TECHNOLOGY: Mobile Evolution

Mobile telecoms is set to shift its PR focus to business services, says Mark Johnson

We can all look back and laugh at the cumbersome mobile phones that epitomised the yuppies of the 1980s, but now you'd be hard pressed to find anyone you know who doesn't own at least one handset. So it's easy to see why the replacement mobile phone market has been shrinking.

As a result, mobile operators are shifting their focus from the consumer market to providing wireless services aimed at helping businesses function more efficiently. And, with new products to promote, this has huge implications for the PR industry.

According to telecoms, software and IT services advisers Ovum, UK revenue from data services will rise from £1.9bn this year to £4bn by 2007.

This growth is largely expected to come from firms keen to increase efficiency by ensuring workers remain tapped into the corporate network at the airport, on the train - even on the tube.

'Mobile phone operators have more or less reached the end of the line with consumers in Western Europe,' says Ovum principal analyst for wireless Jeremy Green. 'They now regard business clients as the high-value customers to whom they can sell extra services.'

This development could present ample opportunities for PROs: mobile phone operators will want to inform businesses of how wireless services can be of value.

But a word of warning. While there is huge scope to promote the new technology, there is no place for the hype that marked the early years of mobile telephone marketing when services began nodding in the direction of the web.

Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) was marketed as the 'wireless internet', and was supposed to allow WAP-enabled mobile phone users to do everything they did online using their mobile, without any significant change in the online experience. But it failed to meet expectations, offering a lesson in how not to over-hype services.

O2 UK head of communications Glenn Manoff believes badly planned PR was partly to blame for the low adoption rates of WAP in its early days.

'WAP was over-sold,' he says. 'Cellnet - O2's predecessor - said this technology would be high-speed and fluid. They took something that was successful and created a PR disaster.'

Nevertheless, although WAP had a stumbling start, recent figures released by the Mobile Data Association show that, on average, 28.5 million web pages a day are currently viewed through WAP, a threefold increase on the average number of page downloads last year.

Encouragingly, the PR mistakes of the past appear to have been put aside.

Communications strategies for more recent innovations are relying more on the use of layman's terms rather than tech talk, and there is a concerted effort with media campaigns to prove the technology delivers real benefits and reliability.

In March, Vodafone launched its Mobile Connect Card, a device that sits inside a laptop and enables the user to remotely access email and the web, as well as send and receive text messages via Vodafone's wireless network.

Vodafone head of UK corporate comms Anna Cloke says there has been a major change in the company's approach to PR for new products in recent years.

'We try hard not to talk technology,' she says. 'People really care about how fast, secure and easy it is to use. In the past, the industry was technology-driven rather than customer-led.'

Vodafone's ongoing PR campaign for its Mobile Connect Card has made extensive use of product trials, loaning the cards to journalists for long periods to allow them to test the technology to the full.

A similar approach has been used in the campaign for wireless solutions provider Research in Motion's BlackBerry, a product that brings the mobile phone and email together in one device, and is targeted at business users.

Product trials and customer case studies have formed the backbone of the PR strategy, says Sian Gaskell, a senior partner at Hotwire PR, the agency that handled PR for the BlackBerry 7230 launch in May. Gaskell says mobile phone companies have to focus on the benefits of a service.

While simplification is the key to positioning wireless services, the adoption of wireless technology in corporate environments is still likely to be piecemeal as each industry finds uses for it. Crucially, this will be where the PR opportunities lie.

O2 vice-president Mike Short, who is also chairman of the Mobile Data Association, points out that companies with highly mobile workforces are expected to be the early adopters.

'SMEs will lead the way, but also businesses with lorry fleets, salespeople on the road and maintenance workers,' he says.

'The second wave will be those who don't know their customers well and will use the technology to build up databases. Companies like Mars, Nestle and Coca-Cola could benefit from this kind of technology, as they sell through retail outlets that don't give them feedback on trends.'

Short adds that, once the display screen becomes larger, the range of uses for mobile phones and similar wireless data devices will expand rapidly.

Beyond the handful of operators with 3G licences, there are a raft of other potential clients, and for PR agencies, the wireless industry could offer a whole new proposition.

The days of a few people using ungainly mobile phones are far behind us, and once wireless services start delivering demonstrable benefits to business, there could well be a new phase of hi-tech growth. But much of this will depend on the ability of PR to show firms how those products might be used effectively and bring return on investment.

CASE STUDY - ORANGE BUSINESS SOLUTIONS

Photo-messaging has so far been regarded as a fun way of using a mobile phone to send pictures to friends.

But Orange Business Solutions, the business arm of mobile operator Orange, wanted to demonstrate to companies that it can also perform a critical business function and therefore expand its customer base.

In May, Fife Fire & Rescue Service began a six-month trial of Orange Scotland's photo-messaging service.

A dozen fire and rescue service officers were equipped with camera mobiles to transmit pictures of victims from the scene of accidents over a high-speed wireless network to consultants at Fife's two main acute hospitals in Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline.

These images, downloaded by hospital emergency staff via either email or similar phones, act as an early warning system, allowing staff to assess the likely extent of injuries and then either prepare A&E teams for the victims' arrival or dispatch them to the scene.

Edelman was given the task of alerting UK businesses to what is believed to be the first such use of photo-messaging and launched a PR campaign in August.

The main challenge facing the campaign was to prove that photo-messaging is a credible business tool, despite its more common use as a fun consumer gadget.

A press trip to Fife was organised so that journalists could watch a demonstration of Orange's Multimedia Messaging (MMS) service in use on a Fife Fire & Rescue Service training day and witness first-hand how photo-messaging could buy critical time for emergency services to save a victim's life.

Although radio reports are commonly used at the scene of accidents, Fife Rescue workers were discovering that pictures convey more information than words alone.

The demonstration and ongoing PR work have resulted in 65 pieces of national, regional and trade press coverage to date. The Financial Times, for example, ran two stories on Orange's MMS service. One FT piece described the service as 'invaluable in improving preparations to receive victims', and made mention of interest shown in the service by firefighters in Dundee.

The Guardian highlighted the value of the service at the scene of a simulated car crash, and described how Orange is seeking to expand MMS to all fire services in the UK, as well as to other sectors such as estate agents and insurance assessors.

Evaluation firm Metrica found that Orange's B2B coverage overshadowed its competitors in August, with nearly half of the business coverage generated by Orange's partnership with Fife rescue services.

In September, Orange received double the volume of coverage generated by rival Vodafone.

The campaign has resulted in a number of enquiries about Orange's MMS service, principally from other emergency services interested in photo-messaging, including the London Ambulance Service.

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