Five Principles for Disruptive Strategy

Introduction

Disruption has become a popular theme, and there are some excellent studies and theories, notably the work of Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation.

This briefing is intended to add some of our observations, ideas and analysis from looking at disruptive forces in play in the telecoms market and the adjacent areas of commerce and content that have had and will have significant consequences for telecoms.

Our analysis centres on the concept of a business model: a relatively simple structure that can be used to describe and analyse a business and its strategy holistically. The structure we typically use is shown below in Figure 1, and comprises 5 key domains: The Marketplace; Service Offering; Value Network; Finance; and Technology.

Figure 1 – A business model is the commercial architecture of a business: how it makes money

Telco 2.0: STL Partners standard business model analysis Framework

Source: STL Partners

This structure is well suited to analysis of disruption, because disruptive competition is generally a case of conflict between companies with different business models, rather than competition between similarly configured businesses.

A disruptive competitor, such as Facebook for telecoms operators, may be in a completely different core business (advertising and marketing services) seeking to further that business model by disrupting an existing telecoms service (voice and messaging communications). Or it may be a broadly similar player, such as Free in France whose primary business is recognisably telecoms, using a radically different operational model to gain share from direct competitors.

We will look at some of these examples in more depth in this report, and also call on analysis of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon to illustrate principles

Digital value is often transient

KPN: a brief case study in disruption

KPN, a mobile operator in the Netherlands, started to report a gradual reduction in SMS / user statistics in early 2011, after a long period of near continuous growth.

Figure 2 – KPN’s SMS stats per user started to change at the end of 2010

Telco 2.0 Figure 2 KPNs SMS stats per user stated to change at the end of 2010

Source: STL Partners, Mobile World Database

KPN linked this change to the rapid rise of the use of WhatsApp, a so-called over-the-top (OTT) messaging application it had noticed among ‘advanced users’ – a set of younger Android customers, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 – WhatsApp took off in certain segments at the end of 2010

Telco 2.0 Figure 3 WhatsApp took off in certain segments at the end of 2010

Source: KPN Corporate Briefing, May 2011

There was some debate at the time about the causality of the link, but the longer term picture of use and app penetration certainly supports the connection between the rise of WhatsApp take-up among KPN’s broader base (as opposed to ‘advanced users’ in Figure 3) and the rapid decline of SMS volumes as Figure 4 shows.

Figure 4 – KPN’s SMS volumes have continued to decline since 2010

Telco 2.0 Figure 4 KPN’s SMS volumes have continued to decline since 2010

Source: STL Partners estimates, Mobile World, Telecomspaper, Statista, Comscore, KPN.

How did that happen then?

KPN’s position was particularly suited to a disruptive attack by WhatsApp (and other messaging apps) in the Netherlands because:

  • It had relatively high unit prices per SMS.
  • KPN had not ‘bundled’ many SMSs into its packages compared to other operators, and usage was very much ‘pay as you go’ – so using WhatsApp offered immediate savings to users.
  • Its market of c.17 million people is technologically savvy with high early smartphone penetration, and densely populated for such a wealthy country, so well suited to the rapid viral growth of such apps.

KPN responded by increasing the number of SMSs in bundles and attempting to ‘sell up’ users to packages with bigger bundles. It has also embarked on more recent programmes of cost reduction and simplification. But as far as SMS was concerned, the ‘horse had bolted the stable’ and the decline continues as consumers gravitate away from a service perceived as losing relevance and value.

We will look in more depth at disruptive pricing and product design strategies in the section on ‘Free is not enough, nor is it the real issue’ later in this report. This case study also presents another challenge for strategists: why did the company not act sooner and more effectively?

Denial is not a good defence

One might be forgiven for thinking that the impact of WhatsApp on KPN was all a big surprise. And perhaps to some it was. But there were plenty of people that expected significant erosion of core revenues from such disruption. In a survey we conducted in 2011, the average forecast among 300 senior global telecoms execs was that OTT services would lead to a 38% decline in SMS over the next 3-5 years, and earlier surveys had shown similar pessimism.

