Liveblog: Blyk promises free mobile calls funded by advertising

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blyk-uk-free-calls.jpgHeard of Blyk? You will. It’s a new ‘virtual’ mobile operator targeted at young people, which plans to offer free voice-call minutes in return for users filling out surveys and accepting targeted advertising.

The company is announcing its UK launch this morning, so I’m here liveblogging it. The latest entries are below, while clicking over the jump takes you to a full chronological report.

10.03: And we’re done. Here’s the basics: Blyk launches today in the UK, and it’ll be offering users free voice calls and texts in return for receiving text and MMS advertisements. It’s got over 40 brands signed up, including the likes of McDonalds, Coke, L’Oreal and NatWest.

You can only sign up if you’re aged 16-24, although when those 24 year-olds turn 25, they’ll be allowed to stay on. And there’s an authentication system to weed out older people masquerading as young folk to get free stuff.

CHRONOLOGICAL LIVEBLOG STARTS HERE

9.15: I’m perched against a pillar near the front for Blyk’s press launch – we’re in the cellar of a central London record store, so no seats. And we’re off…

9.20: Co-founders Pekka Ala-Pietilä and Antti Öhrling are on stage, explaining how Blyk began in January 2006, and has taken 18 months of research and trials to figure out how it’ll all work. It’s all about The Yoof, who aren’t an easy audience to reach if you’re an advertiser, says Pekka.

9.21: I’m wondering what phones Blyk will have, and if this is just about cheap calls and texts, or if music, video, games and TV will come into it. Anyway, why the UK first? “The UK is the largest advertising market in Europe,” says Pekka. “It’s the hub of advertising, and it’s also a very advanced mobile market.”

9.23: However, Blyk is preparing to launch in other European countries, but that’ll come a bit later. Now Antti’s talking about how the last 18 months has been a big emotional journey for the Blyk team, because there’s so many people wanting them to succeed. No, not just their mums. Although I daresay they’re quite excited too.

9.25: So, the blurb. Blyk is about “linking young people up with the brands they like” (Diamond White?), and offering free voice minutes and texts. It’s invitation only, although you can invite yourself by texting a shortcode (they’re showing a sample ad, which says “invitations must be requested by 31 December 2007”, which may hint at the launch plans.

9.26: Once you get an invite (friends can invite you too), you have to fill in a demographic profile on the Blyk website about your activities, musical preferences and so on. After this is done, you’re sent a free SIM card. “You don’t need to have a special phone, a 3G phone or a smartphone,” says Pekka. “All we ask is that you have an MMS compatible phone”. Presumably that’s how ads are delivered then.

9.29: Okay, so how much can you get for free if you’re on Blyk? Pekka’s talking about the company’s market research. Every month, Blyk users will get 217 free texts and 43 voice-call minutes as standard. Without sounding like an idiot, Pekka’s accent means it could be “270 free texts and 40 free minutes” – as soon as they put it on screen, I’ll confirm that.

9.30: Oh jesus, a huge flowchart packed with telecommunications acronyms. They’ve got MSS/GCS, BTS, BSC/RNC and, oh yes, PSTN/PLMN. I could spend the next ten minutes looking this stuff up on Wikipedia. But I won’t.

9.34: Blyk’s user experience will be 90% familiar, and 10% “exciting and new” says Pekka. The advertising stuff will be based on messaging, because that’s the most popular mobile feature for young people.

9.37: Antti’s up now, explaining how Blyk’s advertising will be relevant. It’s about valuable services and offers, he says, not about spammy adverts. “Why would you make advertising in mobile that is not based in communication?” he says. Now he’s going to give three examples of potential Blyk campaigns.

9.40: Okay, example one. You’re a young girl, and you get an MMS message from L’Oreal that’s a picture quiz with five celebrities’ faces, and a question asking ‘Which of these celebs are you most like? You text back the number (e.g. ‘2’), and then you get a reply saying “Then you’d suit Eva’s shade of Color Riche Star Secrets, Caramel”. “You might think this is an advert, but it’s also advice,” says Antti. “And L’Oreal now knows more about you, and can remarket to you with other products that would be relevant.”

9.42: Example two: Recruitment firm StepStone sends you a text saying ‘Need a job? StepStone may have just what you’re looking for. Currently looking for work?’. If you reply ‘Y’, you get another text saying ‘What kind of job are you after? Full time, part time or a holiday job?’. You reply, and then you get another text back encouraging you to sign up for the company’s SMS alerts.

9.45: Example three: message tagging. Adding little SMS ads onto the end of texts from your friends, with WAP links in. Hmm, I wonder how this works, do they only append these ads to texts short enough to take them? Hopefully so – imagine having a friend’s message cut off for an advert…

9.46: Blyk is launching with over 40 brands – Borders, BSM, Buena Vista, Capital FM, Coke, Colgate, Ford, I-play, JJB Sports, L’Oreal, McDonalds, MasterCard, NatWest, Metro newspaper, Miss Selfridge, Manchester United, NSPCC, Penguin Books, RSPCA, Sky, STA Travel, Stagecoach, Sony BMG, Sony Ericsson, StepStone, Xbox, XFM, Adidas, Boots and Borders leapt out at me from the list.

9.50: The 43 free minutes aren’t international, but they are cross-network in the UK. How much does it cost when you use them up? 10p per text, and 15p per voice minute, flat-rate regardless of time / day.

9.51: What about content stuff then? You can browse the mobile internet for 99p per megabyte, but the majority of content will come from advertising partners – there’s not a traditional mobile portal selling games, music and so on, but Blyk will announce something along those lines in the future.

9.52: How many ads does a user have to receive a month for Blyk to break even? “It’s a question we’ll be happy to come back to, but it’s a bit too intimate at this stage,” says Pekka. In other words, LOADS. Possibly.

9.54: During a technical question, I thought I should reiterate: Blyk isn’t selling handsets, it’s sending out SIMs. So you’ll need a phone already that’s not locked to a specific operator (I wonder if this applies to Orange, whose network Blyk is using).

9.56: A-ha. What if someone’s 25 and wants to join? “Too bad” says Pekka. But if you’re 24 when you join, you can stay with Blyk after you turn 25. So it’s no oldies allowed! Controversial. If you’re younger than 16, they’ll let you join when you turn 16. So just to make that clear: Blyk isn’t just targeting 16-24 year-olds: it’s ONLY for 16-24 year-olds. I suddenly feel old and grey.

10.00: Every Blyk member will have their own profile on the site with their demographic info, and that’s where they’ll have info on how many free texts and minutes they have left that month, and details on who they’ve invited to join Blyk. This viral ‘invitation-only’ approach is interesting, but Blyk will be augmenting that with marketing in university fresher packs and other areas.

10.02: More bad news for oldies: we can’t pretend we’re 16-24 and get onto Blyk, as they’ve got authentication processes in place, cross referencing multiple databases. 25 journalists in the room instantly make mental notes to test that out as soon as possible.

Blyk website

Stuart Dredge

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