Got a champion, will launch new apps

Carriers are obsessed with ARPU and, more specifically, mass subscriber adoption of products and services. To paraphrase the opening of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, happy carriers are those enjoying rising ARPU due to innovative and user-friendly “killer apps” that have seen massive adoption. 

Even a dollar more of ARPU adds up into “real money” if one considers the number of subscribers, so carriers are seeking new applications daily.

And yet why are vendors unable to convince carriers to adopt new applications? One reason is that carriers love any application that has consumers clamoring for it, but it must be billable, simple to download and use, work on any phone on any network. Also, the IT department should be minimally involved because less is best -- no new servers, no billing systems changes, etc. 

Vendors for new applications are often start-ups where the contact is the product manager or founder, who is primarily a technologist. Larger firms like Alcatel-Lucent act as aggregators for platform sales to carriers.

Amid talks over “revenue sharing,” the carrier already has a pipeline of new applications ranging from location-based services to music downloads to mobile ads to voice -- each one touted a “gold mine.”

Lobbying the carrier CEO to push the value-added services or marketing department to review a vendor’s product is not difficult. However, a memorandum of understanding may not lead automatically to a sale since the department relies on data, which is a code word for a “user trial.”

Carriers are skeptical of any trial that does not involve real subscribers and trust only other carriers’ trial data, especially the leading global leaders like Vodafone or T-Mobile. Paradoxically, carriers hate to be the first to such a trial, since it cannibalizes time and resources from their overwhelmed VAS/marketing departments.

Therefore, the key for a vendor's success is the champion – a VP-level executive who can push for a user trial and get every carrier stakeholder to execute such a trial.  Yet, a user trial often involves real subscribers and the best trials have different user segments -- like youth, professionals, older users – that align with the carrier’s marketing segment.

Of course a start-up vendor is in no situation to conduct a user trial by itself in, say, Lucknow or Bangkok. It needs local help.  The carrier chief marketing officer may refer other agencies that can conduct the trials and surveys, most likely one that is experienced in fast-moving consumer goods.

Experience shows that most participants will not take time to write down their responses, and need actual phone calls and Q&A to elicit “real” inputs regarding their product service experiences. Their answers hopefully hold insights for the vendor to modify the product for the local mobile culture or market in time for the actual launch.

Carriers rely on monitored data on their own network servers to validate if there is “real” consumer uptake, not one-time but continuous use.  Also of importance is whether users actually teach others in their family or segment – the hard-to-achieve “viral” community. Thus, the IT department is an indispensable stakeholder in the user trial. Since there is no incentive, the internal carrier champion often enters into discussions with the chief technology officer and IT network head for resource allocation.

A carrier in an emerging market, like Airtel in India or Telkomsel in Indonesia, may be faster in trials as they are eager to push new services and applications to their new subscribers who use their phones only for voice calls.  But even if the service was launched in an emerging market, other carriers may ask: “When is Vodafone going to launch this product?”

As a final takeaway, if one carrier department feels sidelined or railroaded, user trials with excellent subscriber data may not result in a product launch, and the sales cycle must start anew. Another carrier, another search for a champion.

Ray Tsuchiyama used to head global marketing for Tegic Communications/ AOL/Nuance and now has several projects with startups and large multinationals