The T-Mobile Buddy Finder: Lessons from the Past for Location Based Marketing

I clearly remember that day in early 2003. Sitting in the office of T-Mobile The Netherlands, with a working demo of a ‘buddy finder app’ avant la lettre, built on a Windows smartphone. In many ways that pitch represented all the hurdles the mobile revolution still had to take to get where we are now. Fast forward to 2011: what exactly has changed and which traps remain to be avoided?

Hardware = convenience + fun

The first big change since that pitch, is that we are now in a post-iPhone era. With that I mean we now have mass-consumer access to location enabled and convenient smartphones. Back then, we were showcasing our buddy finder on a device that only professional gadget freaks would buy and still we had to connect our ‘GPS mouse’ over Bluetooth. A process I’m sure will be met with great laughter when I tell my grandchildren at H75, but wasn’t much fun at the time..

So while that hurdle may appear to be taken, I still see consumer and professional convenience as a major attention point to most app builders. If you make friending, checking-in and privacy controls easy or even fun, you may be holding the winning app (e.g. foursquarescvngr).  If you make mobile campaign building convenient and fast, you may actually get business to try it out (e.g. geotoko).

Business agility = conditional to success

We demo’ed the T-Mobile manager a use case where a person was ‘pinged’ when one of his ‘friends’ was entering his pre-defined ‘geofenced’ private perimeter. Back then a true feat, now only one reason people check in.  To our surprise, his response was: “So how can I bill this app out per minute?”.  Shame on us for having thought only from the consumers’ perspective and not from the telco’s business model! Before there were any proven business models around data-plans or apps supported by advertising, managers actually had to go out on a limb to fit business models to customers and not the other way around. How risky and daring…

Of course with 20/20 hindsight we can see which entrepreneurs took that risk and got the return. But fundamentally nothing has changed with the inertia of international technology moguls. It still takes courage at every level of the organization to step out of the box and look at an innovation as a consumer, not a scorecard-managed employee. Even Apple, who seems defiant of the Law of the handicap of a head start, sometimes gets it wrong because of stubborn adherence to abstract business rules.

Imagination = everything

When it comes to innovation, you have to understand the points of view from the “T-Mobile manager” as well as the consumer. We failed to reach his imagination as he was stuck in his scorecarded ‘increase those call minutes’ bonus model. But of course, there are never enough arguments to convince those with lack of imagination. Everyone is stuck in a perspective in some way and if we are aiming to disperse innovation (e.g. because that is our job or scorecard), we have to bridge the mother of all gaps between consumer and producer.

So marketeering, as I argued before, is still the craft of using superior imagination to help companies use and produce new technologies to service a customer need in a better, more convenient and more enjoyable way.

From my perspective, this is why 2011 looks like a great year to be in marketing!

What convenience and fun is your hardware or app providing?

What idea or innovation is itching you and what business condition is holding you back?

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