New Zealand-based 63336 researcher Kim Randerson is busy getting her world back together again after the earthquake that rocked Christchurch. Judging by the photo of her house, Kim had a very lucky escape.
Kim writes: “I was at home, doing 63336 work, right at the time of the quake: the last answer I submitted was sent just 2 minutes before the quake hit. The house we lived in is pretty much a write-off now… and I don’t know how I got out of there unscathed. I was knocked to the ground with the force of the quake, as I was trying to get away from our floor-to-ceiling windows, which all starting caving in towards me. (It had seemed like such a good idea to position my desk right in the window, as the house overlooks the city). Our enormous book case missed me by inches as I was on the floor. We live just a couple of kilometers from Lyttelton – the epicentre of the quake – so the shaking was unbelievably violent. There are now huge cracks all over the house, gaps between the walls and the floors, the toilet is at a 45 degree angle, glass everywhere, fitted oven came out of the wall, etc. My partner was at work in the city at the time, and thankfully he’s okay too. Compared to others, we’re amazingly lucky. We’ve fled to the north island, and I’m just easing myself back into doing 63336 work – we’re going to need every penny we can get now!”
Proposals to save the British Pub and reduce antisocial behaviour
George Osborne has his day in the spotlight on 22nd June as he announces his new budget measures. First and foremost he needs to repair the nation’s finances. However, fiscal policy can also be used as a tool for good by influencing social policy. It is in this spirit that 63336 puts forward some simple but quite radical budget proposals that will not only help the exchequer but also promote greater social cohesion, curb anti-social behaviour and help save that great British institution – the pub.
What is the problem?
Extraordinarily cheap alcohol bought at supermarkets is the cause of the problem. This has driven many small off-licenses to the point of extinction and contributed to the mass exodus of people from the pub to their sitting rooms. This is a huge social change that has accelerated over the last 15 years with the explosion of multi-channel television but it has become most notable during the recent recession.
The explosion of cheap supermarket alcohol, some of it alledgedly sold below cost price, has also contributed to the increases in loutish, anti-social behaviour from youths as they fill up on cheap lagers at home before going out to clubs and bars later in the evening.
We at 63336 have seen this change first hand. When we first started the service in 2004 we received a lot of our questions from customers who were out and about enjoying the vibrant social scene. Now though, many of our questions now come from people watching television at home.
This change in customer habits has huge consequences for British society as a whole. People and families are going out less and interact less, leaving town centres in the evening as the preserve of a very narrow and increasingly loutish age group.
Unlike many commentators we don’t think the answer is to tax alcohol in pubs more – this will only drive more people to drink at home. Instead, we think the answer is to get more people, from all generations, back into the social scene. If more people went out, especially older people and parents then social and peer pressure would help curb loutish behaviour and binge drinking. To encorage this we need to ensure that drinking in pubs is affordable whilst alcohol purchased from supermarkets exceeds certain minimum pricing levels.
How do prices compare?
We conducted as quick experiment checking out the price of Becks beer at a supermarket and then at a pub. The difference is shocking.
Morrrisons- 30 bottles for £15 = £0.50 a bottle
Dog and Duck – local pub £3.50 a bottle
50p for a bottle of lager is clearly too low. Minimum pricing for all bottled lager should be imposed through a supermarket tax. At the same time help for the pub trade, already overloaded with bureaucracy and rules, should be available through a reduction in beer duty for alcohol purchased for consumption on those premises.
63336 budget proposals
1 Impose a tax of £3 on every bottle of lager/beer purchased in a supermarket
2 Reduce excise duty on beer and wine bought in pubs and restaurants by 50%
Change for good
Current, so-called market forces, are driving us to live in isolation from our neighbours and friends, communicating with one another through facebook and the internet, whilst watching wall-to-wall television. Supermarket price promotions on beers are encouraging this trend and, unless positive steps are taken by government to help the pub and restaurant trade, we will see further pub closures and further erosion of our traditional communities.
So we call on Mr Osbourne to act now and impose a super-tax on supermarket beers and reduce the tax on beer bought in pubs.
Today we’re announcing a major policy change, which comes as a result of extensive research and customer consultation. From now on, we require that customers use “please” when beginning or ending questions.
When we set up the 63336 service, we designed it so it didn’t matter about your spelling, whether you used txtspk or your question was full of slang, as it’s skilled human researchers that power 63336 and they can answer practically any question you’ve got.
Our researchers work to a guide that helps you get the best answers for your £1. This guide focuses on providing well written, accurate, fast answers that are often witty and provide extra wow factor. But it also helps researchers to decide what they can’t (for legal reasons), or won’t (for our editorial purposes) answer.
Although our policy has remained relatively unchanged over the last four years, we’re updating it today, because we believe that instilling the habit of politeness in the UK will have significant positive effects not only for our workers, but for all individuals and possibly the economy too.
What you need to do
Q: Where the hell are my bleeding keys?
63336: Hello. Your keys are under the sofa. They fell out of your pocket when you flumped down in front of the TV last night. Hope you haven’t been too inconvenienced.
From today, if you ask questions like this we will simply choose not to answer. You’ll need to make your requests much more polite. The easiest way to do this is for 63336 to mandate that all customers use the word ‘please’ in all questions.
A kiss is ok for six months
However, to make it easier during what we expect to be a difficult transitional period, we’ve agreed that including one or more kisses (”x”) will be an acceptable alternative to the actual “please” for the next six months.
