Directing the consumer:

search for success
Mobile search has emerged as a primary means for wireless carriers to bolster the user experience by optimising the delivery and presentation of their content. That doesn’t mean it’s an  easy choice for network operators, says Michael Brady.
 
Mobile search is the vehicle by which consumers navigate and search for content on their mobile phones and will be the key to unlocking differentiated content sources for mobile carriers. Operators need to determine the best alternative for implementing a good mobile search strategy that will not only deliver the value behind the “long tail” of content included in a carrier’s portal, but also provide access to the differentiating content that is off-portal or user generated.
"The challenge now for operators is finding the content that will truly allow for differentiation."
The original strategy for driving revenue depended on increasing messaging traffic alongside providing the latest forms of downloadable content, such as ringtones, wallpaper, and games. This has been great news for content providers as the mobile operators’ need for new content to sustain user interest and drive growth has meant more and more opportunity for new sales.

The challenge now for operators is finding the content that will truly allow for differentiation.

Target
While the number of valuable mobile web sites is questionable today, there is no doubt that the quality of these sites will improve over time and that carriers need a search solution that can deliver this content to the user.

However, there will be another form of content that will be key to a carrier’s ability to differentiate their service. User created content is becoming the dominant content form on the wired Internet, ranging from personal homepages to Blogs to virtual communities on every conceivable topic.

The mobile phone will enable new forms of user-generated content when a critical mass of users has the tools for creating photos, blogs and video. Communities are formed between interest groups and social networks emerge around the sharing of like content. This will deliver revenue opportunities in not only mobile data services but also greater use of voice and messaging.

When building a search strategy an operator must consider business models beyond downloadable content and sponsored listings to include emerging models that will differentiate their offering from other operators. Enabling search and discovery of user generated content and leveraging the power of social networks and community services are a few examples, but there are likely to be many more.

Mobile operators have a few options for enabling their search strategy. There are enterprise search vendors that work directly with operators to build a search experience based on their requirements and business needs. There are 3rd party search engines like Google and Yahoo! that want to partner with operators to move their brand to the mobile phone, and there are small start-ups looking to build a search business based revenue sharing from mobile advertising.

Relationships
Before entering into a relationship with a mobile search provider, carriers should have an open discussion about their own goals and the goals of the search provider. Branding is a key issue that should be closely examined. Operators are surely in danger of diluting their own brands and customer loyalty efforts by partnering with Goliaths such as Google and Yahoo! The question must be asked about whether this is the first step on a slippery slope to operators becoming a bit pipe for other businesses, rather than owning and profiting from the customer relationship themselves.

When building a search strategy, an operator must take into consideration not only the short-term value of building its own brand, but also the long term implications of creating search expertise within its own organisation. Without building their own expertise in search early on, mobile operators who outsource search, to either the giant search brands or small start-ups, risk becoming beholden to them once consumer habits have been formed.

Ultimately, leveraging an enterprise search platform with the tools designed directly for an operator delivers immediate and recognisable ROI, because it directly supports the operator’s own business drivers, such as subscriber growth, churn reduction, advertising and commerce models. Operators need to have the flexibility to adjust their revenue models as market conditions change. Once flat-rate charging, already available in Japan, hits Europe, it will cap a portion of operator revenues. Therefore, revenue from user-downloaded content and the emerging advertising market will become an even more important part of an operator’s business model.

Enterprise search vendors avoid treading on operators’ territory. The best mobile search technology purposely doesn’t have a brand, so the operator owns the full user relationship. The value of this proposition is already being validated in the mobile industry, where subscribers report that enterprise search tools have reduced the average click-throughs needed to find and purchase content they like, resulting in enhanced usage and increased revenue.

Mobile search can and does deliver results. Operators need to understand the importance of developing expertise in search technology and services that will empower them to create differentiating and profitable offerings today, and long-term competitive advantage in the future.

 
Michael Brady is Senior Director of Business Development for Fast Search & Transfer, a leading enterprise search vendor experienced in working with mobile operators.  
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