Handset browsers present a mobile world of opportunity

The phenomenon of user-generated content is making waves in the telecoms sector and marketers are keen to take advantage of it, says Robert Lester

The rise of social networking sites and user-generated content (UGC) has forced marketers to wake up to the opportunities the craze creates for brands. Now the trend is spilling over into the mobile phone sector as it becomes easier to access the Net on mobiles.

Those championing UGC on mobile point to the success of 3’s SeeMeTV as evidence that it is set to explode as it has done on the Web. SeeMeTV, the reality channel launched by 3 at the end of 2005 (MW October 20, 2005), shows 30-second videos of customers displaying various talents and pays them 1p each time their clip is downloaded. The company says it receives more than 1 million download requests each month.

O2 launched a similar service, Look At Me TV, last summer. It said recently that one customer earned £525 in three months thanks to the 10% commission users receive when their clip is downloaded by another customer.

The growing popularity of UGC is clear, but successfully using it as a marketing tool is another matter. However, the opportunity to reach elusive younger consumers means there will be no shortage of brands willing to try.

Jens Andersen, chief executive and co-founder of mobile search company mobilePeople, says: “Developing a better understanding of UGC provides marketers with a huge opportunity when planning campaigns. By generating such content, users automatically provide a lot of useful data. The key is to identify this and act upon the value trapped within the content.”

It is not just internet giants like MySpace that offer social networking on mobile phones. Pitch is a mobile social networking and entertainment company that gives customers free access to services in exchange for opting in to receive a maximum of three ads a week.

Marketing director Andrew Kendrick says: “On our mobile entertainment community, brands can set up their own chat forums, news feeds and special offers and target a group of people they know are interested in responding to what they have to say.”

As well as mobile operators like 3 and O2, brands from outside the telecoms sector are experimenting with UGC. During its sponsorship of the Wimbledon tennis tournament, Britvic-owned Robinson’s ran an MMS campaign called Court on Camera. Queuing fans sent in pictures of themselves via MMS that became one pixel of a giant picture of British tennis players Tim Henman and Andy Murray and the MMS that best captured the “spirit of Wimbledon” won VIP tickets for centre court.

Another mobile brand to take the UGC route was Sony Ericsson during the launch of its 2.8 megapixel K800i CyberShot phone. The company worked with Iris to develop the Undiscovered Photographer UK campaign, which encouraged people to upload their best ten photos, which were then judged by a professional panel.

However, managing director of Iris Digital George Nimeh points out that content on mobile phones is still in its infancy. “Mobile content and services, many of which are overhyped and overpriced, are struggling in some parts of the world, including the UK,” he says. “Too many year-end predictions include lines like ‘next year will be the year of mobile content and applications’.”

Nimeh uses US sports broadcaster ESPN’s decision to close down its much-hyped service Mobile ESPN as an example that mobile content is not living up to expectations.

One of the biggest dangers for brands getting involved in UGC is the loss of control over the creative process, as Chevrolet found to its cost. In one of the least successful attempts to engage with consumers online, the US car company gave the public video clips of its Tahoe SUV model and invited them to develop their own ads. While some were suitably reverential, many chose to focus on the damage the Tahoe can do to other cars and how the so-called “gas guzzler” contributes to global warming.

It remains to be seen whether mobile blogging will really take off given the “plethora” of different sites, believes Nigel Hollis, chief global analyst at marketing research company Millward Brown. He thinks that, so far, “the next wave looks more like a ripple”.

But Hollis does not think it will deter brands. “Mobile blogging is being hailed as the next big thing and companies around the world are keen to get in on the act,” he adds.

It is also easier for brands to create their own content for marketers not willing to cede complete control to the public. Mobile magazine publisher Tocmag has developed platforms for the games, film and music industries that allow brands to create six-page mobile magazines.

Tocmags are free and founder Brad Ellis says: “As it’s a UGC service, anyone can build a Tocmag. Compared to the limitations and cost of SMS or MMS marketing, Tocmag represents a unique opportunity for marketers. It’s zero cost and content rich.”

Time Magazine has just named the general public as its “person of the year” due to the mass contribution to online communities and sharing sites. Chief executive of digital agency SixandCo Paul Kingsley thinks brands now willing to explore the role of content within mobile marketing should start thinking about “brand tags” – that is, marking digital content generated by consumers so that those consumers can control their interactions with their brands.

He says: “UGC remains the least understood, biggest opportunity in marketing at the moment, driving huge innovation in our industry. The user is more powerful than ever before and, regardless of the technical capabilities on offer, the most important consideration is now ensuring that consumer input is measured and reflected through marketing messages.”

As more people access the Net via mobile phones, the rise of social networking and UGC is sure to continue and it looks like an area that mobile marketers simply cannot ignore.

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