On May 22, 2003, a new community, two million strong, entered the United States. Comprised of trendsetters and early adopters, its members come from seven different countries. They are bound by many similarities but initially brought together by one common device: mobile phones.
Building a Community
With the spread of text messaging and the popularity of ring tones, the potential of mobile phones seems to be at its peak in the United States. CEO Federico Pisani Massamormile recognized a perfect opportunity and opened up his community to Verizon Wireless mobile phone subscribers.
“The window of opportunity is really now,” says Massamormile. “We believe we entered the market at the right time.”
The community, known as “blah!,” originated in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June, 2000 and grants members access to four different categories: personalization, leisure, channels and connection. Through ring tones, icons and wallpaper, members can express and differentiate themselves. Games and quizzes offer members an outlet and a way to relax. Agreements with more than 50 content providers inform subscribers within the community of unique content such as music, theater and local events. Most importantly, though, it offers members a way to build a true community and get to know each other through anonymous chat, love matchmakers and other interesting methods such as tarot.
“People do become friends, people do go to the theaters together, and people use this as a communication tool, so instead of calling each other, they use blah! to interact on a daily basis,” says Massamormile.
Massamormile has seen equal usage among the connection, personalization and channel categories and says that the connection category serves as the main entrance into the community. People start by browsing through each other’s profiles, then they start interacting with one another, and finally they start playing games and sending ringtones, he says.
Wireless Marketing Tactics
It is this personal element of the community that also enables blah! to effectively advertise to its members and motivate them to attend events and subscribe to new channels. According to Massamormile, all the blah! employees are also members of the community. This grants them special access to a community of trendsetters and early adopters that are willing to talk.
“We constantly talk to our users and discover a lot from them,” he says. “A lot of ideas about promotions, wireless marketing or even specification of a new feature or product are coming from end users directly.”
One of blah!’s main methods of reaching the community is by tuning into what the members are interested in and recommending channels or services that would appeal to them based on these initial observances. For example, if one member conducts a search for someone with whom to play soccer, blah! employees know his interest is in soccer and sends him a message informing him of a specific news channel to which he can subscribe. This kind of targeted advertising results in a high return in subscriptions and is the most effective tool, says Massamormile.
Another method that blah! uses is to offer members the chance to win free tickets to events when they subscribe to certain channels or services.
“If you talk to your end users and you know them, [this type of advertising] can be very effective,” says Massamormile.
Essentially, intimacy and personalization is the magic behind blah!’s method of wireless advertising.
“We’re using [mobile phones] to advertise our own services, and it’s very effective,” says Massamormile. “But you have to know how to target, you have to be non-invasive. It’s very delicate otherwise people get very upset. It’s really the ability of targeting and delivering it to the right person when he wants to know it.”
Though precaution is essential, Massamormile sees wireless marketing as a necessity and a powerful new channel in the media mix. Despite requests from media contacts and advertisers, though, blah! is currently keeping the doors to the community closed to outside marketers.
A Growing Community
With the recent expansion into the United States, the blah! community is growing, and the brand is getting one step closer to achieving its goal of a universal community bound by mobile phones.
“Our vision as a company is to create the largest, wireless community in the world,” says Massamormile.
Currently, members in the United States can only chat and play futblah, a soccer game, with other members. Though Massamormile would not say when the additional channels would be available, he did mention that blah! usually rolls out a new release every three months. This gradual introduction of the services is to ensure that consumers are not overwhelmed and have the time to enjoy and feel comfortable with the services.
Massamormile is currently focusing his attention on the United States and Canada but has set his long-term goals to include Europe and Asia.
Though cultural differences might be a concern in such circumstances, Massamormile is not worried about how United States’ consumers will respond, as he believes that mobile phones cross all barriers.
“We ran a lot of research, and mobile use is a new cross-cultural segment that has some key components all over the world,” he says. “That’s what blah! is all about. It’s an international community. These people cannot live without their cell phones, they want new forms of entertainment, new ways of interacting with the world, and they’re always with their cell phones.”
Meanwhile the numbers support the research. Massamormile is pleased with the response he has received so far from Verizon Wireless subscribers and says the usage per user in the United States is even higher than what the company is experiencing in Latin America.
blah! may have started from nothing. Even its name, which was picked by an employee and adopted by the company, means nothing. However, now, three years after its conception, it has become a community, connecting members throughout Latin America and the United States by one single device: a mobile phone.