Having said that, it is also true that there was some shock in the market at the time over KPN’s results, and subsequent findings in other markets in Latin America and elsewhere. It is only recently that it has become more of an accepted ‘norm’ in the industry that its core revenues are subject to attack and decline.

Perhaps the best narrative explanation is one of ‘corporate denial’, akin to the human process of grief. Before we reach acceptance of a loss, individuals (and consequently teams and organisations by this theory) go through various stages of emotional response before reaching ‘acceptance’ – a series of stages sometimes characterised as ‘denial, anger, negotiation and acceptance’. This takes time, and is generally considered healthy for people’s emotional health, if not necessarily organisations’ commercial wellbeing.

So what can be done about this? It’s hard to change nature, but it is possible to recognise circumstances and prepare forward plans differently. In the digital era, leaders, strategists, marketers, and product managers need to recognise that profit pools are increasingly transient, and if you are skilful or lucky enough to have one in your portfolio, it is critical to anticipate that someone is probably working on how to disrupt it, and to gather and act quickly on intelligence on realistic threats. There are also steps that can be taken to improve defensive positions against disruption, and we look at some of these in this report. It isn’t always possible because sometimes the start point is not ideal – but then again, part of the art is to avoid that position.

 

  • Executive Summary: five principles
  • Introduction
  • Digital value is often transient
  • KPN: a brief case study in disruption
  • How did that happen then?
  • Denial is not a good defence
  • Timing a disruptive move is critical
  • Disruption visibly destroys value
  • So when should strategists choose disruption?
  • Free is not enough, nor is it the real issue
  • How market winners meet needs better
  • How to compete with ‘free’?
  • Build the platform, feed the flywheel
  • Nurture the ecosystem
  • …don’t price it to death

 

  • Figure 1 – A business model is the commercial architecture of a business: how it makes money
  • Figure 2 – KPN’s SMS stats per user started to change at the end of 2010
  • Figure 3 – WhatsApp took off in certain segments at the end of 2010
  • Figure 4 – KPN’s SMS volumes have continued to decline since 2010
  • Figure 5 – Free’s disruptive play is destroying value in the French Market, Q1 2012-Q3 2014
  • Figure 6 – Verizon is winning in the US – but most players are still growing too, Q1 2011-Q1 2014
  • Figure 7 – How ‘OTT’ apps meet certain needs better than core telco services
  • Figure 8 – US and Spain: different approaches to disruptive defence
  • Figure 9 – The Amazon platform ‘flywheel’ of success

Communications Services: What now makes a winning value proposition?

Introduction

This is an extract of two sections of the latest Telco 2.0 Strategy Report The Future Value of Voice and Messaging for members of the premium Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing Service.

The full report:

  • Shows how telcos can slow the decline of voice and messaging revenues and build new communications services to maximise revenues and relevance with both consumer and enterprise customers.
  • Includes detailed forecasts for 9 markets, in which the total decline is forecast between -25% and -46% on a $375bn base between 2012 and 2018, giving telcos an $80bn opportunity to fight for.
  • Shows impacts and implications for other technology players including vendors and partners, and general lessons for competing with disruptive players in all markets.
  • Looks at the impact of so-called OTT competition, market trends and drivers, bundling strategies, operators developing their own Telco-OTT apps, advanced Enterprise Communications services, and the opportunities to exploit new standards such as RCS, WebRTC and VoLTE.

The Transition in User Behaviour

A global change in user behaviour

In November, 2012 we published European Mobile: The Future’s not Bright, it’s Brutal. Very soon after its publication, we issued an update in the light of results from Vodafone and Telefonica that suggested its predictions were being borne out much faster than we had expected.

Essentially, the macro-economic challenges faced by operators in southern Europe are catalysing the processes of change we identify in the industry more broadly.

This should not be seen as a “Club Med problem”. Vodafone reported a 2.7% drop in service revenue in the Netherlands, driven by customers reducing their out-of-bundle spending. This sensitivity and awareness of how close users are getting to their monthly bundle allowances is probably a good predictor of willingness to adopt new voice and messaging applications, i.e. if a user is regularly using more minutes or texts than are included in their service bundle, they will start to look for free or lower cost alternatives. KPN Mobile has already experienced a “WhatsApp shock” to its messaging revenues. Even in Vodafone Germany, voice revenues were down 6.1% and messaging 3.7%. Although enterprise and wholesale business were strong, prepaid lost enough revenue to leave the company only barely ahead. This suggests that the sizable low-wage segment of the German labour market is under macro-economic stress, and a shock is coming.

