Few companies can match the huge customer numbers of mobile phone operators, and few have as much information captured about their clients.
And yet their customer publishing presence is relatively underdeveloped.
Retailers Sainsbury's and Tesco build customer loyalty with contract magazines that readers are willing to pay a cover price for. Until now, mobile operators seem to be missing the trick.
However, this month, Britain's fifth-largest network, Virgin Mobile, which has 4.2 million customers, launched its first customer title, Bites.
It supports its entertainment and messaging WAP service of the same name and joins the likes of Orange's triannual O magazine and O2's Select and Moshi Moshi titles. The question PROs must ask is whether they can ignore such mass-distribution lifestyle titles.
Access for outside brands
Vodafone's Business Sense editor Hollie Boughton says that just 30 per cent of editorial is devoted to its host. The quarterly launched in June and is features-led, covering areas from technology to travel. Boughton says PROs can also feed into the magazine's news, reviews and special offers pages.
Virgin Mobile Bites product manager John Conlon says that the magazine's primary objective is to promote the Bites service. However, he says it is also used to build the credibility of the brand, and third-party content from fashion, music and entertainment brands will play an important role.
He adds that potential commercial conflicts with the wider Virgin group are not necessarily a concern, pointing to a current promotion with Pout make-up despite the existence of Virgin Cosmetics.
Alex Silcox, group account manager at John Brown Citrus Publishing, which produces Orange's O, says third-party content must meet a number of criteria.
'We have to feel it has the right level of objectivity, it has to tick all the brand boxes in terms of fitting in with Orange and it has to be non-competitive,' he says, listing sport, music, literature and travel as O's four core areas where third-party content is likely to resonate with Orange.
Silcox says PROs are wasting an opportunity bearing in mind the magazine's high circulation and quality, but adds that they need to be aware of the editorial processes involved in contract publishing and the fact that content needs to meet client approval at every stage. 'It is very much about loyalty and increasing dialogue and good relations between Orange and its highest value customers,' he says. 'Certainly when loyalty plays an important part in the remit of a magazine, third-party editorial always adds some value.'
Golin Harris head of technology Jon Holt admits that mobile phone operators' customer magazines 'have not hit our critical media list yet', but suggests the opportunity is there. Operators need to demonstrate a commitment to building lifestyle titles, says Holt: 'The goal is to produce a magazine that isn't just an ego package, but delivering something people want to read isn't easy.'
Ironically, one of the things that makes magazines an attractive option for third-party PROs - their large potential reach - presents an editorial dilemma about targeting and focus.
'The mobile phone operators can have ten million-plus customers. How many titles have circulations that large?' asks Holt, adding that the opportunity for co-promotions and editorial tie-ins is huge. But he warns that customer loyalty magazines often have confusing distribution set-ups. 'We don't want to get into paid-for promotions if we don't know where they are going to turn up,' he says.
Seventy Seven managing director Matt Wood says this is where Virgin Mobile has an advantage. 'Virgin has a fantastic distribution network (for the magazine) through its Megastores and V Festivals. Orange has its own shops, but you go in them to buy phones, whereas you go into Virgin to buy a bit of lifestyle.'
While loyalty magazines for well-established businesses such as supermarkets are effective places to plant third-party content, the mobile phone industry is still defining itself, so the magazines tend to place more emphasis on the host brand. 'Custom titles are useful for a new firm trying to build up its customer base and get across what it does quickly,' says Wood. 'Mobile phone mags are less useful for third-party brands because they haven't evolved to the lifestyle stage yet.'
With their massive marketing budgets, mobile phone operators are willing to roll the dice on customer publications, but continued commitment to producing valued lifestyle media is required if PROs are to put them on automatic dial.
MOBILE OPERATORS IN PRINT
- Virgin Mobile Bites is a monthly news title published by Que Pasa Communications, distributed to registered customers and available elsewhere (020 7953 7700)
- Orange O is a triannual glossy published by John Brown Citrus Publishing (020 7565 3000)
- O2 Integrated agency Archibald Ingall Stretton produces two quarterlies for business and consumer customers
- Vodafone Business Sense, published quarterly by The Forward Group, is distributed to Vodafone's small business customers (020 7734 2303).