The real winner in mobile content may not be the one who scores the biggest media partnership or the one who adds the most features to its next generation of phones. That seemed to be the mobile music strategy we saw launch and flounder two years ago. God help us, it may be the strategy driving mobile TV as well. Instead, the winner may well be the guy who just makes this stuff easier to do, easier to sample, easier to embrace.

Instead of imagining a consumer who is so eager to get his content he will jump through technical and registration hoops, the carriers and their media partners might start imagining the customer as me. Because, after all, I am told I am losing my sight, my hearing, and my memory. Even those of us who are lucky enough to have a pulse don't have the patience and energy to jump through hoops for our media.

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