The problem is global, for example, at the 2013 Mobile World Congress, the CEO of KT Corp described voice revenues as “collapsing” and stated that as a result, revenues from their fixed operation had halved in two years. His counterpart at Turk Telekom asserted that “voice is dead”.

The combination of technological and macro-economic challenge results in disruptive, rather than linear change. For example, Spanish subscribers who adopt WhatsApp to substitute expensive operator messaging (and indeed voice) with relatively cheap data because they are struggling financially have no particular reason to return when the recovery eventually arrives.

Price is not the only issue

Also, it is worth noting that price is not the whole problem. Back at MWC 2013, the CEO of Viber, an OTT voice and messaging provider, claimed that the app has the highest penetration in Monaco, where over 94% of the population use Viber every day. Not only is Monaco somewhere not short of money, but it is also a market where the incumbent operator bundles unlimited SMS, though we feel that these statistics might slightly stretch the definition of population as there are many French subscribers using Monaco SIM cards. However, once adoption takes off it will be driven by social factors (the dynamics of innovation diffusion) and by competition on features.

Differential psychological and social advantages of communications media

The interaction styles and use cases of new voice and messaging apps that have been adopted by users are frequently quite different to the ones that have been imagined by telecoms operators. Between them, telcos have done little more than add mobility to telephony during the last 100 years, However, because of the Internet and growth of the smartphone, users now have many more ways to communicate and interact other than just calling one another.

SMS (only telcos’ second mass ‘hit’ product after voice) and MMS are “fire-and-forget” – messages are independent of each other, and transported on a store-and-forward basis. Most IM applications are either conversation-based, with messages being organised in threads, or else stream-based, with users releasing messages on a broadcast or publish-subscribe basis. They often also have a notion of groups, communities, or topics. In getting used to these and internalising their shortcuts, netiquette, and style, customers are becoming socialised into these applications, which will render the return of telcos as the messaging platform leaders with Rich Communication System (RCS) less and less likely. Figure 1 illustrates graphically some important psychological and social benefits of four different forms of communication.

Figure 1:  Psychological and social advantages of voice, SMS, IM, and Social Media

Psychological and social advantages of voice, SMS, IM, and Social Media Dec 2013

Source: STL Partners

The different benefits can clearly be seen. Taking voice as an example, we can see that a voice call could be a private conversation, a conference call, or even part of a webinar. Typically, voice calls are 1 to 1, single instance, and with little presence information conveyed (engaged tone or voicemail to others). By their very nature, voice calls are real time and have a high time commitment along with the need to pay attention to the entire conversation. Whilst not as strong as video or face to face communication, a voice call can communicate high emotion and of course is audio.

SMS has very different advantages. The majority of SMS sent are typically private, 1 to 1 conversations, and are not thread based. They are not real time, have no presence information, and require low time commitment, because of this they typically have minimal attention needs and while it is possible to use a wide array of emoticons or smileys, they are not the same as voice or pictures. Even though some applications are starting to blur the line with voice memos, today SMS messaging is a visual experience.

Instant messaging, whether enterprise or consumer, offers a richer experience than SMS. It can include presence, it is often thread based, and can include pictures, audio, videos, and real time picture or video sharing. Social takes the communications experience a step further than IM, and many of the applications such as Facebook Messenger, LINE, KakaoTalk, and WhatsApp are exploiting the capabilities of these communications mechanisms to disrupt existing or traditional channels.

Voice calls, whether telephony or ‘OTT’, continue to possess their original benefits. But now, people are learning to use other forms of communication that better fit the psychological and social advantages that they seek in different contexts. We consider these changes to be permanent and ongoing shifts in customer behaviour towards more effective applications, and there will doubtless be more – which is both a threat and an opportunity for telcos and others.

The applicable model of how these shifts transpire is probably a Bass diffusion process, where innovators enter a market early and are followed by imitators as the mass majority. Subsequently, the innovators then migrate to a new technology or service, and the cycle continues.

