Carriers are late to the mobile advertising game, and they’re not pleased with the score. Not only do Google and Facebook own the field today, but they’ve also leveraged the carriers’ huge investments in wireless infrastructure to increase their advantage. The two companies represent 60 percent of the digital advertising market today — no other player even comes close. Verizon, AT&T, and other mobile carriers would like to secure a piece of that pie, but they haven’t found the right path to victory yet.

In fact, every upgrade to carrier networks has led to more ad revenue for Facebook and Google. What’s worse, Google and Facebook currently own a “device unlock advantage” — as being the most common first point of engagement when users unlock their phone. This is due primarily to those apps being the most common last app used by users. That means that carriers are losing the initial play in their own game.

Mobile carriers have employed two specific strategies to crack the duopoly. Both have been costly, and to date, neither has shown clear signs of success. There is another less costly path that they should look at — and it involves innovating one of the things they already influence: the smartphone itself.

Strategy One: Why build when you can buy?
Content is King, and mobile carriers know this as well as any company. Consumers love content that can be easily skimmed and consumed, and there have been some well-known brands up for grabs in recent years. As an obvious example, Verizon snapped up two of the original content portals AOL and Yahoo to make up their new Oath property. In addition to a built-in following of Boomers and Gen X-ers, these mature portals also have their tech stacks and advertising portfolios.

Verizon may have embarked on more of an uphill climb than it bargained for, however. These new Oath properties like the Huffington Post already were undergoing downward trends in distribution — and without a heavy investment into increasing circulation, they still would be lacking the eyeballs to make a significant dent in the duopoly. While they may have spared themselves some heavy lifting by buying rather than building, it’s still going to take a somewhat herculean effort to keep those sites growing.

Strategy Two: the enemy of my enemy can be my friend
While some are eyeing established content publishers, other players are looking at the value of industry data as a way of beating the duopoly at their own game. Telecom players are quietly discussing ways to work together to pool their data as a consortium, leveraging that trove of user information and insights. All that non-PII data can be used to build and target audiences — and wireless carriers may possess data sets at a quality and density that can compete with Google and Facebook.

The challenge here is the massive, global scale that Google and Facebook can offer – along with an established and user-friendly tech stack. The Big Two are already very cozy with the digital advertising industry, and it will be hard to beat the relationships they’ve established, especially with the easy targeting and reporting they’ve been refining for years. So while carriers certainly can work together to make up some ground here – the investment in time and resources would still be massive.

Missed opportunity: the device-centric approach
What the carriers are missing out on is a low-cost, quick time to market, device-centric approach that could result in wins for themselves as well as their customers. Today’s on-the-go society desires things to be delivered quickly and with minimal clicks. From Uber taxis to Grub Hub food delivery to Amazon Prime retail shopping, our mobile phones provide us with “frictionless” technologies designed to keep us moving. Content should be no different, but we still suffer through searching, opening apps and waiting for content to load.
The simplest, most cost-effective way wireless carriers can stem the tide of the duopoly is by creating a more “frictionless” content experience for their subscribers. By working with their OEM suppliers, carriers are among the few stakeholders who can influence and change how the smartphone works. They can implement solutions on the first screen, minus screen (swipe right) or web launchers that proactively presents “frictionless” content to the info-hungry mobile user. This approach not only improves the user experience but also delivers carriers a mobile advertising opportunity they desperately desire.

Through these innovative solutions, carriers have the advantage in winning those moments when consumers need their content to be “frictionless” — passing the time while in line for coffee, on the train to work or in the carpool line waiting to pick up their kids. These are the snackable mobile moments that matter most when we’re on the go and want something, really anything engaging.

Right now, these moments are owned by Google and Facebook, but not because of any technological ownership over the phone — rather, they own this position simply because of their “device unlock advantage” and because no other entities have been able to put something useful in front of them. It’s an area where the carriers have a rather exclusive opportunity to take advantage of — and it’s ripe for the taking.

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