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A Quick Slick Unpick of Blyk’s 2-Sided Business Model Trick

The title is Doctor Seuss’ fault as his rhymes are lodged in this writer’s head after years of reading them to his children:

Look, sir. Look, sir. Mr. Knox, sir. Let’s do tricks with bricks and blocks, sir.
Let’s do tricks with chicks and clocks, sir. First, I’ll make a quick trick brick stack.
Then I’ll make a quick trick block stack.
You can make a quick trick chick stack.
You can make a quick trick clock stack.
Etc…

We thought it might be helpful to review the Blyk business model in a bit more detail following our pre-launch analysis where we were bearish on the company. Its business model ties in nicely with our 2-sided strategy for operators about which we have written on numerous occasions on this blog.

This piece, therefore, seeks to answer the following questions:
1.How does Blyk make money?
2.What are the benefits and risks of the business model? (Are we still bearish?)
3.What are the broader ‘Telco 2.0’ lessons for other operators?

News Glorious News
News flow from Blyk has been positive recently. It announced a few weeks ago that it has reached 200,000 customers in its first year of trading (versus its target of 100,000). This follows press releases in June that the company is set to expand operations in 2009 into other European markets, notably the Netherlands, as well as Belgium, Germany and Spain. All this follows investment (of an undisclosed amount) from Goldman Sachs and IFIC in January. The current squeeze on credit can hardly be helpful to an expanding start-up, but it looks like Blyk was lucky in securing funds ahead of the summer problems.

The Blyk Business Model

Blyk is an ad-funded MVNO focused on the 16-24 year old market (although they position themselves as a ‘media company’). It gifts minutes and texts to customers in exchange for the right to send advertisements to them. Users complete a set of questions about themselves when they sign up, giving Blyk information about their preferences. Advertisers market their products and services via text to Blyk users based on this profiling and Blyk gets paid to deliver the advertisement. So, at first glance, Blyk reverses the normal revenue model for operators: it collects money upstream and pays out for delivering services to customers:

Blyk%201.png

But this is too simplistic (and many who have commented on Blyk’s business model have been guilty of this) because Blyk actually makes money from both sides - from end users as well as advertisers:

1.Termination charges from off-net callers. This is effectively shown in the lower diagram of the chart above where we show operators as both receivers of money from end users (when originating the call) and receivers of money from other operators (when terminating the call). So every time a Blyk user receives a call or text from an off-net customer the originating operator pays Blyk for termination. In turn, Blyk obviously pays some of this termination charge out to its network supplier (Orange) but we guesstimate that the company still makes some margin on this.

2. Overage. Typically 16-24 year olds, like the rest of us, have a pre-determined communications budget - “I will spend £x on my phone each month”. The fact that Blyk gives users free calls and texts does not stop users from spending this money. Blyk’s users will simply display the same behaviour that every Telco exec is familiar with: increased communications usage as the price reduces (see this excellent piece on elasticity and pricing from the Ericsson Business Review). Because Blyk offers 217 free minutes and 43 texts, we believe that users will be profligate with their communications. They will use this free allowance up and STILL spend at least some of their previous budget.

Blyk%202.png

So how much revenue and margin does Blyk make? Well, we developed a model of the company and plugged in the following assumptions:

Usage Assumptions (Average per User per Month)
Makes 230 texts (13 more than 217 limit) Makes 50 minutes of calls (7 more than 43 limit)
Makes 5 minutes of voicemail calls (all above limit)
Consumes 1MB of off-portal web browsing
Receives 100 texts
Receives 50 minutes of inbound calls
Receives 120 advertising SMS
Receives 30 advertising MMS
Pricing Assumptions
Calls to any UK mobile network or landline (over and above free): 15p/min Calls to Blyk voicemail: 15p/min
Text messages to UK mobile networks (over and above free): 10p each
Browsing off Blyk portal: £1 per MB
Price charged to Advertiser per SMS: 7p
Price charged to Advertiser per MMS: 22p
Cost Assumptions
Off-net texts are terminated at 3p each On-net texts are terminated at 2p each
80% of outbound texts are off-net
Off-net calls are terminated at 5.1p per minute
On-net calls are terminated at 4p per minute
80% of calls are off-net
Off-portal browsing costs £0.50 per MB
On-net MMS are terminated at 9p each

Results

Our analysis suggests that, by combining user and advertiser revenues, Blyk could be making as much as £26 in revenue per user per month at a gross margin (defined as revenue less network costs only) of around 28%:

Blyk%203.png

In other words, Blyk makes around 2/3rd of its revenue from upstream customers (advertisers) and 1/3rd from users (overage and inbound):

Blyk%204.png

It is worth pointing out that Blyk has, thus far, been pretty successful at (a) attracting advertisers and (b) managing campaigns. In fact, response rates over a four week period of 116 campaigns were a staggering 29% last year towards the end of 2007:

blyk-5.png

29% compares very favourably to other forms of digital advertising (Source: e-consultancy, September 2007) and suggests both that young people are open to this value exchange (receiving ads and giving information up about themselves in exchange for free communications) and that even basic targeting is effective:

* On-line Advertising 0.02%
* Paid Search Advertising 0.2%
* Email 0.1%
* Direct Mail 2.0%
* Magazines 0.2%
* Direct Response TV 0.04%
* Radio 0.01%

Benefits and Risks of the Business Model

There is a lot about Blyk’s business model to admire. Compared with a traditional one-sided mobile operator Blyk has the following strengths:

Higher ARPUs. By introducing a second revenue source, Blyk can potentially more than double the ARPU levels achieved by a traditional one-sided player.

