Part II: Look Who's Watching
By Peggy Salz, Wed Oct 31 00:00:00 GMT 2001

The trick then is how to collect relevant data to kick start the important learning process.

Providers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. At one level the customer expects a personalized service that makes life's daily tasks such as finding the right restaurant or avoiding rush hour traffic a no-brainer. At a deeper, more psychological level, the customer demands privacy and expects his personal preferences to remain a secret.

So what is an operator to do? He can't admit that he's monitoring the customer, that increases the level of anxiety and the chance that the customer will turn off the mobile device altogether. But, at the same time, the provider can't afford to pass up the business opportunity to push personalized mobile data services to the end user. After all, analysts warn, it's data and not voice services that will boost revenues and reduce churn.

Against this backdrop honesty is the best policy, according to Tony Cram, Program Director at Ashridge, an European management school based in the UK and author of 'Customers That Count.' "The way to create a service that will be accepted by the customer is to ask the customer to define the rules." This increases the credibility of the service - and the chances that the customer will respond. If you can demonstrate that the information you gather has made their life better, then the process takes on a dynamic of its own and the user will be more open to giving the operator even more information."

Paul Thomson, a partner with Andersen, a global business and technology consultancy, likens this to the relationship between a user and a voice recognition software package. In this scenario the user trains the software to understand nuances and personal preferences in his style of speech. It's a learning process and the user is willing to guide because the outcome is worth the effort. "A user invests a lot of time into bringing the system up to his speed and to where it can really help him at work. He's not likely to switch to another (software) because then he'd have to start all over again."

In the mobile space the model operators need to follow is similar - but there is an important twist. "The operator shouldn't intimidate the customer by showing how much he already knows about the customer's preferences, but rather impress the customer by showing how much he is willing to learn," Cram stresses. "The customer has to feel as if he is controlling the operator - not the other way around."

Embedded survey

This is where Codeonline, a Finnish company specialized in interactive wireless entertainment, comes in. The company, a spin-off of the Espoo-Vantaa Institute of Technology has chosen a unique approach in which it alone designs, develops and markets ready-to-play wireless games to operators and portals - applications that include an embedded survey element.

"After playing an intellectually stimulating game, the user is more willing to volunteer information about himself and his preferences," notes Matti Hamalainen, Codeonline CTO. Hamalainen has over 20 years experience in technology. Codeonline's approach is based on human psychology. "There has to be an incentive for an individual to share information," Hamalainen explains. In this scenario the game is the lure and the thrill of success is the reward.

"We are currently looking to reproduce this concept in the mobile space and pursue ways to collect user profiles and feedback after the game," Hamalainen says. There are also plans to make the application "location aware."

In the Japanese market, he notes, pilots of Codeline's combination game-data collection service have been "successful," with all three Japanese operators. "Now we are preparing for a large volume use," Hamalainen says. Looking ahead, Codeonline is gearing up to develop apps using Bluetooth, which will be delivered by service providers at selected shop sites.

Codeonline's flagship products are its wireless releases of the popular games Trivial Pursuit and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? - both of which have been positively received by mobile operators and mobile portals. This strategy has allowed Codeonline to rocket out of nowhere to take the leading position in its niche - counting to date over 100 million users thanks to deals it's made with a list of mobile operators that reads like a Who's Who of the industry including Telia Mobile, Telefonica, Telstra, T-Motion, Sonera Zed - and most recently Vodafone. The company has also added customers in South Africa and Chile - making the global spread complete.

Wireless Interactive Platform

At the heart of this service is Codeonline's WIPE, Wireless Interactive Platform for Entertainment, a complete platform for setting up, operating and managing wireless interactive entertainment applications. WIPE enables the production of entertainment applications that are based on a question-answer-feedback-action-model. In addition to game delivery, WIPE also manages the games and analyzes customer usage. This tracking system is based on the structured dynamic feedback patent-pending technology developed by Codeonline.

The company's technology and approach rate high marks from Andrew Whinston, a recognized expert of e-commerce and a professor of economics and information systems at the University of Texas in the US. According to Whinston, Codeonline's approach yields better results because the software can create questions dynamically based on the user's answer to a previous question.

"The reward for operators is access to contemporaneous data in digital form which can be the basis for a very targeted customer approach. The information is reliable because it is relevant -it was provided by the customer in the first place - and fresh because it's real-time."

While it might seem that up-to-the-minute customer data is more a toy than a tool for service providers, Whinston warns that serious economic considerations will soon force operators to seek real-time data rather than make due with information gathered via a mix of online surveys, mailed questionnaires and individual calls to the customer.

"If you look at a music service it's costly, if not impossible, to keep a store of music on the servers that is guaranteed to be popular among users. You want to ask the customer right after he's heard the song if he likes it - you don't want to wait hours or days to find out his preferences."

Indeed, Codeonline is well aware of its real-time selling point - and plans to emphasize it more in its gaming strategy. "These are the sorts of games that you can put into context. They can be changed to include relevant content or designed to be part of a contest or a branding campaign," Hamalainen says.

More importantly, he stresses, they are games based on a question and answer approach that can easily be fine-tuned for activities such as voting, collecting opinions or requesting feedback. "We have a variety of ready-to-play games with all the features and the imbedded survey element that can be linked in allowing operators as well as market research firms and advertising agencies to make a compelling offer," he says.

While Codeonline has developed a surveying application that retrieves data based on entertainment platform successfully (with the consent of the customer and not through spying), the market still awaits for a general profiling application. There are still quite a number of subscribers that do not play games via their phones.

The next step for companies like Codeonline is to really get into their customers mind (with their consent, of course), regardless of the type of application. So it's no picnic for the developers and operators, but if they are able to convince their subcribers that collecting data - through stimulating apps - is for their own benefit, then they might actually realize return on the much touted data services.

Peggy Anne Salz monitors the global telecoms markets and contributes regularly to Communications Week International. Her articles have also appeared in a number of daily and weekly publications including TIME, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal Europe and The International Herald Tribune.