Long production lead times, high m-commerce revenue shares, subjecting one's mobile marketing plans to the whims of the carriers… these are just a few of the drawbacks of an on-deck wireless presence. To be perfectly fair, though, an on-deck presence means you'll reach a large number of people you might not normally have access to.
If you haven't the faintest idea what I'm talking about, the deck comprises the categorized links that wireless carriers typically bundle into web-enabled phones. There may be links to weather forecasts, stocks quotes, sports news and other such content, or quick links to mobile commerce sites that offer ringtones, wallpapers and other such pay-to-download content. Some have likened the deck to AOL's channels within its old walled garden, or to the pre-bundled links that used to come with downloads of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator back in the day. [Editor's note: See also .]
These are pretty accurate analogies, and as mobile marketing builds mass carriers have the ability to focus the mobile traffic of millions of mobile users on a handful of mobile sites and applications. Remind you of the early days of internet buying? Oh come on: I'll admit to buying AOL Welcome Screens many moons ago, just for the purposes of traffic-building.
Just as the AOL Welcome Screen brought web servers to their knees with an overwhelming surge of traffic, such is the power of the deck. To many marketers gearing up their mobile presences, carriers represent the only opportunity to drive traffic in volume (at least in the magnitude that most offline media planners are used to dealing with). So marketers may elect to grin and bear it with respect to some of the hurdles they may need to get over with carriers, since a robust mobile presence is worthless without a healthy influx of mobile traffic.
Speaking of hurdles…
If you're planning to be on-deck, you're going to have to expend significantly more effort than you might when putting together an off-deck presence. On-deck applications need to be pre-approved by carriers, and they test code and functionality against a wide variety of mobile devices and platforms during their QA process. I've heard this process described as "rigorous" and even "draconian," and it varies from carrier to carrier. Depending on how complex your effort is, you may have to spend months gaining carrier approval. Multiply this by the number of carriers you plan to tap into, and the process can certainly drag out.
Then there are the slotting and/or revenue-sharing fees. Getting on deck with a mobile platform can be quite expensive, extending into seven figures (U.S.) in some cases. If you're delivering content or applications on a pay-for-play basis -- think ringtones and wallpapers here -- you will likely have to share revenue with the carrier, in which case the carrier's share of the revenue may approach or even exceed 50 percent.
Many players in the mobile space elect to launch off-deck at first, such that they can refine their product within the confines of their own QA process rather than that of the carriers. This may be a wise decision if you plan to launch within weeks as opposed to months. If something is funky with your code or your mobile site's features cause a problem with a specific mobile device, then it's best to find out about it and fix it on your own terms rather than having a carrier discover it during QA, prompting a move back to square one.
Will on-deck continue to dominate?
If the thought of shepherding your mobile efforts through the process of getting on-deck makes your head hurt, don't fret. As we learned from AOL over the past decade or so, increased usage, penetration and education all tend to work together to break down the walls of walled gardens. The more AOL tightened its grip and tried to control user traffic, the more it became known as the ISP for newbies who didn't know any better. It had to relinquish control to move away from that positioning in the market.
So why should we expect wireless carriers to be any different? Mobile web and data usage is certainly climbing at a healthy rate, and we can't expect mobile users to stay on the deck forever. As they learn more about their devices and the mobile web in general, they'll move toward the things they like and away from the content spoon-fed to them, if it serves their interests.
Perhaps then marketers won't have to rely on earning a spot on-deck in order to get significant traffic to their mobile efforts.