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Getting Analytics Right For Mobile Internet
An interview with Ray Anderson, CEO of Bango

ray_anderson1.gifFor most companies, the centerpiece of their mobile advertising strategy will be a mobile internet site. And before brands will invest the kind of money that is being spent on online, it’s clear that good systems will need to be in place to measure the effectiveness of these mobile investments.

Mobile Analytics is the art and science of understanding as much as possible about the visitors to a mobile site. Analytics is very well developed for online sites, but has been slower to develop for the mobile internet.

In this interview, we talk with Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of Bango. He talks about the current state of mobile analytics, what factors have held it back, and how earlier work in setting up a mobile payments system is now enabling Bango to address the mobile analytics issue.

Bango is a company that, like many successful technology start ups, has gone through a series of different product phases before arriving at where they are today. In fact, mobile analytics was not even a topic of conversation when Bango was founded in 1999, but it is one of their main focuses today.

The first stage: Content Discovery

bango_logo125.gifThe initial concept behind Bango was to provide a service to content providers who are distributing their content over mobile.

Ray explains the idea: “In any new industry usually a lot of fragmentation occurs at the beginning, as everyone wants to put forward their own standard. We thought that this would probably happen in mobile. We had also seen in other industries that if a company can provide an interface layer above the competing standards, then everyone will flock to you. We thought we could be the content providers’ friend.”

At that time, mobile operators really just wanted their customers to stay on their own portals, they didn’t want them leaving to go to outside sites. So the original service offered by Bango was intended to aid in discovery of mobile content. They did this by assigning a unique “Bango number” to each content provider (in fact, Bango means number in Japanese). Based on this number, Bango would facilitate access to the content site.

The role of mobile operators

On the internet, ISP’s generally act as “dumb pipes”, i.e. they add very little value beyond access to the internet.

bango_valueadd.gifIn Ray’s view, the situation in mobile could be very different: “Mobile operators are the access providers, and they could add value in 3 big areas. First, identity, as it’s a very personal device. Second, location, because if you know where someone is you can offer a better service. And third, the billing relationship. There is a lot of value that the operators could add, but if they don’t make it easy, then people will just go around them.”

The second stage: Mobile Payments

In 2002 Bango decided that one of these areas, billing & payments, was going to be very difficult for content owners, and therefore offered a good opportunity for Bango. “Ringtones and wallpapers were starting to happen, plus adult, and everyone wanted to be paid. So Bango decided to focus on the payment part, even though it’s very hard.”

The idea was the Bango Premium Service, where a content provider could connect to Bango and collect money from almost anyone in the world.

Some mobile operators were willing to let outsiders connect to their internal payment systems – for example, Bango partnered with Vodafone, Telefonica, and O2. This allowed content providers to collect money from subscribers on these networks. For subscribers on networks where the operator did not want to partner, Bango set up systems using Paypal, credit cards, debit cards, etc.

“This system is still working well – if you want to make a mobile site collect money, we are it basically. We work with big companies like Microsoft and Disney, all the way down to small companies you have never heard of.”

Bango’s current annual revenues are about $30 million, most of which is from the payment service. “Payment is a good business,” concludes Ray.

The third stage: Mobile Analytics

The newest area that Bango is moving into is mobile analytics. Ray explains why he feels this is a growth area. “People are going to be making money from the mobile web in ways that don’t involve payments. If you want to invest your money, you want to figure out ROI, you need to know something about your “R”, so they are going to need analytics for mobile sites.”

bango_quote2.gifAlthough website analytic systems are highly developed for the normal internet, it turns out that there are a number of reasons why these do not work well for mobile:

  • Javascript doesn’t work on most mobile phones, and most internet analytics systems are based on Javascript.
  • Cookies are unreliable on most mobile phones, and most internet analytics systems use cookies.
  • The network addresses reported to the mobile sites are not reliable as they are often actually the operator’s IP address.
  • The “referral address” is usually not passed to the mobile site, whereas it is in the internet.
  • There is additional information which is available and relevant on mobile which is not handled by standard internet analytics packages because it is not present on the web.

[see box at the end of the article for a fuller explanation]

These issues sometimes show up in strange ways. Ray recounts the story of one client who came to him saying that they were getting lots of smart phone users coming to their .mobi site, but no one else. Based on this, they didn’t believe there was any need for a mobile site for non-smart phone users.

With a bit of further investigation, it turned out that the site developers had installed a standard analytics package on the home page of the mobi site. Since it was based on java, it blocked any phone that wouldn’t support Java, which is almost all phones except some smartphones. The client actually had many non-smart phone customers, but they just weren’t able to communicate with them!

