This time around, however, the battlefield won't be content or value-added services, where telecom operators have had a patchy track record. Instead, the fight moves to big data, an arena that the big tech platforms have dominated because of the masses of data they have collected about the world's Internet users.

They have spent the past 10 to 20 years gathering heaps of information about user behaviour in volumes at a pace, and at levels of granularity, with which other media players cannot compete.

Big techs are the power brokers of the data world because they have the data and algorithms to target the right ad to the right person at the right time.

With the person's login and email address — and their permission, granted by agreeing to the platform's terms and conditions — the giants of digital have access to every possible bit of info about a user, including:
  • their location
  • their emails
  • their online behaviour
  • the videos they watched
  • the photos they uploaded, and
  • the documents they created.
But this market is reaching a turning point. Big techs are looking to retreat further into their walled gardens to consolidate their dominance. This may, paradoxically enough, open gaps for competitors from the telecoms sector.

One of the key developments is the announcement that Google plans to phase out third-party cookie tracking in Chrome by 2022.

This comes as platforms such as Google and Facebook are already moving away from cookie-based marketing to people-based marketing. In essence, they are tracking people through their logins across devices and apps for more accurate, targeted cross-channel marketing.

The OTT fightback

Disturbingly, for telecom operators, the tech platforms offer OTT services that threaten their revenue base. This includes Apple's FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Microsoft's Skype, Tencent QQ or Tencent's WeChat and Facebook's WhatsApp.

A paper from McKinsey suggests that these services could contribute towards a 36% drop in spending on traditional communication services over the next ten years.

The choice for telecoms operators is thus to reinvent themselves or to become 'dumb pipes', eking out low margins from heavily commoditised services. The strategy some are pursuing is to build media and data platforms they can use to take the fight to the big tech players.

Certainly, when we look at South Africa, we believe some of the operators could compete effectively with big tech in the space of people-based, data-driven targeted marketing.

Vodacom is leading the pack, monetising a range of advertising opportunities such as its Please-Call-Me texts, its VLive content platform and other touchpoints that reach a subscriber base of 30 million people. Pairing data bundles with gaming and video offerings could also create new revenue streams for the operators.

Hitting the sweet spot for cost-conscious consumers

One of the ways its offers are so compelling is that they are tailored to local needs, especially the requirements of the data-conscious user. By some estimates, up to 60% of South Africans keep data switched off by default because they worry that they will be charged for data they didn't mean to use.

The Vodacom advertising platforms are largely zero-rated, meaning that subscribers can browse these channels with no data costs. Advertisers can also create zero-rated landing pages to which they can direct prospective customers, for example, lead generation forms, special promotions with voucher offers, or 'learn more' pages.

Combine this with the wealth of data a mobile operator has about its subscribers — demographics, spending patterns, location, online behaviour and more — and mobile operators could offer brands a compelling alternative to the big tech platforms. And they have the scale, motivation and funding to do so.

Sure, they will face some challenges in building their media plays, including business and data siloes and less agile and innovative cultures than the big tech companies.

The window of opportunity will only be open for a short time. But given that we're thinking about data in a new way, they could become real contenders in the fight for digital ad dollars. Perhaps they could even disrupt their disruptors.

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