One of the best predictors of churn is knowing a churner, and it is to be expected that users of WhatsApp, Vine, etc. will take their friends with them. Economic pain will both accelerate the diffusion process and also spread it deeper into the population, as we have seen in South Korea with KakaoTalk.

High-margin segments are more at risk

Generally, all these effects are concentrated and emphasised in the segments that are traditionally unusually profitable, as this is where users stand to gain most from the price arbitrage. A finding from European Mobile: The Future’s not Bright, it’s Brutal and borne out by the research carried out for this report is that prices in Southern Europe were historically high, offering better margins to operators than elsewhere in Europe. Similarly, international and roaming calls are preferentially affected – although international minutes of use continue to grow near their historic average rates, all of this and more accrues to Skype, Google, and others. Roaming, despite regulatory efforts, remains expensive and a target for disruptors. It is telling that Truphone, a subject of our 2008 voice report, has transitioned from being a company that competed with generic mobile voice to being one that targets roaming.

 

  • Consumers: enjoying the fragmentation
  • Enterprises: in search of integration
  • What now makes a winning value proposition?
  • The fall of telephony
  • Talk may be cheap, but time is not
  • The increasing importance of “presence”
  • The competition from Online Service Providers
  • Operators’ responses
  • Free telco & other low-cost voice providers
  • Meeting Enterprise customer needs
  • Re-imagining customer service
  • Telco attempts to meet changing needs
  • Voice Developers – new opportunities
  • Into the Hunger Gap
  • Summary: the changing telephony business model
  • Conclusions
  • STL Partners and the Telco 2.0™ Initiative

 

  • Figure 1:  Psychological and social advantages of voice, SMS, IM, and Social Media
  • Figure 2: Ideal Enterprise mobile call routing scenario
  • Figure 3: Mobile Clients used to bypass high mobile call charges
  • Figure 4: Call Screening Options
  • Figure 5: Mobile device user context and data source
  • Figure 6: Typical business user modalities
  • Figure 7:  OSPs are pursuing platform strategies
  • Figure 8: Subscriber growth of KakaoTalk
  • Figure 9: Average monthly minutes of use by market
  • Figure 10: Key features of Voice and Messaging platforms
  • Figure 11: Average user screen time Facebook vs. WhatsApp  (per month)
  • Figure 12: Disruptive price competition also comes from operators
  • Figure 13: The hunger gap in music

Strategy 2.0: What Skype + Microsoft means for telcos

Summary: in theory, Microsoft and Skype have the resources, the brands, the customer base and the know-how to shape the future of telecoms and become a strategic counterweight to Apple and Google. Can they do it – and what should telcos’ strategy be? (June 2011, Executive Briefing Service, Dealing with Disruption Stream).

Microsoft Skype Logo Image Medium


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Introduction: Skype, the Original ‘Voice 2.0’

Everyone knows Skype as the original Voice 2.0 company – providing free phone calls, free video, status updates, all delivered using an innovative peer-to-peer architecture, and with the unique selling point of VoIP that just worked. This report describes its business model, technology strategy, its acquisition by Microsoft, and the consequences for the telecoms industry.

A little history

Founded in 2003 by Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström, Skype was acquired by eBay in 2005 for $2.6bn. eBay ownership was a period of stagnation – although eBay also owns PayPal, it only made half-hearted efforts to integrate the two. In November 2009, eBay sold 65% of Skype to an investor group led by Silver Lake for approximately $1.9bn in cash, valuing Skype at $2.75bn.

With Skype preparing for an IPO, Microsoft announced in May 2011 that it had agreed to buy the company for $8.5bn, giving the investor group a massive return and ensuring future potentially-disruptive start-ups will also attract plenty of funding. Many commentators have suggested that Microsoft is paying too much for the VOIP company, although the price-earnings ratio is actually no higher than that of Cisco’s acquisition of WebEx. So, what exactly is Microsoft getting for its billions? Let’s take a closer look.