The Bango Approach

Bango launched their mobile analytics product in February 2008. The heart of it is that they have devised ways to identify users through techniques other than cookies and IP addresses, and so can assign each user a unique Bango ID. This lets them track users not only on a particular site, but also across sites.

bango_report.gifBango does this by integrating with mobile operators and by understanding exactly what information each operator can give and how to get it. Because each operator is different, this expertise has taken a long time to build up.

For example:

  • Some operators will provide a subscriber id in the header information. It’s an internal ID, but it can be combined with an operator ID to make a unique user ID.
  • Other operators don’t provide this information in the headers, but will allow a site to probe back to get gateway information from which you can work out a subscriber id.
  • Some carriers actively try to hide the user identity, and try not to give any info at all.

“It’s a bit of a black art really, but a lot of the stuff we’ve been doing in mobile payments is very relevant to mobile analytics.” says Ray.

There are also special cases related to mobile IP addresses that must be handled. Ray explains: “As an example, all Vodafone subscribers in the UK show up on one of 14 IP addresses, so these are not good for tracking. All users with the Opera Mini browser in their handset appear to come from Oslo, and almost all Blackberry users appear to come from Toronto. But if you know this, there are ways to go back into the system to find out where they really are.”

In addition to this information which is collected during the browsing activity, there is also the possibility for enriching this information later. For example:

  • If the system sees a new type of handset arrive on a site, the exact capabilities the handset may not be known yet. However, this data can be added back later when the handset capabilities are added to the system.
  • You normally can’t tell when a user leaves a mobile site because there is no Javascript. But if Bango sees the same user show up at another site, they know they have left the original site.
  • Bango can also add data about the user that they have gathered in other areas, for example the payment transactions the person has made, if they have gone through an age verification system, the other sites they have visited, etc.

Bango currently has a database of some 23 million subscribers that they have seen and have some collected some data about.


A wealth of information

Clearly the capability to track customers on and across mobile websites as well as through certain payment transactions will concentrate a lot of user information in one place. One of the biggest questions for Bango now is what is the right way to use it.

This information would obviously be very valuable to Bango’s content provider clients. As Ray says: “We have people banging on our doors saying – ‘please please can you tell us which of these customers are active shoppers with our competitors.’ We could, but the answer is no, we won’t provide you that information.”

Another possibility is that mobile operators could learn the patterns of behavior from subscribers on other operator networks.

At the moment, Bango’s content provider clients can only see information about customers that have visited their site, and only information about what they have done on their site.

“We’d like to ease that a bit, but we have to be very careful what extra information we make available.”

bango_ray_small.gifThe possibilities are intriguing. One idea Ray discussed would be essentially a virtual “gold card” – when a subscriber arrives at a mobile site, Bango could give an indication that this subscriber has previously spent a lot of money on mobile content. So the mobile site could treat them specially, even if it was the first time they had visited.

An further twist on this would be to have the subscribers decide how much information about them is revealed, perhaps in return for some discount or other special consideration.

This is an interesting result from this application of the Bango system, and it raises some fundamental questions. Ray sums up it up this way: “there is a wealth of information available, now we just have to figure out the right way to monetize it.”

To read more about how mobile analytics can help measure the success of a mobile advertising campaign, download a copy of Bango’s new white paper: Mobile Advertising for Newbies.

Ray’s Five Reasons
Why Existing Analytics Packages
Are Not Right For Mobile

1 – Javascript doesn’t work on most mobile devices. In fact it can be “worse than useless” because javasript on a mobile site will completely crash many phones or make their screens just show nonsense. Most all of the analytics systems are based on javascript.

2 – Cookies are unreliable on mobile phones, and most of the analytics systems track users through cookies.

3 – Network addresses are not reliable, because they are often actually the operator’s IP address, not specific to a user. In fact, there are only 14 IP addresses for all of Vodafone in the UK. IP address is what most all analytic packages use to track unique visitors.

4 – The Referral address is not passed. When an internet browser arrives on a website, usually it provides information about which site it came from, which keywords were used, etc. Although this capability exists for mobile browsers, it is very rarely implemented. This may well be because most mobile browsers were not really intended for browsing from site to site, they were more for looking at content on a single operator’s site.

5 – Mobile could be better. The fact is there is additional information which is available and relevant on mobile which is not handled by standard internet analytics packages because it is not present on the web. For example, for mobile you should keep track of which operator network the subscriber is on, the capabilities of the handsets (on the web, you never keep track of – for example – what type of audio capabilities the browsing PC has), which country the subscriber is in, etc.
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