Wednesday, August 20, 2014

THE ONCOMING MOBILE DATA WAR: THE NEXT BATTLE IN AN OLD WAR

At what now seems a long ago time I was invited to the finale of the 2014 UEFA Champion’s League live screening. It was the epic clash between the mercurial Athletico Madrid and the galactic Real Madrid. Going into the clash Athletico had overcome the giants from Milan, the ensemble from Barcelona and had left the Chelsea bus in tatters. They had done well indeed but the Real Madrid team had overcome 3 German teams to get to the final; Schalke 04, B. Dortmund and B. Munich. They too had overcome great odds. Now I’m not a football fan or enthusiast for that matter but I remember these details because in the middle of the match I got into a somewhat animated conversation with the epic Boaz Shani. One that would niggle me to no end till today;

I postulated that there was a data war coming. He said that what I was saying was what the market had said when Seacom had launched back in July 2009 and it was all speculation. He insisted that the telecoms had been too lazy to roll out and sell the requisite amount of fiber and internet connections that would drive economies in order to generate profits. He said that the internet prices as they were, were guarded by a “cartel” of people enjoying super profits and in whose interests it wasn’t for prices to drop. I was perplexed. So I probed.

“How about the many more people they would connect? They could make more money, they could translate the internet into all sorts of languages, answer all sorts of questions that farmers  and small businesses had,” I asked.

The answer came back clipped curt sentences. “That means nothing to them. Just last month I fired my internet service provider. I mean I’d been with these guys from the beginning. I had brought them lots of business. I had referred all my clients to them. And they just disconnected me without even a phone call or a notice or even an invoice. I now know they have grown too big to care about us small businesses. And that’s the problem with the whole industry”

“So where do we go?”

“The answer will come once the Google satellite is up and the country becomes one big hotspot. Well maybe not the whole country but even just Kampala. It will be enough for internet prices to plummet and these Telco’s to learn their lesson”

He made so much sense I almost believed him.  But I wasn’t convinced. If the Google internet was going to level the field why were the telecoms doing nothing about it since they would most likely be the hardest hit? My own observation had been that since the last great price wars that brought so much misery and tears to the category vows had been taken never to go back there again. Never
The price wars left everyone bleeding

But after the Airtel Warid merger the market had moved to stasis. Growth had almost plateaued. However Orange which hadn’t had much success in the voice category had been continually registering considerable success in the data category especially on the small screens which surprisingly didn’t reflect on why the big screens. Someone somewhere asked “What are those guys doing?”

So it crept up on us.
Slowly, deliberately, MTN Uganda’s communication started having social networking icons. It started with Facebook, then twitter, then YouTube and now you’ll find LinkedIn and Instagram. This of course followed by their recent release of the “What do crocodiles eat?” TV commercial shows a focus by the business on internet services as a priority.
The recent launch of Airtel’s “Switch On” – (good product review to be read here) also indicated that this area has growth potential.  What’s interesting with Switch On is the way it was built like a lifestyle product – not inflexible and rigid like most of the category products but responsive and built around how consumers live and use data. Almost intuitive – this was a win.
Even Smart East Africa Telecom, the newest market entrant in the Telco sector entered with a data offer. 30 days free surfing and data. The offer might be attractive and as most things in this market go, it will be tested. Ugandans never fail to test (they use the word “Jaribu” more than the originators of the word which is of Swahili origin)
However corporate war like the military war of days past has morphed like modern day warfare into something of a fight-between- handcuffed men. After the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) put out their moratorium on all telecom promotions the market is likely to see an increase in the how-much-providers-will-offer-customers versus the previous who-has-the-lowest-price model. So there will be no dramatic price cuts and no front page news about this. Not yet. 

It will be who offers more.