A Dive into Skype’s Accounts

Microsoft has acquired what is essentially a global telephony company with 663 million registered users and very significant gross profitability. Skype contributed more net new minutes of international voice than the rest of the industry put together in 2010, according to Telegeography. Skype has never struggled to achieve growth, but its profitability has often been criticised, as has its ability to generate growth in ARPU. The following chart (figure 1) summarises Skype’s operational key performance indicators (KPIs) since 2006.

Figure 1: Skype’s KPIs: users, usage, and ARPU

Telco 2.0 Skype KPIs Users and ARPU June 2011 Graph Chart v1

Source: Skype’s S-1, May 2011

Questions have been raised about Skype’s performance in converting registered or even active users into paying users. This is critical, as ARPU is relatively flat. However, a monthly ARPU for paying users of $8 would be considered very reasonable for an emerging-market GSM operator and such an operator would tie up far more capital than Skype does. As all Skype users contribute to the system’s peer-to-peer (P2P) infrastructure, the marginal cost of serving non-paying users is essentially nothing.

Another way of looking at the KPIs is to consider their growth rates, as we have done in the following chart (figure 2). Although the growth of paying users is nowhere near as fast as that of free minutes of use, 40% growth per annum in revenue-generating subscribers is still very impressive.

Figure 2: Growth rates of Skype KPIs.

Telco 2.0 Skype KPIs Growth June 2011 Graph Chart

Source: Skype’s S-1, May 2011

In fact, there is very little wrong with Skype at the operating level. The following chart (figure 3) shows that, if we consider the primary challenge for Skype to be converting free users into paying users, it is actually doing rather well. Revenue and EBITDA are advancing and margins are holding up well.

Figure 3: Revenue and EBITDA growth is strong

Telco 2.0 Skype KPIs 5 Years Revenue and EBITDA June 2011 Graph Chart

Source: Skype S-1, May 2011

With 509 million active users available for conversion, ARPU may not be that relevant – just converting users of the free service into paying users has so far provided strong growth in gross profits and could do for the foreseeable future.

Figure 4: Conversion of free users at steady ARPU drives gross profit.

Telco 2.0 Skype Gross Profits June 2011 Graph Chart

Source: Skype S-1, May 2011

Skype doesn’t make money on free calls (not even from advertising or customer analytics/insights, yet), and has to pay interconnection fees and operate some infrastructure in order to provide SkypeOut (calls to conventional telephone numbers, rather than other Skype clients), and SkypeIn (calls from the PSTN to Skype users).

Skype sceptics have argued that eventually termination charges will catch up with the company and destroy its profitability. It is true that most of Skype’s revenues are generated (over 80%) by SkypeOut call charges and that Skype’s cost of net revenue is dominated (over 60%) by the cost of terminating these calls. However, termination as a percentage of Skype’s cost of net revenue is falling and Skype’s gross margin is rising, as its enormous volume growth enables it to extract better bulk pricing from interconnect operators (see Figure 5).

To see Figure 5, the conclusion of our analysis of Skype’s finances, and…

  • Is Skype Accumulating “Technical Debt”?
  • Future Plans: The Core Business, The Enterprise & Facebook
  • Telcos and Skype
  • Enter Microsoft
  • Windows Phone 7: Relevant again? 
  • Microsoft’s other mobile allies: Nokia, RIM
  • How Microsoft will deploy Skype 
  • Developers, developers, developers
  • Key Risks and Questions: execution, regulatory, partners, advertisers & payments
  • Answers: How Telcos should deal with Skype…and Microsoft

…plus these additional figures & fables…

  • Figure 5: How Skype’s spending is changing
  • Figure 6: Why Skype is making a loss
  • Figure 7: Commoditisation is for everybody!
  • Figure 8: 3UK benefits from its deal with Skype
  • Figure 9: Skype’s Deals with Carriers
  • Figure 10: Skype is a good fit for many Microsoft products
  • Figure 11: A unifying Skype API is critical for integration into the Microsoft empire
  • Figure 12: Telco strategy options matrix

 

