Social Climbing

How can mobile operators capitalise on the social networking phenomenon that is sweeping the globe? Avichai Levy, EVP marketing at mobile multimedia and advertising company Mobixell shares his views

Mobixell, Avicahi It seems to me that the entire world has gone social networking crazy. With 67% of global Internet users signed up to one or more social networking or blogging sites and Web 2.0 applications like MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, Twitter and You Tube widely acknowledged as  the new media wave of the decade, social networks have not only crossed the chasm, they have positively vaulted over it. 
The next stage of the migration from desktop to mobile is inevitable. Mobile is a natural fit for social networks, since consumers are accustomed to connecting with friends via mobile calls and texts. So using the phone to access social networks is a natural progression to the change of consumers habits in how they view and use their mobile phone. 
The latest European statistics from market research firm Comscore for the first quarter of 2009 indicate that 15.2% of teenagers and 19.5% of young adults under 25 are already accessing social networking sites on mobile devices. At the same time, mobile operators are experiencing an increase in data ARPU, but not enough to cover the decrease in voice revenues. All the evidence points to the fact that mobile operators have a great opportunity to capitalise on this wave of interest, beyond just providing the pipe to deliver the service. So how can they achieve this, and what will some of the attractive by-products of embracing this new social networking vogue be?
Jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon
Katrina Bond, an analyst at Analysys Mason wrote in a report last year on this very subject: Mobile social networking is stimulating growth in mobile data usage and revenue, which is crucial for mobile operators as their voice revenue comes under increasing pressure.  
So how can they play a part in the social networking vogue that is sweeping the globe?   
Currently users access social networks on their mobile by three primary means: by browsing over the mobile web; by downloading various client applications; and by SMS. The downsides of these different options are apparent. Mobile web access is generally too slow, and the process too cumbersome, and the user browsing experience un-enticing, especially on widespread feature phones, which will inevitably prevent this approach from gaining mass market adoption quickly  enough to close the declining voice to increasing data revenue gap. 
Downloadable applications, on the other hand provide a good user experience. Their use is limited by device type, however, and typically excludes the use of feature phones, and once again, the ease of use in downloading client applications will deter all but the more technically literate. 
SMS alerts are increasing in popularity (according to Nielsen by the end of 2008 an estimated 3 million US mobile users were texting Facebook on a regular basis). However, SMS degrades the media richness of social media sites to plain grey text. Media rich Internet services deserve no less than rich media bearer services that maximize the user experience. 

Social Media Gateways
More recently, new technology in the shape of Social Media Gateways (SMG) from companies like Mobixell, has emerged to overcome these constraints and offer mobile operators an opportunity to assume a critical position in the value chain. This new technology enables mobile operators to offer their subscribers an easy to use, clientless means of accessing all of the main social networking sites on the move via messaging applications such as MMS. And since MMS is already being used to get social media updates, it offers an easy transition for the subscriber.  Users can register a phone to receive MMS (or SMS) updates for any social media posted by their friends. So how does it work?
Mobile subscribers provision themselves by a one-time process through the operators web or WAP portal to register and specify which social networks they would like to connect to; the type of service, frequency or capabilities they want to adopt; and the friends they want to receive messages from. SMG monitors the social networking sites for each user and, once a media update appears, the subscriber receives an MMS or SMS (dependent on the mobile device or subscriber pre-defined preference) to their handset. Once the subscriber receives the MMS/SMS update, they click on the link and initiate a web/WAP access to the media album to send a photo, a video streaming session to view the video clip, or simply reply via MMS. The reply will be posted on the social media site as a comment or a rating. 
This new approach allows mobile operators to provide a network-based solution that enables mobile users to receive social media updates, including multimedia updates, on any phone.  Whats more, it is achieved without requiring the user to download any client software. This breakthrough offers mobile operators a unique opportunity to broaden the user base of mobile social network users beyond the high-end Smartphones, and add significant value to the proposition to act as a key differentiator in the market place and position them as much more than just a dumb pipe.

Improving the user experience

The advantages of this approach are also apparent to subscribers. For those who are already conversant with sending MMS messages, there is no additional learning required or complex client software to be downloaded. The joys of social networking from your mobile will be available to all mobile phone owners not just the minority of users with Smartphones. But theres also an additional advantage, because a key component of this SMG entails adapting and transcoding the multimedia content to optimise the quality of the user experience, using built-in intelligence that detects the specific device, network and bandwidth available and automatically optimises it for that individual user. 
Yet there is still more good news for the operator. Pilots of SMGs have demonstrated that there is a direct correlation between the increased usage of social networking sites on mobile devices and a tendency to upgrade to all you can eat unlimited messaging and data/Internet packages. If all this fails to convince the operator of the advantages of SMGs to their business, theres one additional benefit. Social networking sites are an excellent conduit for mobile adverts that take on a viral dimension. An additional option in serving up the MMS to subscribers is to insert targeted adverts into the message which can be delivered in a variety of different formats. This gives rise to additional revenue generating opportunities for brand owners, with the possibility for ad content to be virally communicated to all friends and contacts of the primary subscriber. A win win combination for user and operator

Self-evident opportunity
The opportunity for mobile operators to play a key role in the evolution of social networks from the desktop to the mobile is self-evident. SMGs offer attractive advantages for operators in helping to increase revenues by offering a social network monthly subscription package, as well as the possibility of ad-funded revenue. It has the additional advantage of growing premium MMS and SMS data traffic and motivating subscribers to upgrade to advanced or unlimited messaging packages and opening up the social networking phenomenon to non-Smartphone users. And its not only the operator who benefits. Feature phone users, previously excluded from accessing social networks on their mobile phones, are now free to join in the fun and the transcoding and adaptation features of the SMG technology mean that they receive a superior user experience for any web, user-generated or multimedia content. In short, the social media opportunity is one that mobile operators cant afford to ignore. They can now fill a key role in the value chain, enabling them to offer their subscribers innovative social media services, while capitalising on their own existing infrastructure.