But all the above is only an indication of war, nothing more. Well that may be true but when the two biggest players in the market – who ostensibly have the most to lose start shoring up resources and the small players do about or learn nothing from it, there is little wonder why they are small players.
Will the data war wait for Google to launch its satellites over Africa? I don’t think so. I think that with two more ISPs entering the market by end of year both heavily backed to drive data acquisition and marketing to the hilt we are likely to see moves and steps that will drive customers’ uptake and optimal utilization of the data space much much sooner. Here are 6 trends currently in motion that we are likely to see amplified going ahead:
  1. The Age of The Device: We will see increased focus on devices and whether this is from the telecom network operators MTN, AIRTEL, ORANGE, SMART, UTL, etc. ) Or from devices providers (Transtel, Nokia, Huawei, etc.) themselves it will matter little. The biggest challenge in the past was access in the last mile; how would people access this wonderful world of the internet? How would they enjoy it? How would you sell them data if tehy had no smart phones? Given the wildfire growth of WhatsApp, Facebook and other apps I feel confident to say the device saturation will get there soon enough.
  2. Product Recombination and Innovation: We will see more combined and spliced product offerings; those with more will offer less product and more options. Those with less with offer more product with less options. Confusing? If all you have is data, you will offer more ways to enjoy that data, (e.g. is smile@night/weekend  bundles) while if you are a telecom operator you will look to offer minutes, SMS and data packages/combos to customers as a way to entice data consumption. Whichever way you do it, its important that get to know that your data offering is solid.
  3. Speed, Like Size Does Not Matter: Speed isn’t what it used to be. Customers don’t are for it as much as they used to just like women moved on from their obsession with size. Why?Because speed is a function of technology and investment. If a customer gets a faster phone they will enjoy more speeds, they know that but they are happy with what they have. If the ISP or telecom gets more money, they will invest in upgrading their users' experience to the next level of speed and tehy also know that. So speed doesn't differentiate. Stability is the key now. The connection has to be stable. It can be average speed but stable is important. And that is why Smile has picked its niche and is comfortably nestling in it. A stable connection means your download links won’t break but is also predictable and that is a critical thing with the web.
     
  4. Experience Will Drive New Inroads: From the Orange Expo to the MTN Internet Expo we are seeing more demonstrability of capacity and possibility by providers and operators to bring an experience the public cannot find in great advertising. It doesn’t mean people will not need the great ads but it means before people buy they will want to “see” the Ugandan way – with their hands!
  5. Sharing And Engagement Is The Master Key: When “#StanAirtelUg” hit the market about two years ago no one thought it as possible to do; to have round the clock response to customers online for the second largest telecom provider in the market? Impossible. But they did it. #StanAirtelUg proved that appearing superhuman, being indefatigable and being on point with customer responses was possible. To a point where “Stan” was the answer to everything. Was Airtel going to launch a rocket to the moon? Ask Stan. Would Museveni retire in 2021? Ask Stan (sic) even Stan doesn’t know that one. Anyway, the point being they broke a barrier and challenged the industry. Now at every moment the MTN Instagram page is filled with what they are doing, where they are or who they are rewarding. Is it exhausting, redundant, time consuming? Yes, but if they don’t do that people will never spend their MBs following them and will instead end up on the @Bus250 IG (Don’t ask how I found out). The truth is that other brands are building their engagement platforms as well but they are all following the leaders and that’s who we really talk about on here. We are seeing a lot more traction in the advocacy and NGO sectors too and that will continue to grow as engagement opens up an erstwhile apathetic young audience to issues and activism. If people can share it, they can talk about it – and you can talk to them.
  6. The Rise of The Influencer: call them big wigs, influencers, twitterati whatever you call them. They are looked up to in the social media world and digital world. They can be recognized by followers, influence, responses, like, follows, RTs, Favs name it. People who in online speak “run these streets”. Whenever brands have had run-ins with them, there’s been carnage and bloodletting. Why? Because these customers are articulate, they are sharp, they are educated and mostly fearless. Some classic examples was the epic battle between Caleb and MTN when he started that page MTN SUCKS; they called him to their office and things got heated; then of course the dance of death that happens regularly between Dr. Thome and Umeme whenever there is no power in Bunga; the short lived spat between Collins and Vivo Energy didn't last since the brand capitulated. But its not been all bad because there are good moments too, for example when KFC launched in Kampala it was trending for two weeks on social media that there was food for 99,000/= or that hashtag #AtDuskWeRise; much spoken about but not as much done to raise the requisite amount of FOMO. My last example is the last how all the influencers came together to “"#BuyABrick"” for the 40 days over 40 smiles campaign to build a dormitory in Luweero for an orphanage. Splendid use of influencers and all done on a small budget. As brands move, they are going to need to build their own arsenal of influencers; people who will stand in their corner when the gloves are off. Yes, they can be bought but you don’t have that much money. So build engagement experiences and make them love your brands.

Image taken from @Ayampatra

The war is coming. I only hope we are ready both as customers and brands because surely this only where the fittest come out alive. Just like those real guys crept up on Athletico Madrid in that finale.

Spartan out!