Strong appeal to advertisers. Response rates appear to be so good that advertisers cannot fail to be impressed with the Blyk platform as a means of communicating with a traditionally ‘hard-to-get-at’ segment. They certainly seem to have signed up plenty of high-profile brands including WDK (drinks), Penguin (books), Sky Box Office (TV), Local Government (elections), Brylcreem (male grooming products), Boots (Retail). There are lots of examples on the Blyk media portal.

Strong appeal to youth market. Students on a tight budget will be seeking value for money and Blyk offers this in spades in return for relatively limited intrusion (users receive a maximum of 6 ads per day).

Speed to market. The simple approach to targeting (capturing user preferences when they sign up) is not particularly sophisticated and certainly way short of providing real-time behavioural targeting but it has allowed Blyk to launch and grow quite quickly - no operator has yet launched anything similar.

However, as we pointed out before, there are large risks for Blyk. Specifically:

Network pricing. Because it is an MVNO, Blyk is to a great extent dependent on the prices charged by operators for network usage (for origination, transmission and termination). In a competitive market like the UK, these are unlikely to be excessive but there is a margin risk for Blyk if these rise. Blyk would presumably be able to pass on the increase on the revenue it generates on inbound minutes and text but this would not be enough to offset the margin hit. In our model, we calculate that a 10% increase in network costs would see gross margin drop from £7.27 per user per month (28%) to £5.95 (22%).

Declining response rates. A 29% response rate is mighty impressive but this figure is likely to come down as the initial enthusiasm for receiving advertising diminishes and as Blyk penetrates more deeply into this segment and captures users who are less wedded to the ad-funded model. This has two potential impacts:

It may make advertisers less inclined to use Blyk which would reduce the premium prices that Blyk can charge advertisers for SMS and MMS messages.

It will impact the number of SMS and MMS messages sent over the course of a campaign which could have a substantial impact on advertiser revenues. To illustrate this, suppose that Blyk conducted a SMS campaign for an advertiser to 20,000 of its user base and achieved a 29% response rate overall (additional messages are sent only to those who respond up to a maximum of 3). We calculate that such a campaign could be worth £2,345 to Blyk. However, if the response rate drops to 10% (still quite high), then Blyk’s revenue drops by nearly 30% to £1,694:

Blyk%205.png

Given that advertisers account for nearly 2/3rds of Blyk’s revenue, this would equate to a 18% revenue hit overall (assuming stable subscriber numbers).

Operator competition. To date, no operators have followed Blyk into the youth market with an ad-funded model. But if Blyk shows signs of success, you can be sure that other operators will look for a piece of the action. Orange, Blyk’s network provider, has a youth skew and if it sees ad-funding as providing incremental value (rather than cannibalising subscriber revenues), then they are likely to follow suit. And Virgin also has a strong youth bias and could potentially copy the Blyk model relatively easily. Moves such as these are likely to drive prices down for advertiser media purchases.

Scalability. Even if Blyk could capture a large proportion of 16-24 year olds (which seems unlikely in saturated and competitive European markets), the cost Blyk spends on acquiring customers is likely to mean that EBITDA margins will be razor thin. Our 28% gross margin excludes operations, customer care (where it looks like they have had some problems) and marketing and sales costs. The latter is particularly concerning since Blyk uses people at university campuses to sign up prospects and capture profile information. This simply doesn’t scale effectively and the sign-up and data capture process will need to be automated as Blyk grows to improve both efficiency and the effectiveness of targeting.

Growth - eats itself. Ironically, it is because Blyk is so small that we calculate that 25% of its revenue could come from inbound termination of off-net calls and messages. If the company grows and more and more call and texts are on-net, Blyk continues to pick up the costs without the associated termination benefit. Like the voice arbitrage players, that make money by using the internet to reduce voice and fixed calls, it is to some extent a beneficiary of its small size for if it grows it loses a key revenue stream.

Lessons for Operators

1. 2-sided market opportunity is real. Perhaps the most obvious lesson for other operators is that there is value in 2-sided markets! Blyk may struggle to make a return for the reasons mentioned above, but it has already done enough to show that for operators with large existing (youth) customer bases the ad-funded model could be fruitful. We think this also shows the wider potential for 2-sided opportunities in the areas outlined in our report on the subject.

