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Designing Blyk – The First Ad-Funded Mobile Operator

An Interview with Marko Ahtisaari

marko_logo2.gifBlyk – the first completely ad-supported MVNO – launched this week in the UK market There has been a lot of controversy about Blyk’s innovative business model – providing free SMS messages and voice minutes in return for watching ads. Blyk services will be limited to their target 16 to 24 year old demographic, and they plan to recruit their subscribers on campus and through viral invitation.

Marko Ahtisaari is a key member of the Blyk team, responsible for the user experience as well as brand design and development. In this interview, Marko talks about the special advertising formats that Blyk will use, and explains why Blyk actually has to think more like a media company and less like a mobile operator.

For more information on the Blyk launch, see the MobiAD post and the Blyk press release.

(note: MVNO stands for “Mobile Virtual Network Operator”)

Hi Marko. First of all, can you tell me why Blyk chose to target the 16 to 24 year old segment?
There are really two reasons. First, its a target segment that is very attractive to advertisers yet very hard for them to reach effectively. And second, its a group that in general is more open to this kind of conversation with brands.

Deciding to go only after such a specific demographic must have had a large impact on how you designed your services. Would you tell us about that?
The first factor you need to understand is how phones are used by the target audience. If you look at the actual usage of mobile phones by this age group, it is interesting, there are really three things they do – texting, calling, and looking at the clock. And of course are all the personalization possibilities such as ring-tones and wallpaper.

What about the other, more advanced mobile data services that you hear so much about?
Actually, the more advanced services are not so much a part of the daily usage for this group. They are likely to be used by an older group, and frankly many of those other services are at a very early stage.

When you are building a media company, you have to start from the audience and their current usage, what they are really doing now, not what they might do in the future.

What other aspects of this demographic did Blyk need to take into account?
blyk_1.gifThe other major factor we had to understand was what level of technology this group has in their hands now. In other words, what phone capabilities do they have today – not three years from now.

For a handset manufacturer it makes sense to talk about some new features to try to sell them to customers. But we have to look at the usage patterns of today.

How are these factors reflected in the service design?
These two aspects led us to focus our service design around one main driver, and that is getting a message and responding to it. It’s really the most dominant pattern of behavior on mobile.

We built our ad formats, and the kind of brand communications we have on Blyk around this basic interaction – receiving a message and sometimes being prompted to respond to it.

This form of simple dialogue, whether it be text or picture messages, is very important. So our basic formats are simple text messages, picture messages, and tags on the end of text messages you receive.


The key point is that this was really designed by observing and building on the current usage.

What sort of testing did you do when developing your services?
Actually we did two kinds of testing. We did a lot of live experience testing, which is people actually living with the service for quite some time. And we also did questionnaires, which is more quantitative based.

Did you look at other kinds of advertising for Blyk?
Yes, for example we tested various kinds of voice advertising. However, we came to the conclusion that they are too intrusive, and people are not interested in waiting to get past an audio ad to make a phone call.

Targeting and personalization are often cited as big potential benefits of mobile advertising. How does Blyk handle these?
blyk-brands.gifFirst of all, all our subscribers are in the 16 to 24 demographic, which by itself is very important for advertisers.

Second, from the initial online sign up process we can offer basic demographics like location and sex, as well as lifestyle interest information.

After that, all the interactions that you have with the service over time provide an opportunity to update the profile. As you live with Blyk, Blyk learns more about you so the communications can become more relevant.

Can you give me an example of this?
For example, when an advertiser runs a campaign, they can see which groups of subscribers react well to it and which don’t. That advertiser can then use this information later to target these two groups differently. This information – which is proprietary to the advertiser – will build up over time, and therefore there is a benefit from being a long-term advertiser on Blyk.

Also, occasionally Blyk will ask questions separately from any advertising, to gauge reaction to a particular topic. This information can be shared with all advertisers.

You explained that the current Blyk ad formats are based on a dialogue concept using text or picture messaging, plus text ads in SMS messages. What about other ad formats such as banner ads, in-game ads, or search advertising?
blyk-msg-tag.gifThey are certainly interesting as an evolution, but if you look at the de-facto behavior today, of this age group, it’s not an active online browsing experience.

I’m not saying these won’t happen, it’s just that when you’re building a media, you need to grow reach and audience based on existing usage.

Did you build your own ad-serving platform, or are you using one from another company?
We built the technology bespoke, working with a number of partners. We are a full MVNO, so we have end-to-end control of the network. Our host network in the UK is Orange, but we have a very robust, full operator backend (billing, customer service management, etc) and this is critical to be able to offer the kind of relevance we are talking about.

What sort of pricing system will you use to charge advertisers?
We have what we call “communication fees”. This is basically a price per type of engagement. So for example an advertiser will know it costs a certain amount to send a picture message, it will cost a certain when a subscriber responds, and so forth.

Any final thoughts about Blyk or mobile advertising in general?
marko_small.gifWe founded Blyk because we felt strongly that for mobile advertising to take off, you needed a company with the capabilities of an operator, but the ethos of a media company. And we think it’s important to work within existing patterns of behavior.

We launched our service with over 40 brands participating. I think that one important enabling factor in the mobile advertising market is the willingness and readiness for these advertisers and their agencies to learn about this medium and what these kinds of dialogues are like.

Another big challenge for both Blyk-like media and the advertisers will be to build relevance for our members. This means having the right targeting capability, a variety of advertisers, some global brands with local brands, and making sure the advertising is appreciated by the audience. That’s what makes it a media.

Marko, thank you very much, and we wish you and Blyk great success.

Special: For those of you who would like to see a video of the Blyk introduction event in London, click here.

[ by Ferhan Cook, Editor, and Jim Cook, Editor, MobiAD News ]

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