To Market, to Market

Building China's Long-Awaited 3G Networks Was Easy Compared to the Task of Marketing Them, Says David Wolf

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BEIJING ( -- Now that China's telecommunications aparatchiks have granted licenses to the nation's three mobile operators to run third-generation (3G) wireless networks, the race is on to buy, build, test, and deploy those networks.

While it would be disingenuous to dismiss the difficulty of that task, China's telecom operators have proven themselves some of the world's best network engineers, and China Mobile, saddled with an untried domestic technology, is already a year into their own network build.

The odds are that China will have three operating 3G networks by the end of the year.

The real challenge will come when the networks are finished, the services are ready, and the handsets are in the shops. If there is a common lesson to be learned from almost all of the carriers in the world that have deployed 3G to date, it is this: Building the network is the easy part. Selling it to users is a lot tougher.
David Wolf
David Wolf
Most operators wind up spending a much greater portion of their revenues than they anticipated simply to market the new networks.

China will be no different. Only a tiny percentage of the nation's 600 million-odd mobile subscribers are aware of the possible benefits of a 3G phone, care about anything more than voice calls, or can afford to spend more money on the services and handsets that will be essential to get much use from 3G.

Worse, China's operators have consistently proven that they are less than adept at marketing premium services. In order for China's 3G networks to be a success, China's mobile operators need to become superior marketers.

I figure they have about eight months to pull it off. The creative pitches for the 3G network marketing programs for China Telecom and China Unicom (and possibly also China Mobile) will likely be among the most important of the year.

I would wager that if each of the carriers is not already drafting a request for proposal (RFPs) for agencies to help with this huge and critical effort, they are no doubt thinking about it. Whatever the carriers may think about their own marketing capabilities, the battle for 3G will be the most competitive, high-stakes fight in the history of China's mobile communications business. If there was ever a time to call for help--and to listen to the counsel of your agencies--this is it.

Selling On Phone
Before marketers lean back with schadenfreude smiles and rub their hands in anticipation of the windfall to come, they need to remember that 3G in China will also confront them with the specter of their own continuing failure to figure out how to turn mobile devices into an effective, engaging marketing channel.

As 3G networks roll out, the demand from clients to find creative and intelligent ways to use mobile devices as an advertising and communications channel will grow. They see 600 million people looking at tiny screens everyday, they want a piece of that, and they see 3G as an opportunity to turn mobile marketing into something more than just SMS spam.

There are no easy solutions, no templates, no low-risk approaches to mobile marketing. The technology is new and it is a gamble. The answer is not to dismiss mobile by calling it "the channel of the future, and it always will be," as I have heard marketers say all too often. We do our clients disservice by underselling mobile marketing as much as we would by overselling it.

Nor is the answer to create a Potemkin "mobile marketing" team staffed by young firebrands with passion, ambition, and little else. Excitement and determination are fine, but advertisers will not venture into mobile unless they detect substance to your offering and realism in your pitch.

The answer is to invest in the full scope of creativity, capabilities, and skills needed to make mobile an effective part the of 360 campaigns, either by partnering with specialized agencies offering mobile marketing services with some success already, or by acquiring those capabilities through investments in talented people.

It's tough to make a case for sharing revenues with outsiders or hiring new talent in the maw of a global economic downturn and the hiring freezes that have come as a result. But the launch of 3G in China is our wake up call. If there was ever a market and a time for us to throw ourselves into the task of making mobile marketing work, it is here and now.

David Wolf manages Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based management advisory firm that specializes in technology, media, telecommunications, and entertainment.

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