One of the last great hopes of believers in the interruptive marketing model is that consumers will willingly opt into advertising if there is enough of an incentive to do so. This idea is inspiring a few new business models; perhaps the most-watched has been Blyk, a mobile service in the UK that since 2007 has been offering free calls and texts to 16- to 24-year-olds in return for mandatory advertising. Alas, Blyk failed to hit its growth numbers and was recently absorbed into telecom giant Orange with little fanfare or investor payday. I believe it proves my point that when the price of interruption is too high, the only way forward is Marketing with Meaning.
The business model of Blyk was fairly simple: Offer free mobile service to teens and young adults who are heavy users but have small bank accounts, and use mandatory advertising to lure big marketers eager to engage with an audience that is notoriously difficult to reach. According to Advertising Age, the company expected to reach 4.5 million members and roll out across Europe in its first year. There was even talk of an eventual U.S. entry. Alas, the service hit only 200,000 members in its first year and was unable to attract more users.
There were some good signs from the Blyk experiment. The company launched more than 2,000 campaigns, which included top brands such as Coca-Cola, Colgate, L’Oreal, and the BBC. Clearly the company was reaching an audience that these marketers desire. And the response rates to the forced ads were actually very good. The average response was “at least 25%” and one quiz for L’Oreal got a 70% response rate.
So, WTF? Simple: Most people, even teenagers with more time than money, find the true cost of advertising interruption so high that they will not accept it. In 2005 there were 6.9 million people aged 16 to 24 in the UK, so 200,000 Blyk users represent only 2.9% penetration (assuming 100% of Blyk subscribers fell into this narrow range and the company didn’t kick out users at age 25). Consider the fact that this is a very social crowd, and likely each of the 200,000 users told dozens of friends about the service. The lack of growth shows that the proposition of free mobile service could not overcome the advertising overload.
I think this experiment also shows how personally important the mobile device is in our lives. While we might be OK with zoning out in front of ad-supported passive media such as television (even on Hulu.com), our mobile devices are our active, lean-forward links to the world. As we’ve seen with the tens of millions of people who have signed up for the Federal Do-Not-Call List, we want our phones to be immune to marketing interruption.
Some might wonder why the response rates to ads were so high. I believe it is just a logical function of the type of people who were attracted to Blyk in the first place; in other words, the (small) audience that bought into Blyk doesn’t find advertising to be that much of a negative. Some of them even enjoyed the advertising. It reminds me of a study AOL did a few years ago on the .2% of people who click on banner ads more than once per month. These rare few are “the same people that tend to open direct mail and love to talk to telemarketers.”
So another ad-supported business model bites the dust. My hope is that marketers and the investment community see this specifically as an example of how interruption and annoyance will fail in new media. As I wrote about earlier this week in my review of Chris Anderson’s book, Free, the price of consumer attention continues to increase. Forcing people to accept a drain on their time and attention (forced ads) in exchange for something of value (free cell service) is likely the wrong way to go. But if the marketing itself can be enjoyable and add immediate value in return for people’s attention, we might just be able to win them over.