In early 2007, the teenage girls’ magazine !_LT_EMseventeen!_LT_/EM launched what looked like a dead cert: a mobile magazine, or mobizine, aimed at a market segment that was addicted to cellphones. A year later, they had attracted barely 12,500 subscribers.
“That may have been fairly successful, but considering the universe of teenage girls and how they are always on their cellphones, it was a poor show,” says Natalie Dixon, digital publisher for youth at seventeen publisher, 8 Ink Media. So it was with some trepidation that seventeen embarked on a strategy to target users of MXit, the instant messaging service that has annexed teenage South Africa as an almost locked-in market.
Towards mid-2008, seventeen launched a “contact”, which is essentially a MXit persona that users can add to their contacts lists. Text content can then be fed automatically to all “subscribers” to that contact, and they can also be provided with links to download multimedia content from the web.
“We offered general updates from seventeen, agony aunty, gossip, beauty tips, horoscopes, and wallpaper downloads,” says Dixon. “Within three months, we had 55,000 subscribers. This taught us an invaluable lesson: The space that teenage girls are playing in means that targeting them is not purely about content; but about positioning our content in an environment where they are active.”
The seventeen experience is both a cautionary tale and an inspiration for publishers embarking on new digital strategies. The most important caution is that, just because the market is there and the medium is there, building content on that medium does not mean the market will follow.
The second caution is that readers of content in one medium will not necessarily be attracted to that same content in another medium.
The third is the most important and most obvious caution, yet the one least often heeded: Understand the dynamics driving the lifestyle of your readers before trying to leverage that lifestyle.
The true significance of the seventeen experience is that it proved that the cellphone could be used successfully as an extension of a publishing strategy. Although numerous mobile media and marketing initiatives have emerged in the past two years, there is a dearth of case studies that can be labelled success stories. This dearth has held the medium back from going mainstream, and has given the mainstream an excuse to keep away. Seventeen may well have provided the starter’s pistol for mobile media to enter into the mainstream.
Most major South African newspapers offer a mobile alerts or news headlines service, but most of these are so peripheral, non-readers never become aware of them. In contrast, CNN International’s mobile news alerts service is heavily punted on its TV broadcasts, and is emerging as a virtual default news service for those who cannot remain glued to their TV screens. Ironically, the service is powered by a South African company.
Clickatell, a leading provider of global mobile messaging solutions, but founded in Cape Town, has worked with CNN since 2007 to provide news via SMS alerts. This year it scored a major coup by being selected to power the CNN Beijing 2008 SMS gold medal alert service. Sports fans anywhere in the world could register from their mobile phones by logging onto the CNN mobile site, or sending an SMS to a number provided.
“This is yet another example where a leading brand such as CNN is taking relevant information directly to its audience in real time. We’re seeing a definite trend where leading companies are embracing mobile and text messaging as a compelling communication channel across multiple industries Ã¢Â€Â“ especially financial services, social media, healthcare, retail, government, and more,” says Pieter de Villiers, CEO of Clickatell.
The service also allowed users to comment on Olympics blogs and upload images or video to CNN’s user-generated service, iReport Ã¢Â€Â“ providing additional content for CNN, enhancing its relationship with its audience, and generally building a virtuous cycle that continually builds the brand.
This supports the contention of Matthew Buckland, who spearheaded Mail & Guardian‘s leadership of the digital media environment and is now doing the same at 24.com, that there will eventually no longer be specialist media companies. Rather, we will see general media companies producing material for a variety of platforms, including mobile, online and TV.
Speaking at the recent Advancing Web 2.0 for Traditional Media conference in Johannesburg, he gave the packed conference room what was in effect a wake-up call to the future of media.
“All media will be internet-based. I call radio Ã¢Â€Â˜internet audio’ and TV Ã¢Â€Â˜internet video’ because, in five to seven years’ time, when the internet is fast, cheap and ubiquitous, the internet will be the delivery platform for these media. Why? Because it will be cheaper and more efficient to do it that way.”
The industry sector that faces the biggest change, argues Buckland, is the cellphone network business. “Cellphone companies have realised that networks have limited lifespans. Voice calls will all be transmitted via internet, and that’s starting to happen already, although it is still quite difficult to do. But it will become easier and easier. That’s an example of the internet taking over as delivery medium. And it will do so for a variety of digital platforms.”
But that is only the beginning…”We’re going to see digital devices all connected to the internet, and to each other, because it’s going to be a richer experience. From a media point of view, you’re going to have to be on all those digital devices. “That, in turn, means that it will also be a landscape that’s going to be a lot more fragmented. You can argue, for example, that Vodacom is suddenly the biggest media player in the country without even trying, because it has 1.2-million visitors to its mobile content portal.
“We’re looking at complete information overload and complete information pollution. It is so easy to produce digital content and there will be so much of it, from cellphones alone, that the companies that can filter that content and produce quality content will be the winners.”
The jury is still out on the revenue models that will drive mobile content, and numerous innovative approaches are currently in play. For example, mobile marketing operation Eyeballs Mobile has launched an optin platform that allows advertisers to reach their target audience directly through compatible cellphones. Customers are rewarded for viewing advertising on their cellphones with points, which are then translated into Vodacom, MTN or Cell C pre-paid airtime, MXit Moola and various other rewards.
But the likes of Eyeballs Mobile may just have arrived too late, and with too complex a business model. AdMob, a California-based mobile advertising market-maker founded in 2006, started life as a solution to an entrepreneur’s problem. Omar Hamoui was trying to build traffic to his own mobile site, but encountered such complexity and fragmentation, that it seemed impossible to engage users. Now AdMob delivers adverts to cellphones across the world Ã¢Â€Â“ and South Africa is one of its most lucrative markets.
AdMob’s top five markets by impressions served are the USA, UK, India, Indonesia, and South Africa. The implications of this are clear from the fact that AdMob served more than 3.6-billion ads in June 2008, and were recording a 19.7 percent increase in adverts served month over month. A key driver of this growth is the rapid increase in ownership of smartphones, which allow for interactive applications to be downloaded onto phones.
In June, 24.3 percent of AdMob’s advert requests worldwide were from smartphones, up from 22.4 percent in May. A key message here is that the mobile environment is changing both in terms of the way cellphones are used and in terms of what cellphones can do.
Embracing technology at the expense of its users is probably more damaging than embracing users at the expense of the technology, but both are flawed strategies. The reality is that the mobile phone is a media device that the user now carries everywhere, and this changes everything.
“The new attitude is that, if the news is important enough, it will find me,” says Allan Kent, head of Saatchi & Saatchi’s AtPlay new media division. “The secret is that we must focus on working with our audience, and not marketing to our audience.”
Arthur Goldstuck is the MD of World Wide Worx.
This article first appeared in The Media magazine (September 2008).