2. Different Business Model = Different Business! It is not mere marketing fluff that Blyk refers to itself as a media company rather than a MVNO. It shows that Blyk’s management considers the advertising community as its primary market and end users as ‘members’ rather than customers. This is important - a different business model is a different business. A two-sided approach for operators will require new customers, new metrics, new operational procedures and processes, new skills and assets (see below). It will be very, very difficult to build this within the existing organisation structure and operators should consider carving out the new unit and making it a customer of the core business.

The core business could even charge the new unit for using the customer and network data and other assets it requires for success. The ‘differentness’ of this future business was brought home to me recently in a meeting with two strategy executives at a leading European mobile operator who said that one of the key barriers to developing a two-sided business model is the current metrics used for business planning. Unless projects are shown to replicate the 40-50% EBITDA margin enjoyed by the current business, they fall at the first hurdle. The two-sided business is likely to be much less capital intensive than the current business so, while it may not generate such high EBITDA margins, EBIT margins could be equally impressive. .

3. Scale for success. We have oft pointed out the need to build scale on at least one side of a platform. I was delighted to see a media agency also voicing this recently when Grant Miller, joint MD of media agency Vizeum, explained why they had chosen AOL’s Platform-A for promoting Oasis’ new album:
“We need a property that has scale, tools and the technology to build a communications platform that delivers on all fronts. By bringing together all its individual properties, Platform-A represents a great opportunity to build a dialogue with the target audience.”
Blyk has done well from a standing start and its 200,000 users are clearly attracting brands.

The real value to advertisers (and merchants, governments, developers, enterprises and other upstream customers) is from seriously large numbers of end-user customers willing to accept advertising and other telco-enabled VAS services. This makes the 2-sided telco opportunity most valuable to larger operators OR the operator community working collaboratively.

4. The power of a 2-sided pricing strategy. Blyk isn’t the first company to give stuff away. Google gives 99% of its products and service away to end users and Microsoft gives away its SDK for Windows to developers. What these companies do is subsidise one side of the platform and charge a premium to the other and thus seek to maximise value across BOTH sides. In Google’s case, its efficiency means that it can undercut other advertising channels’ prices and still make a handsome return. The ability to understand and use such a pricing strategy makes 2-sided players tremendously powerful as they can attack the markets of competitors that charge for services that they give away.

5. Cost control remains king. You’ve got your customer base on one side and you are building scale on the other side, so you’re sorted, right? Absolutely not. The platform will only thrive it not only provides an effective service (identification, authentication, advertising, billing, content delivery, customer care, etc.) AND does it more cheaply than can be found elsewhere. Google is winning because advertising is cheap for brands, Microsoft won on Windows partly because the platform, when bundled in with a PC purchase, was negligible. This means that driving costs out of the platform is critical. The high-cost nature of Blyk’s sales model and customer data acquisition is a worry and other operators looking to enter the market should seek to ruthlessly drive cost out of the system.

6. Customer data and CRM is core. Even with its relatively low-tech data acquisition approach, Blyk shows that targeting customers with the right message/product/service/solution really does work. Operators should seek to invest heavily in this area whether they pursue a 2-sided strategy or not because understanding their customers better can only improve the delivery of their own retail services anyway. A strong CRM capability becomes a must-have if they wish to become a platform player like Google.

Finally, what is Blyk’s plan for the emerging world of Voice & Messaging 2.0? After all, its target demographic is made up of exactly the same young early-adopter kids who most of the new V&M players are targeting; but its product isn’t really geared to that. For example, they’re keeping a tight grip on the data pipe, and it’s 2G only. And there’s no sign of a developer community.

However, Blyk does have capabilities most MVNOs don’t - it has its own complete Nokia Siemens Networks-provided core network, not just an HLR plugged into a partner’s network. So, how long before there’s a Blyk API to play with? Or do they fear cannibalisation too much?

[Ed - these issues will be debated on Day Two of the Telco 2.0 Executive Brainstorm, on 4-5 Nov, London].

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Comments

If, as blyk grew, it was able to contract multiple MVNO`s and hence have multiple network suppliers, it could maintain its % of off net revenues

I think assuming that Blyk is going to sell over 120 SMS + 30 MMS per user in a month is too optimistic. Do you have any hard numbers on how many advertisement messages they are pushing out every month?

Interesting stats.
Do you count SMS response to ad as on-net SMS in your calculation? i.e. does 46 on-net texts include avg. 29% response rate?

Thanks

Kedar

Great analysis and very well communicated!!

I believe Blyk's ad pricing is not quite as simple as assumed here however. Rather than a flat rate for every SMS, I understand from their early press releases that they priced at 7p for any communication charges (i.e. sending an SMS) and 22p when a member responds. In other words, there is an additional payment for performance.

My company has also built a rigorous bottom financial model testing the validity of Blyks 2-sided model; We have also conducted a conjoint market study in Australia to test elasticity of demand for such a service. If anyone is interested - email me on mark.aquilina@vitruviangroup.com.au

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