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May 02, 2007

MEX 2007 Report: Al Russell, Head of Mobile Internet and Content Services, Vodafone

Posted in: Events, MEX, Mobile Events, Observations, Social Networking

MEX CONFERENCE, LONDON — The second session of the first day of the MEX conference examined the evolution of community services and social networking in the mobile environment. This session was in a panel format, meaning that following the speaker, discussion took place among subject matter “experts” invited to weigh in on the topic. I was fortunate to be one of the members of this panel, along with Frederick Ghahramani of AirG, Neil Cox of the CMO Council and Antonio Vince Staybil of GoFresh and itsmy.com.

Although only a very small percentage of Vodafone’s subscribers use its mobile internet and content services, Al pointed out that that represents about 4 million users. He expects these numbers to grow as the range of content offered on the mobile internet grows and becomes easier to access via mobile devices.

Al was candid in his talk about the challenges Vodafone has faced in translating a community experience from one context, that of the fixed or PC-based internet, to mobile. He astutely reasoned that a literal translation won’t be succesful and that only those aspects of the PC experience that are meaningful in the mobile context should constitute the mobile experience.

Vodafone has partnerships with both MySpace and YouTube. Al talked about three aspects of taking these fixed-internet experiences into the mobile space: scope and functionality, usability and emotional connection to the brands. First, since the Web-based features of MySpace and YouTube are already familiar to their members, there is an expectation of functionality with the mobile version of each. The mobile version cannot duplicate the fixed-internet experience however, and should be treated as a satellite or extension of the Web-based experience, rather than a duplication of that experience. Distilling the mobile-relevant elements is key. The mobile experience must be relevant, yet be simple to use. On the second point, Al was candid in saying that a user-centered perspective is lacking and creating easy to use services is hard for them to do. Adding to the challenge is the third piece of the experience, creating an emotional connection by realizing the brand value in the mobile context.

During the panel, we were asked to address specific questions. As to “what constitutes community interactions and how can we enhance the mobile user experience to support it?” the general consensus was that the industry should not set out to create a “social networking” service but rather look to what customers already do. By understanding their networking behavior, we can develop services that offer value.

We touched only briefly on the last question, “do companies own communities or do communites own companies?”, however I read with interest yesterday’s member uprising at Digg. Would members of a mobile community feel the same level of ownership as they do with a Web-based start-up such as Digg? Start-ups traditionally have a maverick, grass-roots feel until they are acquired by something larger. On the other hand, vibrant communities are just that, vibrant, and thrive on the power of the action of their members. Would a wireless carrier risk banning a significant numbers of their subscribers if they acted in consort?

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