The Future of Mobile Context

Filed in Mobile Engagement, Mobile Marketing by on September 30, 2014 0 Comments

There’s too much stuff. Too many news stories, offers, emails, status updates, photos. More than people can process. And that’s today. The situation isn’t going to improve. The advent of wearable technology is only going to increase the amount of digital “stuff” produced by individuals and organizations.

When a blink will take a photo, people will take a lot of photos.

That’s why companies that help to navigate the digital landscape are such hot property. Every day the technology press features another story about a curation start-up, news aggregator or social hub.

All of these things rely on individuals proffering their preferences before they can start to filter. But just by being, people give off plenty of signals about what is important to them.

If people are to successfully navigate the increasingly noisy and crowded digital world of the future, what they need is a smart filter. A part curator, part broker, working on their behalf. It needs to get to know the individual — who they are, where they go, what they do, what they like – and then use that information to filter the morass and find the things that are most relevant to them.

Trading Privacy for Utility
This level of capability requires a trade-off, one that has become familiar to anyone connected: A measure of privacy is traded for utility.
People do this every day on social networks, retail sites, music streaming services and just about anywhere on the Web. Increasingly they do it knowingly, fully aware of the trade they are making. As digital practices become embedded in society, people are becoming more sophisticated, selecting the right app or social network with the relevant levels of privacy for the purpose at hand. They are actively trading data for financial reward through discount networks.

In the future, people will be more sophisticated still. They will need to be. As the vast array of digital content available becomes overwhelming, people will become more reliant on software to filter the noise on their behalf.

To be valuable, the filtering software will need to know a lot about each individual. That will require a reliable, consistent feed of information. This is the future of mobile context for consumers.

The Operator as Broker
Handling this personal data will be a sensitive task. People will rightly want a brand they can trust to hold and manage it. A brand with which they have a relationship, to act as broker and ensure that they get the maximum return on the privacy they give up: the best deals, the most relevant information, the right connections.

Mobile operators are in the best position to broker information about their consenting customers to the companies that want to consume it.

People understand their relationships with mobile operators. They exist in a much more physical sense than the social networks currently offering the bulk of contextual information about individuals. They have access to live data and much more realistic financial information. Most of all, they have a contractual billing relationship with their customers, governed by local law. Where other brands might be global, regulation of them might be a challenge. Some, infamously, are already stretching their application of personal data beyond their users’ comfort.

Operators also have the motivation to move to this type of relationship. Mobile services are moving rapidly towards a “dumb pipe” model. Every attempt to capture user revenue in a walled garden has failed and will continue to do so: operators cannot compete with the world’s population of creative geniuses. Becoming the trusted broker of mobile context data is one of few routes to driving growth rather than accepting managed decline. And it is one that should appeal to both the operators and their customers.

Who Needs Context?
All too often, data is seen as something to hoard and deal secretly. Companies are scared of consumer backlash against their trading of personal information. But the problem can be straightforwardly tackled by making the user an explicit beneficiary. The challenge is the widely held belief that much of the data that operators currently hold can be extracted from a handset by other means. With the right apps or user permissions, location, call and message data can be pulled directly from the handset.

This source of data is fine for single applications. But it is highly problematic as a source for true mobile context. Permissions are complex and the data is patchy, subject to any number of changes to the handset OS, app, or user behavior. The context supplied by an operator is richer and more complete. Location and network-level monitoring is always on, with months or even years of history. Information about data consumption and voice calls provides huge amounts of insight about behavior. The contractual nature of the relationship means financial data is much more trustworthy. Where social networks offer intention, operators can offer real behavior.

This is what makes mobile context so valuable to so many people. The old marketing adage, “I know I’m wasting half my marketing budget; I just don’t know which half,” has remained defiantly true in the digital era. Companies are now very aware when parts of their budget didn’t deliver on expectations. But improving conversion rates beyond a certain level has proved challenging. The more they can understand about each user, the more they can target, the more return-on-investment they can reap,. and the happier they make their customers, whose levels of spam begin to fall.

Of course, it isn’t all about advertising. The behavior of so many applications and systems could benefit from a better understanding of users. Operator data has already been applied to city and transport planning, allowing bus companies to relocate stops to the most useful places, minimizing users’ walk at either end. Context is valuable in business applications, allowing the appropriate routing of messages or calls. There are thousands of more esoteric uses: automatic playlists, reading recommendations, news alerts. The list is nearly endless.

A Vision of the Future
The proliferation of content and channels is not going to slow down. Mobile connectivity is improving. The shift from handsets to wearables will increase the opportunity for creating and sharing content, and for accessing it. Technology advances like microscopic cameras that cost almost nothing will drive more people to capture more pictures and videos.

This presents challenges at every link of the value chain. Individuals will need a better filter for content and they will want their applications to be more aware of their context, changing mode without manual input. Brands will need a better means to target customers, finding the hottest prospects for their products or services, and then cutting through the noise with a tailored proposition.

These challenges are just different sides of the same issue. Consistent contextual data in the hands of a trusted broker can solve this problem.

What has often been missed in this debate is the value to the consumer of having a single trusted broker of their personal data. Consumers are already aware of the value of their data. The next step is choosing a service provider to help them manage and monetize it in a consistent way. By maintaining a consistent data set that powers the users’ own filters, and that allows third parties to target them more accurately, operators can develop a valuable new service.

This service could have a variety of business models. Users might accept a revenue share, sharing the benefit of third parties accessing their data with the operator, on the condition that the operator only allows for proper usage and careful targeting of messages. They might choose to pay a subscription fee to the service, having more granular control over the release of their data and taking the access fees for that data directly from the third party, with the operator acting simply as an automated marketplace.

The future is one where technology increasingly acts invisibly on our behalf to enhance our capabilities and make sense of the digital world for our analog senses. Data, and specifically contextual data, will power this transformation.

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About the Author ()

Tom Cheesewright is the founder of applied futurism practice Book of the Future, helping organizations to see, share and respond to a coherent vision of tomorrow. Tom followed a degree in mechatronic engineering with 14 years in the tech industry, working with global brands such as BT, Orange and IBM, and subsequently founded a series of technology-driven companies. Most recently he co-founded venture-backed big data analytics start-up CANDDi (, of which he remains a shareholder. Tom is a frequent presence on TV and radio, appearing as the resident futurist on the BBC’s Channel 4 Sunday Brunch, Breakfast, and World Business Report TV programs, and as a regular contributor to the BBC’s Radio 4 and 5 live radio channels.

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