Marketing Mobile Services
By Carlo Longino, Mon May 02 21:30:00 GMT 2005

Ringback tones have proven a big success in Asia, and Western operators have started offering them, with high hopes. But there's a steep learning curve for their adoption. Is it just viral marketing at its best, or does it point to a lack of understanding of how to sell users on new services?

Jupiter analyst Julie Ask's blog posts about ringback tones make for some fun reading. She started late in April by talking about her experience buying and setting up her first ringback tone, which was painless enough. She then came back a few days later with the results from a wholly unscientific focus group of her friends, including posting her call logs showing people making several calls to her mobile, one right after the other, because they were confused as to what was going on.

Although pretty much everybody across the board didn't know what was going on, Ask says their reaction, after her explanation was ""very cool. I want that". Sounds like viral marketing at its best, but is this intentional or just indicative of operators' hard time in finding a good way to market new services to their users?

There's no doubt that there's a lot of education that needs to be done for users to understand -- and buy -- ringback tones, so perhaps carriers are being smart in letting users take care of it. These things are an easy sell to the teen market, still looking for just about any means of self-expression (or proving to the rest of the crew that yes, they're cool, too), but beyond that, it's hard to see carriers having very satisfied answers to more grown-up users asking "what is that?" and "why would I want to pay for it?"

Carriers don't have a really strong track record at this sort of thing, anyway. They're yet to provide 3G users with a compelling reason to use video calling, and selling MMS as "like SMS, but a picture" didn't work out too well. MMS is finally starting to see some momentum as a content platform and delivery device, but many carriers still don't have much of an idea on how to sell users on P2P MMS messaging.

If operators are going to rely on early adopters to market services for them, the least they can do is make it easier -- use free trials or introductory pricing, or make it worthwhile for people to turn others on to the new services. But users probably wouldn't object if carriers helped them understand why these services are cool or how they're useful, either. Users are a fickle bunch, and choosing to not support new technologies and services with the right level or type of marketing could doom them, regardless of how much an operator's invested or how well it hopes they will succeed.