Members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing Subscription Service and the Telco 2.0 Dealing with Disruption Stream can download the full 35 page report in PDF format here. Non-Members, please see here for how to subscribe, here to buy a single user license for for £995, or for multi-user licenses and any other enquiries please email contact@telco2.net or call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Organisations, products and people referenced in the report: 3UK, AdSense, Android, Apple, AT&T, Au, Avaya, Ben Horowitz, BlackBerry Messenger, Cisco, Dynamics CRM, EasyBits, eBay, Exchange Server, Facebook, Facetime, Google, Google Talk, Google Voice, GSMA, Happy Pipe, Hutchison, iOS, iPhone, Jajah, Janus Friis, KDDI Mobile, Kinect, KPN, Lync, Mango, Marchex, Microsoft, Microsoft-Nokia deal, MXit, MySpace, Niklas Zennström, Nokia, Ofcom, Office Live, Outlook, PayPal, PowerPoint, Qik, RIM, Silver Lake, Skype, SkypeConnect, SkypeIn, SkypeKit, SkypeOut, SkypePhone, Steve Ballmer, Telefonica, Teredo, Tony Jacobs, Tropo, Twitter, Verizon Wireless, Virgin, Visual Studio, WebEx, WhatsApp, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, WP7, Xbox, X-Series.

Technologies referenced: GSM, HD voice, HTTP/S, IM, IMS MMTel, IP networks, IPv4, IPv6, LTE, Mobile, NAT, P2P, PSTN, RCS, SILK V3, SIP, SMS, SS7, super node, URI, video telephony, Voice 2.0, VoIP, XMPP.

Full Article: The Digital Generation: Introducing the Participation Imperative Framework

It’s a natural inclination to imagine that the difference between young people and their elders is simply that they’re young. But at times of rapid technological or social change, quite often, nothing could be more wrong. Instead, patterns of behaviour and culture that you might assume are the caprices of youth will last a lifetime and will become the conservative norm that the youth of the future will rebel against.

 

Serving the Digital Generation: Innovation for a new breed of customers is Telco 2.0’s attempt to characterise future customers and explore what operators should be doing to better serve them. Statistically speaking, the customer of the future is already with us, in the form of Chinese, South Korean and Japanese youngsters, and is a user of at least one of many social networks, games, and virtual world applications that have sprung up in the last few years. In the report, we analyse a whole range of such services in order to understand the business models and product features that have succeeded.

 

We identified a number of major factors and new opportunities that constrain and liberate the customer of the future. On one hand, parental paranoia, rapid urbanisation, and proliferating surveillance systems have led to a public space that is ever more restrictive for the young; on the other hand, the digital world has created huge opportunities to escape this and to pursue what we describe as the ’Participation Imperative’. We have developed a framework to help service providers clarify these user needs and how to serve them.

 

An Introduction to the Participation Imperative Framework?

graf-1.png

 

People have a psychological need either to build their identity or to participate vicariously in the identity of others (often through a group identity). In the report, we analysed the innovation processes of operators and other providers, as well as the outputs of this process – products and services – based on the degree to which they help the customer of the future:

  • To interact with a peer group

  • To personalise and exert control over their environment

  • To express creativity

  • To maintain privacy/anonymity or seek notoriety

These, in turn, require certain enabling factors:

  • A directory – find other people

  • Feedback – comments, discussion, personalisation, hackable APIs

  • Portability – working across multiple PCs, mobiles

  • Transaction and payments – virtual currencies

graf-2.png

From Participation Imperative Framework to the Two-sided Business Model

 

Going a step further, we introduce the concept of three basic strategies for two-sided business models:

 

Strategy One: Give services away up to the point at which a transaction occurs. Amazon Marketplace gives free access to its platform for merchants until they make a sale when they pay for billing and payments services, logistics and distribution etc.

 

Strategy Two: Subsidise users to build scale and selling other products to them in the as a complement to the free service. The original Lloyds’ Coffee House served this purpose – people were meeting to spread risk and paid for coffee while they did this.

 

Strategy Three: Charge others for access to the crowd of users you have created through giving away cheap or free services. Google is the classic example here – free search has resulted in billions of Googlers and advertisers are prepared to pay to reach them.

