Fuel for the mobile communities debate

I’d like to expand the ongoing debate on the nature of mobile communities by looking at two very different announcements made recently. The first is Burger King’s deal with Mobliss to create a mobile gaming environment themed around fast good. Apparently it will include ‘a unique gaming experience enhanced by the peer-to-peer interaction of the community’ (and if you’re not entirely sure what all that ‘corporate speak’ means, don’t worry, you’re not alone). Also, Burger King will offer advertisers the chance to purchase ad space within the game.

The second is Vodafone’s partnership with Second Life to provide ‘virtual mobile phones’ for the Second Life online world. Working with creative agencies BBH, Dare and Rivers Run Red, Vodafone has developed a system which enables it to assign mobile phone numbers to the virtual characters within Second Life, so you can now call or send text messages to them, even when you’re off-line. The virtual phones can be bought from vending machines within the Second Life world and will be advertised exclusively in Second Life publications.

These announcements highlight two very different interpretations of the mobile community concept. On the one hand, you have a fast food giant using its marketing and distribution muscle in an attempt to engineer a community around its brand values, and on the other, you have a communications company using its technology to integrate and enable new features within an existing community.

We had a lengthy debate about communities back in May at this year’s MEX conference. Al Russell, Head of Mobile Internet and Content Services at Vodafone, opened the session by talking about a shift in the company’s approach. Where before they had concentrated on developing their own environment within Vodafone Live, now they had recognised the mobile phone was a platform for tapping into a wide range of existing community services and Vodafone’s role was to make that as simple and cost-effective as possible. Russell talked about leveraging existing and familiar interfaces like the handset address book as a gateway for communicating with communities: uploading a message to a group page on Facebook should be as easy as sending a text to one of the numbers stored on your phone.

(If you didn’t get a chance to attend MEX, you can purchase the full MEX 2007 report here and catch-up on all the insights and presentations).

The agreement with Second Life typifies this approach, with Vodafone providing the enabling platform and seeking to target an existing community with a feature it may find genuinely useful.

As with so many nascent markets, the rapid emergence of online communities has created a great deal of misunderstanding about how to derive value from them. Their novelty and the fact that they can spring up and gather momentum so quickly has caused many companies to forget the fundamentals of good customer relations.

For example, let’s think about how a network operator might try to expand its customer base in a particular city or town community. It could offer a range of incentives through its retail stores, perhaps look at getting involved in supporting some local projects or maybe set aside some additional budget for targeted sponsorships and advertising. It would find ways to capture the imagine of the existing residents and demonstrate it’s ability to connect with their lives.

However, the operator wouldn’t try to build an entirely new city alongside the existing one and paint the walls in its corporate colours, hoping that people would move in simply because it was there.

Yet that’s exactly what seems to be happening with online communities at the moment. Companies are making the mistake of assuming that having a customer base automatically translates into having a community base. They are two very different things: customers aren’t suddenly going to affiliate to a new community because it bears the brand of their mobile provider or their favourite fast food outlet.

Marketing is fundamentally about understanding customers and making a connection with them. It is a subtle art. Forget for a second that your customers are anything other than intelligent, discerning humans and you may as well not bother at all.

When it comes to extending communities to the mobile environment, there are valid and important roles for mobile technology companies from all parts of the value chain. However, these roles will be in community enablement rather than community creation.

One of the other points which came out of the panel debate at MEX which Al Russell’s presentation was that communities cannot be manufactured. They either exist already or they spring up around a particular shared affinity or some vertical value (e.g. photo or video sharing). Even something like Facebook, which is often identified as having the most loyal community base, isn’t really about community creation – it’s about community enablement. The engineers at Facebook didn’t identify or create the hundreds of thousands of groups which exist on its servers – they just provided the facility for users to express what was already happening in their social lives.

Put simply, a platform is not a community itself.

So how should the mobile industry react? How can companies derive value in this environment?

