Sender pays: the first taste of the future of mobile content.

Do you want to provide rich mobile content – animation, video, games etc. – either as part of subscription or as part of a marketing campaign, without consumers being slapped with indeterminate download fees? Then rejoice, because change is afoot.

Whatever you call it the ‘sender-pays’ or ‘zero-rated-data’ model, it’s here and the British made-for-mobile drama THMBNLS, proves it works. And changes on the cards over the next few months will make it easier, and maybe cheaper, to pull it off.

We all dream of a future where every subscriber, with every mobile operator, is on a ‘true’ unlimited data plan. But until then – whenever ‘then’ maybe – content providers and mobile marketers alike play Russian roulette with customers’ bills each time they view your content.

  • Unlimited plan: it’s free;
  • Capped plan: they might pay;
  • Contract: they pay;
  • Pay-as-you-go: they pay lots

So what do you do? a) wait for every operator to go unlimited; b) avoid rich content; c) keep writing those lengthy this-might-cost-you-a-fortune warnings; d) restrict campaigns to the folks with unlimited plans; or e) pay the charges yourself?

With experts estimating that zero-rated plans will cost you (the sender) between 1/20th and 1/50th of the cost your customer (the receiver) will pay on the most punitive pay-as-you-go tariff, it has to be worth a closer look.

THMBNLS: sender-pays in action

We’re familiar with the concept of sender-pays/zero-rated, but we hadn’t seen it in action, until now.

THMBNLS is a made-for-mobile drama recently released to spread a safe-sex message to UK teenagers. It was produced by creative agency 20:20 London for the UK Central Office of Information [COI]. It’s a great concept and it isn’t just free, it’s free to download, whatever the network. And with such a high proportion of teens on pay-as-you-go, that has got to be good news.

Teens register at THMBNLS.mobi or THMBNLS.co.uk to receive a text each Friday with a link to the weekly 60-second episode, which, we repeat, they will be charged nothing to download. This is followed up with a text or call from one of the characters encouraging viewers to text in. This interaction can help to determine the future storyline. There’s more information here.

UK agency Incentivated negotiated the zero-rated deal with each of the main UK mobile operators on behalf of the Central Office of Information, which runs the THMBNLS campaign. So the COI pays a fixed price per MB of data to each carrier to guarantee no UK subscriber pays.

“Incentivated has worked with the mobile providers to ensure that it’s free to users. We identified any download costs as a barrier to sign up for young people and worked hard to remove this barrier,” said Emma Cowan, Interactive Services, COI.

The agency continually checks its service using phones with pay-as-you-go and contract price-plans on each network to make sure no one gets charged.

Removing the barrier

Data transit charges are seen as a major barrier to growth of the mobile Internet, for two reasons. Firstly consumers – with good reason – have a major fear of download fees. Costs are unpredictable and flat-rate data plans often aren’t unlimited. Secondly content providers and mobile marketers alike don’t want to be blamed for their customers receiving expensive data charges.

Ubiquitous unlimited data plans would solve this problem. But how many folks outside the premium/business market of BlackBerry, iPhones etc. have unlimited data today? To be sure it’s a small fraction of the COI’s target market of teenagers.

That’s why you will hear a lot more about sender-pays, with a series of announcements over the next few months, starting with Mobile World Congress, February 16-19, in Barcelona.

From now on, expect to see both a) mobile operators setting up zero-data services (apparently most leading networks have these in place or in the pipeline); and b) mobile-transaction networks setting up schemes to act as intermediaries (as they do with SMS campaigns), between content providers/mobile marketers and all operators.

One of the first off the marks in Barcelona will be mBlox, a large, global, mobile-transaction network. Details are pretty sketchy, but it appears that mBlox has been running cross-operator trial of the sender-pays model, with most of the UK operators and a number of content providers. If the pilot is proved to work in the UK, expect the mBlox to role it out to its other territories.

To date, what Incentivated set up with THMBNLS is an achievement, both in terms of negotiation and technical skills. Both operator and transaction network-led initiatives will remove part of the headache, presumably with largest campaigns going straight to the operators and smaller ones choosing the mBlox route.

Assuming the price is right, the sender-pays model looks a great prospect for content providers and mobile marketers alike:

  • It doesn’t matter what sort of data plan the customer has.
  • There’s no need to warn the customer about the cost of downloads.
  • There is great first mover advantage in being the first to offer content totally free or if on subscription to promise there are no hidden costs.
  • There is great scope for tie-ups between content providers and mobile advertisers to provide sponsored content, to help cover download costs.

The most important thing is it opens the doors to the mobile Web to hordes of people who wouldn’t otherwise go near it.

Do you have plans to make use of sender pays? Comment below or email editor (at) mobiThinking.com.

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