U.K. Wireless Brand Turns Customer Service Over to Consumers

Users Get Freebies for Marketing the O2's Giffgaff to Others

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- You've seen user-generated content, so now get ready for user-generated marketing, technical support and customer service.

Giffgaff is a Scottish term that means mutual giving.
Giffgaff is a Scottish term that means mutual giving.
One of the UK's biggest cellphone operators is launching a new mobile network called Giffgaff whose customers will be able to earn free calls and texts by actively marketing the service to their friends and families.

Giffgaff -- a Scottish term that means mutual giving -- even anticipates allowing customers to generate their own marketing strategy for use by the company, with users creating ads and then voting on which ideas they want to see in a campaign. Consumers will also be able to make and implement suggestions about the future direction of the company, including product innovations.

The low-cost business model is being run by the O2 network, which is owned by Spanish telecom giant Telefonica. As well as marketing the service, customers will provide their own technical support network, asking and answering their own questions about the service online. There will be no official customer-service facility, although a call center based in Northern Ireland will be used for billing inquiries.

The more queries a customer answers, the more free airtime and texts they earn. A rating system similar to the eBay model will rank customers by the usefulness of their responses, with the aim of making the system self-policing.

Giffgaff CEO Mike Fairman said, "The idea came from a mate of mine, one of the O2 brand guys. He was very excited about the possibilities of a potential new business model, and he thought it would be great to apply the principles of web culture to a mobile network operation."

Thanks to the internet, marketers are used to consumers wielding considerable power over their brands. But to willingly cede all control to the public takes the phenomenon to another level.

Neil Henderson, managing partner at St. Luke's, has a lot of experience with user-generated initiatives through working with radio station Magic FM. He said, "At its best, user-generated contributions can be powerful: People want to express their ideas, and young people especially love to have a platform to get them noticed."

However, Mr. Henderson warned, "The best ideas come out of a conversation -- someone has to set the tone and ask the right questions. I'm not sure how much power Giffgaff will genuinely hand over. Wikipedia was originally turned over to the public, but now it's controlled by a very few super-powerful editors who change things they don't like. It looks like everyone's in control, but the power is in the hands of a few active people."

Joel Davis, CEO of social media shop Agency2, agreed: "They won't be able to rely purely on goodwill. They'll have to put money behind it in order to get the volume. If you look at the quality of their website, you can see that they have already put lots of thought and energy into it."

Mr. Davis said, "This brings social media beyond marketing and into the business level, but I think they will struggle. It makes sense to bring something sexy into the dreary world of selling SIM cards and it's perfect for young people, but it will be difficult to get momentum."

O2 has not left everything to the consumer. To get Giffgaff started, they have worked with digital agency Albion, ZenithOptimedia for media planning and buying, and Splendid Communications for public relations.

At launch, Giffgaff is promising a "people-powered marketing challenge" that it says will "inspire people to get creative and spread the word about Giffgaff." After that, the plan is to hand over more power to the consumer and operate on a low-cost base without the overhead of street stores, handset subsidies and call centers.

Mr. Fairman said, "As a people-powered network we'll avoid cost in many areas of our business, so we can pass on those savings to all our members in the form of lower prices. Keeping costs low is also good for the environment; the less resources we use the lower the carbon footprint we will have".

Inevitably the service will appeal to a younger audience that is already using online forums, but the company claims that Giffgaff is more about a mind-set than a demographic. It hopes that one in five of its users will receive rebates, which they can set against their phone costs or donate to charity.

Customers who contribute most to growing and running the business get money off their bills, and as an extra incentive, the top ranking Giffgaff users will get all their money back in a rebate that goes out twice a year.

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