It’s not likely to be a question you’ve ever asked yourself. Unless you were thinking of taking on AT&T and had a few spare billion bucks lying around to buy up the licenses, then whether you should start your own mobile network was probably not very high on your agenda.
But what if we told you that you could do it for free? And within a few minutes? And that while you wouldn’t get all of the profits generated by your customers’ calls, you would pick up a cool $50 cash for everyone who joins the program and a cut of up to 8 percent of their phone bill.
You’d probably think what we thought when we heard about Sonopia: “Sounds like an affiliate system to me.”
MVNOs for you and Me…
In fact, sign up to Sonopia, and you’ll become an affiliate of an affiliate. The company is a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO): it sells Verizon’s calling plans, and the company’s members send it customers. But the system isn’t quite as simple as a basic reselling program. For one thing, it’s been set up by Juha Christensen, one of the founders of Symbian and the former president of Macromedia. And for another, in addition to putting your friends, neighbors and anyone else you can persuade onto Verizon’s network, those customers can receive a phone with a unique skin as well as exclusive content created by you and delivered straight to their phone. There are even plans for that content to include widgets created by programmers and targeted towards particular groups of users.
That means you’re not simply off-loading customers onto Verizon; you’re signing them up as members of a club which you run — and profit from.
The idea is to fill a marketing niche too small for companies as large as Verizon to make use of, one which sells phones to selected demographics based on features that appeal directly to them.
An arrangement like this is always going to appeal most to charities. Non-profits can benefit from the passive revenue stream generated as people make their calls. Their members get to show their affiliation every time they pull out their mobile, and they can also reduce the guilt they feel when they see their bill by telling themselves that they’ve just made a big contribution to their favorite cause. The National Wildlife Federation, for example, is just one organization that’s been quick to join the program.
Small businesses could use Sonopia too though, by distributing branded phones to employees. With an eye-catching skin, they’d get free advertising every time one of their workers talked in a bar or a café. Most importantly though, if it’s the sort of company whose workers are always out and about and which pays its employees’ phone bills anyway, it would be getting a discount equal to $50 plus the commission. If that works out cheaper than competitors’ rates, Sonopia could look like a cut-rate way of paying commercial phone bills while making its employees feel like part of the gang.
… but not for VoiP
In practice of course, communication costs are falling faster than a lead dollar anyway and increased use of VoiP, which Sonopia doesn’t support, is still the best way for a business to cut back on its telephone expenses.
As for individual sellers, it’s hard to see what would persuade someone to ditch their current contract for Sonopia’s. Springwise.com, for example, recommends pitching the value of exclusive content but the price of that content is always going to be the difference between the customer’s current plan and Sonopia’s. That could make the occasional piece of news or the odd song very expensive. Loyalty to a band, brand or cause might make someone willing to pay it; the odd article of the sort that they could read for free in their RSS reader is less likely to do the job.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Sonopia isn’t the MVNO model then — this is just one way in which mobile phone companies sell their services — but its social networking feature.
Sign up at Sonopia and the phone-selling will only be a part of what you’re asked to do. You’ll also be expected to create a profile for a Sonopia’s social networking system. This works in a similar way to Facebook — but with far fewer people.
That might suggest that even Sonopia doesn’t want to depend solely on phone sales for its revenue. More importantly though, it shows how it’s possible to fold two completely different services into each other so that when you sell one service to a customer, you also recruit them into the other.
Online sellers have done this for years by capturing email addresses and encouraging customers to opt in to receive ads. Sonopia has taken this model much further — and shown other entrepreneurs how they can do the same.