Mobile Marketing Unravelled

This Blog page was first written back in 2007.  The year Apple were launching their first iPhone into a world then dominated by carrier customised phones, bundled email accounts and operator web portals to a restricted and in many cases unreadable web.
Times have clearly changed.  To a large extent the operators have abandoned walled-gardens and service innovation in favour of playing with dubious speed claims on 5G 4G 3G and in doing so have permitted or at least assisted network commoditisation (A major lack of product or service differentiation between networks) while the device manufacturers have risen to unforeseen heights.
I’m leaving it here to see how hindsight treats it.

If you ever wondered why they are called mobile phones; it’s because in the dim and distant past they let people call and talk to each other when they were out and about.

How different life is today.
Today some of the most intensive users of mobile devices spent hours interacting with their devices, gadgets, websites, apps etc and never made a phone call at all.
Nor was the majority of usage  ‘out and about’

2 decades of transformation

It has taken around 10 years for this transformation of usage from ‘portable phone’ to ‘my world in my pocket’  to occur and the industry is in some ways unrecognisable for it.
A fundamental shift of a similar scale had occurred for devices in the previous decade as brick sized Yuppie Phones changed to small, light and ubiquitous pocket handsets with crazy ringtones . .  Get that frog out of here!

I regard this pace of change as the reason no-one ever printed a best seller on marketing mobile    – and a reason I love the market so much.

Marketing ‘mobile’  is a very fickle art.  It it about a device, a tool, an icon or a life?    Is it the device we are marketing ?   . .  or the connectivity, infotainment, comfort and belonging they bring?
Teenagers of course were the first to see the potential of accessing that connectivity and belonging via text messages:  a private connection, in parallel with their everyday lives.  Unsurprisingly as data capable phones became affordable they looked for ways to migrate their ‘richer’ and fast growing online messaging and community interactions to their ‘portable world’.

Actually I will reconsider the ‘unsurprising’ bit.   Based on the overload of 3G networks – driven by users suddenly doing on their own initiative what 5 years of pleading by networks had failed to achieve –  it seems it has all come as a bit of a surprise to the corporate comittees of the major networks.  How was this long predicted trend still missed ?

How key trends don’t get spotted

We miss these trends because mobile companies adopt highly sophisticated but largely backward looking data mining and segmentation models and persist in using traditional customer research rather than incubation and thought-leadership to start and track trends.

For example:

  • A couple of years before the explosion of the consumer market I sat through hours of  ‘properly conducted’ consumer research groups – where people of every type and age helpfully told us that there would be no consumer mobile market for dozens of  ‘rational’ reasons.
  • 15 years later sophisticated focus group research told another client company that a great piece  of potential pricing innovation was going to be a dead duck.

In both cases I was able to see past this and help these initiatives move forwards based largely on on insight and belief that they were sound concepts whose time had come  –  Both initiatives promptly generated billions in shareholder value.    But stepping around the internal ‘de-risk-by-research’ culture  involved some serious personal commitments and trading on my track-record.

Lessons for the next week and the next decade

So what is the best model for mobile marketing planning and strategy?

  • One approach of mine establishes speculative reporting way-points:  Trigger mechanisms hidden in the datawarehouses that one day pop up and say – hey is the fastest growing mobile URL we haven’t yet heard of.  Or here are the top 100 premium Text destinations,  Or the most downloaded OTA file is setting up something called mobile facebook   – huh?
    These triggers then help savvy marketeers to look at and try to extrapolate trends, products, app’s and services from there.

Secondly, use innovative trial and incubation techniques for validation – don’t EVER follow the sheep.
Another example:

  • A few years back a voice messager app was allegedly about to be the biggest deal in mobile.  You ‘had to be launching it’ because everyone else was apparently launching it.  At that time, through 12 months of intensive and careful planning,  we were simply knee deep in other good things of our own creation that needed launching.  So before yielding to pressure to drop one of our major initiatives and follow the sheep we decided to take two big boxes of ‘new app’ – enabled phones over to a local school.
  • We left those phones plus a very hazy user guide to the application there,  and asked the teens to figure out what it was for;  and to tell us by next week.   Their conclusion – even with a user base of 20 in one school it’s still not much use once the novelty wears off.    But great for two best mates to slash their spending on 12p Texts . . except it was not as private as a text which was a big deal-breaker for them.  They loved our trial and their involvement, but critically, no-one was too upset as they handed them back.   A similar trial in our own office provided similar results.
  • I therefore suspected over-hype and made the unfashionable and brave decision to put the product on the back burner for that Xmas; thus incurring the wrath of a lot of believers and backers.

We launched our other stuff instead and that focus and prioritisation directly made us £10m more than the ‘sheep following scenario’
Well the wonder app wasn’t ready then and has stayed niche in the UK.  We made just the right call; aided by an unconventional but spot-on piece of research.   Interestingly I see another mobile pioneer is now running an ongoing teenage panel that also has potential to sort hype from winners   (1)

Mobile marketing is a never ending story, with the greatest successes driven by insight, bravery, passion for and deep understanding of the customer and the mobile environment.    Looking at the times mobile operators get it wrong it is clear most or all of that sparkle was somehow missing.

So;  to reassert our thought leadership and lead rather than follow our market  we have to restore that passion and insight – then back the conclusions with all our resources, style and skill.


Bruce’s professional experience includes Manufacturing, Electrical Retail, Marketing, Strategy, Commercial and Pricing management.
A founder of the mobile network One-2-One and having held senior roles at Vodafone, Orange, T -Mobile, Eurostar, Black & Decker and many other blue chips he now works as an interim manager, consultant and organisational effectiveness / change agent.

He can be contacted via LinkedIn


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