TiE-Seattle: Mobile Content Monetization – Challenges and Strategies

TiE-Seattle: Mobile Content Monetization – Challenges and Strategies

TiE Seattle Chapter hosted its annual mobile event earlier today. Given that Seattle is the mecca for wireless, it was no surprise that it was a sold out event with standing room only. I had the privilege of coordinating the event with my friend Sandeep Sinha – Director, Motorola. The keynote was given by Cole Brodman, Chief Development Officer, T-Mobile USA, a charismatic leader in the industry who rarely speaks at industry events, so it was great to have him participate.

The panel discussion was on “Mobile Content Monetization – Challenges and Strategies” – clearly a hot topic where lot of industry attention is these days. The panel was moderated by Len Jordan, General Partner, Frazier Technology Ventures. The panelists included:

Brendan Benzing, VP of Products and Marketing, Infospace

Jai Jaisimha, VP Product Development, Medio Systems

Satoshi Nakajima, CEO, UIEvolution

Hank Skorny, Executive VP, Business Dev & Partnering, OZ Communications

First let’s discuss the keynote and then I will get into the panel discussion. Cole walked us through the history of data growth in T-Mobile (he has been with the company for 11 years) and made some observations about the industry and the potential challenges and industry opportunities. Salient points included –

  • Youth is driving growth at T-Mobile. 12% of the consumers are using the phone as landline replacement.
  • Pricing in the industry has settled down and it is no longer a differentiator, so carriers are not trying to compete on price but on service differentiation.
  • Presented T-Mobile in context of it being a global 109M subscriber player rather than a 26M US only player, so the numbers looked better than Verizon and the crew.
  • An interesting stat was that 52% of all voice calls in the US are on mobile. Clearly a milestone.
  • There are 150M email users but only 10% use it on mobile. Huge opportunity to monetize.
  • Mobile web has lagged behind and has failed to meet consumer expectations. Things have also been complicated by discovery issues, complex business models and incentives. For e.g. per MB/KB pricing was ridiculous and T-Mobile realized the mistake soon after the launch and switched to a per app pricing model.
  • Changed the branding from “Get More” which was about more minutes (people were telling – we have enough minutes, give us a different value prop) to “Stick Together” (or Connecting People), hence the My Favs which has done really well for T-Mobile.
  • Landline has become a junk/spam filter for phone calls. People don’t give your their personal mobile number unless they really want to.
  • The entertainment experience on the device hasn’t really been good for the consumer. T-Mobile is focused on User Generated Content, Shareability of Content, along with communication aspect of the device with UGC being the key component for T-Mobile’s strategy.
  • Cole also felt that Location and Presence will add to a huge value prop for the apps and services and in turn the customer. Seamless integration is key.

Then the discussion moved to a panel discussion with distinguished experts pondering over issues and future of the industry. key discussion points were:

When there is a carrier on the panel, it will be dishonest for the moderator to not touch upon the “closed garden” issue, the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about in front of the carrier but endlessly ponder behind the backs. Well, Len didn’t shy away and put it straight to the panel. Satoshi, a veteran in the industry was bold to address it head-on, telling it like it is — carrier model in the US is a closed model and that hurts the entrepreneurs and if you think you will be in the next company which gets sold to Google, forget it. Lead time are so long that you might not survive. Brendan said it takes patience and commitment to scalability and reliability before you can crack the nut.

Cole to his credit acknowledged the issue and said, yes, as carriers, we do make things hard for the entrepreneurs to work with us, we haven’t built enough tools to make things simpler. However, he said, carriers need to take few issues into consideration, the biggest one being customer support costs. If there is a minor issue, multiply that by 26M and it can quickly become a nightmare. Secondly, User experience needs to be solid. We as an industry haven’t done a good job, he thought, by pushing out some of the half-baked solutions. And, finally, the spectrum isn’t free like the Internet, even when broadband comes, it will be an issue. However, industry needs to set the bar for introduction of apps a bit lower to test out the market, so instead of releasing it to 26M, introduce it to a small subset, test and expand. T-Mobile is working on figuring this out.

When asked, what’s the driving factor for mobile content, everyone agreed (of course) the personal nature of the device, the asynchronous capability, and personalization capability is important. Satoshi mentioned his nirvana moment was when he saw the first version of a mobile fishing game in Japan, where users could set the location for fish and when the back-end server ‘caught’ the fish, an SMS alert was sent. It affirmed the “different nature of this medium”. Hank narrowed it down to communication, jewelry, and entertainment being the key elements for mobile. Jai said that presence and location are going to make a huge difference in mobile UX.

The challenge of discovery of content was mentioned. Brendan thought the opportunity for “mobile advertising” is huge but it will take good amount of time for the market to develop. The models for advertising based content monetization will start to happen. Jai also thought indirect monetization models will start to happen soon and also Long tail content monetization will be significant as it is an untapped territory right now.

Len asked, how things are different in Intl market? Brendan said, some of the differences are in how people consume media, and how mobile fulfills the need for media consumption demands and needs.

To the question of how we pay for all this, Satoshi pointed out two business models, one is people will pay for mobilizing their Internet experiences. He said, Myspace is free online but the mobile version is $3.99 but is the biggest selling app on AT&T (value is in immediacy) and second the standard comcast/cable model of flat fee for services like VCast irrespective of the apps and content you consume (with bundling of course).

Brendan thought that Personalization will always be a big market. Also, an untapped market is the commerce on the phone. Online, 30% of search revenue is based on checkout or from ecommerce players. Micropayments for commerce and content will be big.

Cole emphasized that things need to be made very simple like RIM did for email – intuitive and easy to use. He said, carriers should focus on horizontal things instead of focusing too much on vertical elements. To the question on alternate billing models, they are looking at Paypal and other means for billing.

Satoshi thought that offdeck market is another opportunity that hasn’t been fully exploited yet but the challenge is getting eyeballs.

Finally, there was a question around why US is so behind. Cole countered that there is a perception that US is behind but we are doing fairly well. I agree, if you look the numbers, 12-15% growth Q-over-Q over past 10+ quarters ain’t bad. That’s clearly a misconception in the market as highlighted in our Q107 update.

So, a variety of issues tackled, some fun discussion, good networking, and a very successful event. Thanks to all those who were able to make it. The Wireless SIG is doing another event in June, stay tuned.

Chetan Sharma Consulting was a proud sponsor of the event along with other great sponsors.

 Photo Credits: Shashi Shashidhar