The mobile business has some unique assets and some unique capabilities to contribute to the evolving landscape of communities. Companies which identify these and focus on delivering them will grow their revenues and make a valuable contribution to the customer experience.

Unique assets

Far and away the most valuable asset controlled by the mobile industry is context. Operators in particular know where users are, how much they spend, what times of day they use their mobile and who they contact. When combined together, these elements comprise digital footprints that highlight the users’ journeys within their communities.

We could spend all day talking about the importance of context. Indeed, the internal battle for ownership of contextual information is only just beginning within the mobile telecoms industry (witness Nokia’s deal to buy navigation specialist Navteq). However, the important point to grasp in relation to communities is that the mobile industry is well placed to track and aggregate important contextual data which can be used to enhance the experience of participating in virtual communities.

The other essential asset controlled by the mobile telecoms industry is the hardware. Mobile devices, by their very nature, are the ultimate community interaction tools. Not only are they with us at all times, they are also inherently personal to the individual, equipped with photo and video captures capabilities and, increasingly, location awareness.

Changes to hardware design can be enormously addititive to the community experience.

Unique capabilities

The mobile business also has significant expertise in the specific requirement of mobile interaction design. It might not always be apparent from some of the shockingly bad handsets and services which make it to market, but there are some hugely talented individuals and companies out there who know a great deal about what kind of man / machine interactions make sense in the mobile environment.

This expertise will be of enormous value to the companies which control community platforms. The dynamics of user behaviour change dramatically in the mobile environment and that whole area is a big unknown for many web-based community designers. One of the biggest and most often overlooked challenges is creating mobile community platforms capable of functioning correctly in the flaky wireless connectivity environment. Basic things, like designing interaction systems which tolerate and mediate dropped connections, are essential parts of the overall proposition.

We’d like to see the mobile industry change its approach to community services. Vodafone’s agreement with Second Life seems to be a step in the right direction. Instead of seeking to compete with or take control of existing communites, this is an example of a mobile company focusing on doing what it does best and intregrating that into a community in a way that makes sense for its citizens.

Hardware manufacturers should be reaching out to community platform developers to understand what features would make mobiles better interaction tools. LG’s YouTube handset (due in 2008) is a good example of this, but we want to see more. Are there new input methods which would make text communication more effective? Can software tools like Shozu be embedded in more low- and mid-range handsets as well as advanced smartphones?

The speed with which community services have been adopted and the amount of communications traffic they’ve generated has surprised everyone. It’s now time to wake up to the reality: the mobile business needs to find ways to support these services in the mass market. The revenues will come not from trying to replicate the communities or even snatching a share of their income, but from providing the enabling tools and expertise which will allow these services to flourish in the mobile environment.

Your chance to join the MEX debate – post your comments to the blog!

  • Should operators and handset manufacturers still be seeking to build their own communities or has this boat already sailed? Does Nokia’s Ovi strategy constitute an attempt by the Finnish manufacturer to do this or is Nokia looking to be more a gatekeeper?

  • Will operators be able to command a share of advertising revenues from the mobile verison of community services like Facebook?

  • Who in the value chain should have overall responsibility for the customer experience of community services?

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    1. 1
      Marek Pawlowski

      Should operators and handset manufacturers still be seeking to build their own communities or has this boat already sailed? Does Nokia’s Ovi strategy constitute an attempt by the Finnish manufacturer to do this or is Nokia looking to be more a gatekeeper?

      Will operators be able to command a share of advertising revenues from the mobile verison of community services like Facebook?

      Who in the value chain should have overall responsibility for the customer experience of community services?

    2. 2

      Users will always want to make their own choice, no matter in what. If we look back on AOL, one of the first Internet provider-portal businesses, their portal quickly died out once Yahoo! came on. The same goes for the wireless – carriers’ long attempts to lock users within their own portals has broken apart (In Japan, about 80% of mobile web access is to sites that are outside carriers’ portals). I tend to consider anyone’s – be it a device manufacturer or carrier – strategy to “become everything, from A to Z” is risky.

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