Industry Blog

The One Myth Every Mobile Operator Tells Themselves

Time to read: 5 minutes

Myths are a feature of every culture the world over. And we enjoy them. Who wouldn’t like to hear again the story of Hercules or Count Dracula? And which child would say no to a fairy tale about a big bad wolf, or a golden-haired girl stumbling upon three bears in the forest?

Yet, myths and fairy tales that we end up believing about ourselves can be damaging. The common thread is that they are essentially untrue. So, if we buy into them we can end up limiting ourselves. We can spend years chasing the wrong dream; we can face repeated disappointments by not seeing things as they truly are.

Now, there is one myth, one fairy tale, that mobile operators in particular seem to have bought into.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin …

Who owns the subscriber?

Long, long ago when the mobile internet was very young, one question would come up again and again. Do you remember? It came up at conference after conference: Who owns the subscriber? It seemed to the people of the day (err… us) an enormously important question since, subscriber ownership implied unimagined power! Whether you were the content provider, the aggregator, portal, handset OEM, or indeed the mobile operator – who wouldn’t want to ‘own’ the subscriber? Terrible battles took place at conference after conference, and much blood was shed (OK maybe not actual blood).

But, the years slipped by and in the end, people stopped asking the question because they worked out nobody owns the subscriber – apart from the subscriber himself. Surely, people should have turned this question around: Instead of considering subscribers as so many specks of data to be fought over, they should have asked the subscribers themselves a question. Not – “who owns you?” – that wouldn’t make sense. But instead “who do you trust?” Who do you really trust? This is a similar question but aimed at the subscriber, not the industry. If you ask the specific question: “who do you trust with your data?”, most subscribers could probably answer.

So, we did.

And herein lies the myth.

Who do subscribers trust the most?

Independent research carried out by Censuswide in 2017 asked 2,000 subscribers in the US and the UK a “mirror mirror on the wall who is the fairest of them all?” kind of question. Namely: who do you trust with your most precious asset – your personal data? This includes username/password, location, internet browsing habits, buying habits, address etc. The really personal stuff!

And the answer? Well that was a surprise.

Across the board, subscribers trust their mobile operator more than social networks, more than search engines and more than government intelligence services. In fact, they trust their mobile operator second only to their bank.

To be sure, that was a turn up. But the biggest surprise in our story was yet to come.

You have to be curious. You have to dig deeper into the results. Like a little girl once did with a “What big teeth you have grandma!” kind of question.

So, we did.

We drilled deeper and deeper into the data. We looked specifically at younger subscribers – millennials (those aged 16-34), and it turns out this age group trust their mobile operator far more than any of the other named institutions – even including online banks.

So, the myth that the mobile industry has bought into; the fairy tale that somehow subscribers have a greater affinity, a more robust relationship, a greater level of trust with online brands than with their mobile operators, is exactly that. It’s a myth.

But surely subscribers prefer online brands like Facebook and Google?

Good question. Surely subscribers prefer to deal with flashy online brands than the plain old mobile operator? And of course, the online brands, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple etc are quite happy for the mobile industry to buy into this idea.

But it depends exactly what question we’re asking.

Of course the Googles and Facebooks win over as shinier, more exciting brands. Mobile operators do not. It’s a bit like comparing your long-term spouse or partner with a younger, more exciting prospect. With one, you have comfort, understanding and shared history – you know where you are.  With the other, sure, life could be more interesting, but it could be a love-hate relationship, and it may not last.

Adding to the view that subscribers trust operators more than online brands is the constant flurry of bad publicity that social networks and internet brands face. Internet tech giants face serious questions over the spread of fake news, their involvement in the US election, their data collection habits, their association with online abuse, and of course there are anti-competitive “get your house in order” remarks being made by regulators the world over. Right now their streets may be paved with gold (or at least their corporate HQs) but their reputations are taking a hammering.

Indeed, a recent survey from The Verge revealed much about America’s attitudes to their tech giants. What came across – loud and clear – was that Americans did not trust Facebook.

“Yes, but even if we do have subscriber trust, aren’t long term relationships … umm just a bit boring?” I hear you ask. Well, despite any perceived boredom, surely the simple and important point for the subscriber is: who do you ultimately trust? Who do you trust with the precious aspects of your life? A bunch of guys whose noses just keep getting longer and longer, or …

“Trust Me I’m A Mobile Operator!”

Could it be that in assuming “we are the ugly duckling”; in desperately trying to mimic the marketing of internet brands; in trying to play OTTs at their own game; mobile operators have bought into a myth and neglected the one aspect of the subscriber relationship that cannot be stolen from them?

The data doesn’t lie.

And the data indicates subscribers trust mobile operators. It is a historical, foundational and unique relationship which other organisations cannot easily replicate. Trust counts for more than you think. Marketing messages about trust take a different route to the brain than marketing messages about lower prices or fancy features or data plans. It’s right-brain versus left-brain. Think about it. You can bypass even logic by reverting back to trust.

Certainly, this needs to be done with care. Trust can evaporate. So exactly HOW do we utilise this foundation of trust in our dealings with the subscriber, without abusing it?

… Well, as they say, that’s a story for another day …


 This article originally appeared on The Fast Mode