Monday, August 6, 2007

Voice is Not a Commodity

New communication modes complement, rather than substitute for, older modes, says Stefana Broadbent, who leads the User Observatory at Swisscom. That ought to lead service providers to think in different ways about the "commodity" nature of voice, for example, since it does not appear that voice and new forms of communication, though widely used, are consumed in ways that make them functional substitutes. And if they are not substitutes, neither are they commodities.

Different modes are viewed as best for some sorts of communications, and get usedthat way, she essentially argues. And while you'd expect wired voice, mobile, email, text messaging (short message service) and instant messaging to be key modes, you might not expect blogging to be a communications mode, though Broadbent says blogging is, in fact, a form of communications, not media.

So what are the key user perceptions of appropriateness (Broadbent studied consumers, not enterprises)? Wired phones are for "public" communications and intended to communicate lots of information that is of general use to all members of a family, for example.

Mobile voice, on the other hand, is a personal channel. About 80 percent of calls from any user's handset are with just four other people, Broadbent finds. Mobiles are used for regular communication with best friends and family.

SMS is seen as more intimate channel, oddly enough with more perceived "emotional capability" than voice. SMS gets used only with best friends and family and "grooming" messages ("thank you", "I love you") represent about half of the messages. SMS is seen as a way to keep relationships alive. More than 50 percent of all grooming communications happen through SMS.

Email is used as an administrative channel to get tasks accomplished and share attachments such as photos with networks of friends or social groups. Email also gets used for communications of an "impersonal" nature (contacting retailers, for example).

Instant messaging tends to be a multitasking medium, with a live channel opened in the background while a user does other things. People just step in and out of conversations.

Blogging is a "networking channel," used in place of email in many cases and a way to extend the total number of "friends" one can interact with, as it allows one-to-many communications much more simply than email.

Significantly, says Broadbent, the new forms are not substitutional. Each new channel slowly redefines the uses of older media, and uses are very sophisticated about the strengths and weaknesses of each form. SMS gets used with people one knows very well because they have the context to decipher very short and cryptic messages.

A key takeaway from Broadbent's research is that though "price" is a factor in just about any purchase, communications are about other things as well, providing some space to innovate on the value front to create new levels of comfort with "price."

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