 

The Participation Imperative and two-sided business model in practice: Tencent QQ

 

Companies who design their products to meet these needs and integrate more than one of the three strategies have an excellent chance of success. Take QQ, for example, the Chinese IM community-cum-Web portal. IM network user base figures are notoriously vacuous – the services are provided free, many users have multiple accounts, an unknown but non-zero percentage of accounts have multiple users or are used by machines, and there is little stickiness. All these caveats apply to QQ’s claimed total user base, which ranges between 355 million and 570 million accounts. But a much more reliable number is the peak concurrent user base, and a genuinely interesting one is the number of users who actually spent real money.

 

graf-3.png

In 2007, the maximum concurrent user figure was 12.3 million; that year, 7.3 million users actually spent money at QQ, or 60 per cent of the lower bound on the user base. This is a much better performance than practically any other IM community or Web social network. In the quarter to October, 2008, the result was profits – profits! – of RMB775m on revenue of RMB2bn, a gross margin of 63.5%! Last year’s peak user figure was 45.3 million, and if the same proportion of sign-ups were converted to sales, this would imply 27 million paying users and an annual ARPU of roughly £10. This is far below even the most bleeding-edge emerging market GSM operators – about one sixth – but then, it’s very likely that a GSM network serving 27 million subscribers would be using more than six times the capital QQ absorbs.

 

How are they achieving this, when most social-network and IM products aren’t just pre-profits but pre-revenues and indeed pre-money in general?

 

QQ manages to hit essentially all the elements of the participation imperative framework – creativity, peer-group, personalisation, portability, payments, feedback, and directory. As well as the usual avatars, skins, etc, QQ is relatively open technically speaking and positively encourages its users to invent interesting uses for it (although there has been some conflict about this). Not just that, but it has a business model that lets user innovators profit from their work, by distributing it through the QQ store, which shares the revenue between QQ and the creator – just like the Google App Store. You cannot really do better on creativity and personalisation than that, and it’s telling that user feedback is effective enough that the management has even ignored demands from the Public Security Bureau when the users were sufficiently angry. It’s portable too – there is a version for Symbian and it anyway has SMS interworking.

 

Obviously, selling apps implies buying them. Like so many games, virtual worlds, and social networks, there is an internal virtual currency. These always face the difficulty of making sure that there is a steady demand for the currency, and specifically, that the demand for currency inside the game exceeds the amount users want to convert back into real currency – otherwise, the owners are faced with a steady cash drain. One of the purposes of selling premium services (blogs, games, and a streaming music service) and apps, avatars and the like is to create a demand for the currency – once it can be used to buy things, its value as a gift or reputation good greatly increases, and so does the demand for it.

 

This is classically two-sided – QQ gives away the directory and messaging elements of its peer-group play, so as to create a crowd to sell virtual goods to. In a further twist, it’s passing some of the sales revenue on to encourage user creativity. So far, it’s a neat hybrid of Strategies One and Two. Lloyds’ Coffee House wasn’t, after all, in the marine insurance business itself to begin with – it sold coffee. Here, QQ is selling to the crowd, but it is also facilitating transactions between user innovators and others in return for a transaction fee, like Amazon. And QQ shows signs of being very nimble in identifying the different sides – for example, it also offers a paid-for service for business users which is, amusingly, branded “Tencent Messenger” and skinned to look like Microsoft Live Messenger.

 

This is important because the target market probably isn’t interested in building an identity by impressing the QQ community, and probably won’t spend extended periods of time surfing the community at random – so their other strategies, in-world sales and contextual advertising, aren’t applicable. QQ has identified a segment of their user base that really belongs to the generation before – the e-mail generation, as it were – and realised that a more standard retail strategy is appropriate.

 

As far as Strategy Three goes, ads seem to be the default option for monetisation globally but, so far, only Google has been a real hit. QQ carries ads, but a non-trivial percentage of users are using unofficial clients created by the hacker ecosystem to filter them out – hence there’s a degree of tension with the innovators. However, QQ risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater because 66% of revenue originates from sales of applications, goods and premium services, compared to 11% from advertising. Further, sales revenue is growing at around 90%, better than the business as a whole, whereas ad revenue is growing at 70%, which means it’s actually shrinking in importance to the company.

 

Instead, QQ is beginning to look at virtual-real hybridisation as a source of future growth – there is already a streaming music service, and they recently started a dating site.