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Friday, August 27, 2010

Telcos: time to stop reporting "subscribers" and start counting "users"

Perhaps the singlest greatest block to future growth and success for telecoms operators is their collective insistence on thinking of every customer as a "subscriber". The technology base, the unstated assumptions about business models, the financial reporting, the internal KPIs and the marketing is almost entirely geared towards "subs".

Ironically, even the well-known term ARPU is actually really ARPS.

Whilst it is absolutely true that subscription-type contracts and prepaid accounts will continue to be important, it is also essential that operators wake up to other ways of engaging.

Facebook and Google do not have "subscribers" - they have "users", which may well avail themselves of a variety of services. Magazines have "readers", some of whom are subscribers, others of whom buy a copy on an ad-hoc basis.

Train companies have "passengers" who make a number of "journeys" - some of these are season-ticket holders (ie subscribers), others purchase tickets when they need them, others have their ticket prices deducted from a prepaid credit for travel.

It amazes me that I'm seeing forecasts for LTE "subscribers" for 2015, as though that is the only way customers might purchase service in five years' time. If I buy a high-end camera with an LTE module in 2015, and use it twice a year when I go on holiday, in no way am I a "subscriber" - especially as I may want to lend it to a friend at another point. If I'm in a conference room where the organiser has provided free in-room LTE for a day, are we all subscribers? Including the projector and printer?

Some operators have started to split out M2M connections (mostly because the ARPU is much lower and would drag the averages down). Well done Verizon, for example. But that is only part of the story, as generally even those connections are regularly monthly/annual deals.

With the rise of operators' own social network and Internet properties (Orange ON, Telefonica Jajah, Vodafone 360 etc), they will be obtaining a significant user base that do not buy access. Are they subscribers? If they *do* buy access, are they double-counted as both subscribers and users?

Add to this the problem of two-sided models, where someone else is paying for a service such as a calling or messaging API, and the definitions get even fuzzier.

The bottom line is this: if all you've got is a hammer marked "SIM" then you can only view all your customers as nails. You need a better toolbox.


Tsahi Levent-Levi said...

Martin Sauter touched this same subject a few days ago. I think you're both talking about the same issues with similar solutions - you only call it differently.
Check out his post: http://mobilesociety.typepad.com/mobile_life/2010/08/the-meaning-of-arpu-reverses.html

Lily Beatrice said...

But "user" may be misleading in certain contexts, especially when someone has two SIM cards. It's for this exact reason that my company switched to saying "subscription" rather than "subscriber" last year. Of course, that's not perfect either, because someone with an LTE-enabled stove isn't really a "subscriber" in the conventional sense. This is why I personally prefer "connection", since it implies a usage without necessarily linking it to a person.

I'd like to see you touch more on the underlying issue here: that the companies themselves in charge of selling these technologies don't seem to understand how they're being used.