Monday, April 02, 2007

Sonopia: a hammer to crack a nut?

I was excited when I heard about Juha Christensen's new outfit - Sonopia. He's got a track record for thinking big, knows mobile inside out and this play is in the sweet spot for where the mobile meets the internet: creating and serving real life, not virtual, communities. Sonopia's mission is to "provide every organization, group or individual with the opportunity to create branded mobile service and build a unique mobile and web community of supporters and members". So the idea is that your community of interest becomes your (virtual) mobile service provider, and they take a cut out of your mobile phone bill. Given that few people care much for their mobile operators, you as a customer can then feel better about handing over wads of cash each month, as some of it goes to your favourite cause.

Exploring the communities on offer, I was intrigued by the Food to Go group in Northern California that is devoted to new dining experiences, and also tantalizingly offers the prospect of making friends and finding a dinner date. Food and relationships - sounds like the perfect community. I promptly joined the group, but since I'm not a US resident I couldn't really do very much with it. Nor could I, as a non-resident, set up my own group of worshippers and exhort my hordes of faithful acolytes to join up give me a slice of their monthly income. Shame really, as I'd always fancied leading a sect.
But I digress. Sonopia is a undeniably a bold and visionary move - a breath of fresh air into a space that has seen a lot of heat and not much light. My conceptual difficulty is wondering why the act of community affiliation - an ephemeral, will'o'the wisp flight of fancy, which can fluctuate like the summer breeze, is hard wired into the access and device offering. I can be a member of 100 of such groups, but will only want one mobile service provider. Surely this should be a services, not an access, play. OK, I can get a credit card from my university alumnii society, so why not a mobile phone plan? But what overlap does my interest in the worthy cause of saving the tuna have towards my mobility service needs? Are they somehow different from someone who wants to save the dolphin?

The initial motivation for Sonopia, according to their website is they "wanted the brands we really cared about to light up our mobile phones." If I'm interested in transport services I might engage a car company to provide me with an end to end solution that comes with seats, wheels and an engine. I might express my affiliation with the tuna lovers of the world by sticking on a wittily ironic bumper sticker, or having a pair of fluffy tuna hanging from my rearview mirror. But would I want the gear stick to be tuna-shaped? The steering wheel to be covered in the skin of unliberated tunas? Maybe, but the market size of this niche is rapidly diminishing to the sub-micro, and the handful of people with such passionate affiliations are probably serving time at her majesty's pleasure.
Maybe the job of passion and relationships is one for the top of the stack, something like this.

So, I applaud the concept to the extent that this is a canary in the coal mine for micro-segmentation of an end-to-end mobile experience bundle that can be tailored to specific groups, and that it shamelessly offers tangible benefits to community owners to act as a distributed sales force helping Sonopia to sell more minutes on behalf of Verizon and keep a cut. However, to me, community services are best managed at the higher level of abstraction - separating the tasks of providing connectivity with those of providing community. Given that more middlemen inevitably mean more people fighting for a margin out of each of your communication events, maybe if you do want to give money to a good cause, you'd be better off just sending them a cheque?

1 comment:

Marek said...

An interesting take on an interesting service. I just wrote an article on this for our Mobile User Experience blog and came to a similar conclusion. In it's current form Sonopia seems to offer an interesting set of tools for adding affinity groups to your mobile, but falls short of enabling group owners to differentitate their services in most of the key areas of customer experience. You can read more thoughts on this at: