Sonopia’s move towards individual experiences

Sonopia, the mobile virtual network enabler (MVNE) founded by Juha Christensen, has finally unveiled its service to the public. Anyone, from individuals to small businesses, can use Sonopia’s technology to set themselves up as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), delivering a mobile service customised with their own branding, content services and community features.

Christensen, who previously led Microsoft’s mobile business and was a founding member of Symbian, has partned with Verizon Wireless to provide the underlying network for the service.

Sonopia’s approach removes the barriers to entry which have limited MVNOs to large-scale ventures requiring tens of millions of dollars in funding. The company handles all of the subscriber management, customer service, supply chain and network technology issues. Each MVNO is responsible simply for defining certain elements of the experience, such as selecting tariff choices, handset options and customising the phone ‘dashboard’ with a range of services. The set-up process is free and entirely online.

Each MVNO is provided with its own customised web-site to sell the service, which includes features such as blogging and community networking tools. MVNO owners receive about 5 percent of the revenues generated by their service. Sonopia is also working directly with affinity groups comprising more than 50,000 members to offer dedicated support and better revenue share.

We have long advocated an approach where each customers feels as if their mobile service has been designed for them as an individual, as well as encouraging the industry to provide users with more freedom to define their own experience. Indeed, it is one of the 10 manifesto statements we’ll be discussed at the MEX conference in London on 2nd – 3rd May. See also our previous article entitled ‘Segmentation is a step, invidiualism is the goal‘.

Conceptually, Sonopia represents a significant step towards this goal. However, this first iteration of the service raises as many user experience questions as it answers. In its most basic form, Sonopia essentially allows affinity groups to sell a standard range of mobile devices, on standard tariffs, without the benefit of a retail presence. The only unique features for the end user are the branding the affinity group can apply to their marketing materials and the device interface, the sense they are part of a community and mobile access to social networking.

In many ways Sonopia is more an exercise in affinity marketing principles than an example of how users can take control of their own mobile experience. After all, what plays the biggest role in creating the experience? Is it the brand which appears on the screen and having easy access to mobile web services, or are elements like customer service, tariff options and unique handset designs more important?

Sonopia’s white label operation may be able to deliver good performance in all of these areas, but its business model is built on these being standardised. As such, MVNO owners will be unable to differentiate on several key experience points.

The initial success of the service will be determined by whether or not MVNO owners can convince members of their social or affinity networks to buy mobile products from them. Are social networks an effective mechanism for selling mobile subscriptions? I’m not so sure. There’s no doubt mobile access to social networking services is very popular, but I’m not sure the basic way in which Sonopia enables this will be enough to convince potential customers to buy.

Looking at the longer term, Sonopia’s success will inevitably be determined by the quality of the overall subscriber experience. Will they be able to maintain quality of service, good customer relations and competitive tariffs? If not, no amount of customised branding or social networking features will help them to retain customers.

I think this service has the potential to be a powerful tool for providing individualised mobile experiences – eventually. However, Sonopia will need to demonstrate an ability to quickly iterate new features which allow MVNO owners to extend their customisation beyond branding and simple service aspects.

If you’re based in the US, you can try Sonopia’s service for yourself – the claim is you can have your own MVNO up-and-running in 15 minutes.

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