PREDICTION 2008 will mark the long awaited start of the mobile content era

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by: Lynette Webb (with Dan Calladine)

Given the over-hype and failures of the past, in saying that mobile content will properly arrive in Europe I feel a bit like the boy who cried wolf! It’s been said so often before and failed to materialise, but this year there are some positive signs that make me think that at last we’re nearing a tipping point.

I think it’s still too much to hope that we’ll be there next year, given handset replacement cycles, but sometime 2008 I think we’ll see it suddenly start to surge, akin to the way MP3 players were around for years and then all of a sudden went mainstream.

First though, let me be clear about what I mean by mobile content as it’s one of those famously hazy terms. I don’t mean mobile email/IM… to me they’re mobile communications, just extensions of texting and calling from a consumer perspective. To me, full-blown mobile content is things like mobile web lookup, mobile video, downloadable mobile games, music… In other words, things that aren’t about communication and are taking the mobile phone into the realms of being a media channel.

Of course, we’ve had various forms of mobile content offered for a while now, but it’s not yet moved into the mainstream for regular use, except in the narrow niche of ringtones. There’s been a lot of factors holding it back – unreliability & slowness of downloads, uncertainty over costs, ‘walled garden’ restrictions placed by mobile operators, not to mention the sheer complexity & lack of support in setting up your phone to use it.

A number of things are starting to happen now though which give me hope that over the next 12-24 months mobile content will at last come of age.

1) Clearer – and lower – pricing
At least in the UK, we’re seeing some much clearer pricing for mobile content, with flat monthly fees rather than “per kb” or “per minute” charging, and some creative bundling. In particular, I’m really impressed by Three’s new X-Series offering, which deliberately mimics the style of charging for broadband. An additional fee of £10 per month gives you unlimited web browsing, access to your email, access to Skype for calling (yay, no more horrendous international charges!) and comes set up for using Orb and Slingbox. It even comes bundled with a Slingbox at half price if you don’t already have one, and included in the price is 80 hours (80!!) of mobile TV viewing per month of any channel you have at home. It sounds almost too good to be true, but has had so many rave reviews that it’s convinced even a skeptic like me (once burned, twice shy) to give it a shot. Three aren’t the only ones doing this though… in the UK T-Mobile also offer unlimited web use via their “Web n’ Walk” offering for a small fee (£5 last I heard), but sadly with restrictions to block use of Skype and ‘data hungry’ streaming services. I think we’ll start to see other operators following suit over 2007-2008, which will remove one of the biggest hurdles to mobile content take up – lack of clarity over charging (or worse, ridiculously high costs) for mobile content.

2) Location-intelligent functionality
Outside of Asia, the US is leading the way in this, but I think we’ll see European markets begin soon to catch up. Phones are beginning to come with GPS built in, which makes location sensing easier. The spread of satnav devices has meant that people are more comfortable with the notion of ‘location tracking’ than they may once have been. As camera phones increasingly become used as the main camera, the option to have location automatically appended to the photo the same way that date/time is, becomes a big selling point. And once the location-sensing functionality is built-in, suddenly mobile content can be a hell of a lot more useful. The location, as well as the speed at which your phone (& thus you) are travelling, tells you a lot about the context within which someone is seeking information… and thus can let you do a much better job of targeting when providing content.

3) Content designed for mobile
I read a great article recently that made the point about how the mobile screen is really a new medium, not just a little TV. I think most content developers are still working this through, but within the next 12-24 months we’ll see a lot more true “made for mobile” entertainment & informational content that’s been designed with an eye not to simply squishing down a TV show, but taking account of the intrinsic characteristics of the mobile medium. At the other end of the spectrum, there is much potential for bringing user-generated content to mobiles. It may not always look pretty, but the flippancy and timeliness of much of it suits the spirit of mobiles. In the UK Three are leading the way in this regards with their “SeeMe TV” initiative, and surely it can’t be long before someone strikes a deal with YouTube.

4) Sheer force of ubiquity
Mobiles are more widespread already than computers. In western markets virtually anyone can afford one, as there are so many price-points. Even in places like Africa, mobiles are leapfrogging… people who never even had a fixed line phone are getting them. Of course, these are mostly the entry-level, not whizzbang 3G things, and penetration is still low compared to Europe and the US but still, it’s a big step The point is that mobiles are already almost everywhere and stand a better chance than computers than getting there. People who have a mobile phone also tend to keep them close at hand and come to rely on them heavily. In essence, the stage for mobile content is set… the potential for access is there given the penetration levels, it’s just a case of getting the practicalities and timing right. The opportunity is too big, with too many people working towards it, for it not to happen at some point!


**** If you haven’t already, think about mobile. Especially think about services that your brand could offer or sponsor that would fit brand values as well as having a benefit to the people you want to reach. “Find your nearest (pub/fast-food outlet/chemist/…)” is an obvious one and much easier in a GPS-phone era. But don’t be afraid to be creative… eg: imagine a local beer brand teaming up with a “virtual tourguide” whereby tourists could get a personalised tour of a neighbourhood, culminating in a little end-tour drink at a pub. And, if you’re a retailer, don’t forget about the lower-tech bluetooth option to deliver on the spot messages to people who request it. The nightmare of spamming innocent passersby who’ve accidentally left their blue-tooth on can be limited by simply setting it up so the bluetooth message isn’t activated to beam without pressing a kiosk button.

**** Don’t treat mobile content as an afterthought – if you’re going to do it, do it well, don’t simply shove your TV ad up and then get annoyed if the results aren’t what you’d hoped for. As well, make sure that the service you’re providing works. Ie: make sure that you’ve taken all steps you can to minimise download delays & cut-offs, make it as user-friendly (less clicks) an experience as you can, and don’t don’t don’t push anything out that could be perceived as spam. It can still be a nightmare to implement mobile initiatives on a pan-regional scale since, other than texting, there are often differences in technologies and the challenges of negotiating with multiple operators. It’s not impossible though, especially if you plan in advance and coordinate centrally.

**** Be clear about your objectives and their relative priorities. Is your goal sparking an immediate action? Building an ongoing relationship? Enhancing branding? Each will have a different set of appropriate metrics. Decide upfront and then set up to track the relevant things.

This is part of a series of predictions for 2007 developments, prepared jointly with my colleague, Dan Calladine, for Isobar Global.
Opinions are ours personally and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the Isobar group.

Image CC thanks to Herby_fr 

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