If customers fail to comply, they will receive our new standard response, “Sorry, you did not say please when you asked your question. Please can you re-submit your text with a please in order to get an answer. Thank you. x”
Why we are adopting this new approach
Our service is by nature anonymous, so we know to expect the unexpected. We’ve never been too shocked to be propositioned (these range from straightforward marriage proposals to “would you prefer me in French knickers or g-strings?”), and kisses at the end of questions delight us. However, in the last year – perhaps driven by the recession – we’ve seen a marked change in the way that new customers in particular use the service. They just aren’t as nice.
In 2005 and 2006 we received, on average, a kiss/please/thank you once every 30 questions. In the last year this has dropped sharply – it’s now less than one in 100 questions. Swearing has also risen dramatically, from 1 expletive in every 200 questions to 1 in every 40. It’s not big, and it’s not clever.
You might not think this matters, but a decrease in politeness, and an increase in customers who need their mouths washed out with soap, has had a substantial negative effect on our researchers. They face 12,000 of these questions every day. We want to protect our workforce, but we also want to instil some of our own high standards of politeness into our customers.
And with good reason, as it turns out.
A little politeness makes a big difference
As part of this process, we commissioned research from the Association of Promoting Intelligent Language. The research confirmed a decline in standards of politeness in today’s society, as well as, interestingly, a high correlation between increase in rudeness and decrease in economic growth. Whilst we’re not claiming (yet) that the recession has been entirely due to people being less nice to each other, the results make some stark reading:
Comparing the early 1990s with 2010, the research showed that:
- Parents who consider ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ essential communication tools has fallen from 85% to 55%
- Postmen and women reported a 75% decrease in greetings from the public on their morning rounds. Correspondingly, postal deliveries have been 81% slower in the same period
- In 2010, 89% of adults said an average of 3 “thank yous” and 1.8 smiles per transaction were necessary to get them to return to a shop and spend money
After receiving this commissioned research, we undertook a survey of 1,000 of our customers, asking them whether we should instil higher standards. 73% approved of a strong editorial stance, whilst only 7% objected. 6% refused to take part in the survey (and have since been barred) whilst 14% expressed no opinion or did not understand the question.
It’s as a result of this compelling evidence that we’ve decided to take strong action, both for the good of our researchers and the future of the UK.
How to be polite
If it’s been a while since you were polite, here’s a brief guide to what is acceptable, and what simply won’t do anymore.
Sorry, but starting today we will no longer accept:
Give me the bus times to Chipping Norton right now
I want a list of the films made in the 1990s, all of them
Oi loser, tell me what colour pants I’m wearing or I’ll never text you again
Instead, we would like, please:
Please can you tell me the better way of saying i can’t hear other than ‘what’.
Will you marry me 63336? XxX
Could I trouble you for the next 3 trains to Upminster, please?
Thank you for your attention. Have a nice day.
Editors note: (2/4/2010) This is of course an April Fool’s, see our new post here.
It is quite easy to get a lot of customers by giving everything away for free. The real test is making money.
“Have you ever thought about including an advert with your text answer?”
This is a question we get asked a lot. However, we do not believe that it is good business to include adverts in our text question and answer service.
The idea behind this business model is that an advert would be inserted after the answer we send to our customers and, so the theory goes, we can then generate additional revenue on every text. If we can generate enough advertising revenue on each text it might even be possible to reduce the amount we charge customers, perhaps even giving away answers for free. In this virtuous circle we could then attract even greater advertising revenue because of our larger user base.
It is not an unusual concept. Newspapers have for years sold their papers for a cover price and also generated advertising income on top. However, it is the internet world that has witnessed an explosion of ad-funded models, only a few of which have actually been successful. Websites and whole businesses have been funded on the concept of giving away information for free in the expectation of generating web traffic measured in millions of users. Whilst some companies have achieved spectacular web-traffic, many have also racked up spectacular losses.
So why doesn’t it add up?
Mobile is different to the web
Probably the single most important business feature in the mobile arena is the presence of a micropayment mechanism. i.e. customers have an account with a network operator. In the UK, premium rate services worth close to £1bn a year (appendix C of the PhonePayPlus business plan) have been developed on the back of this payment mechanism. This means, unlike the internet, it is possible to build a business where the consumer pays a small fee every time they use the service.
Despite the emergence of paypal etc, the lack of a credible and simple micropayment mechanism on the internet has hindered the development of such services on the web and has thus encouraged the ad-funded model approach. In contrast, in the mobile arena, it means you can make money on a service without the need to include advertising. An error many companies make has been to assume that the ad-funded models they have seen on the internet can be transferred to the mobile world.
Mobiles are personal
Mobiles are personal devices which customers have with them at most times of the day. We are in a privileged position where the customer asks us a question and allows us to send the answer to their phone. It is important to respect the customer’s personal space. This is why we never spam our customers. However, it goes further than that. When a customer texts us a question they know they are getting the best answer we can find. They know we are not pushing a product and we have not been “bought”. When they ask for a restaurant in their town we give them an independent recommendation rather than pushing a company that has paid us to recommend their chain or one that is paying us for an advertising campaign.
Ultimately, we believe that we provide more than £1 of value in our answers. Texts only allow us around 160 characters to answer any question. We have a policy of using as many of those characters as possible in our replies and supplement many of our answers with extra information. The inclusion of an advert in any SMS text inevitably reduces the quality of that answer.
Despite all the arguments against using adverts, some companies still believe they are acceptable within their text answers. It is therefore worth looking at the whole economics of setting up and running an ad-funded model.
The best way to look at this is to consider the cost base. Any business has to cover its costs and then some extra to make a profit. In the text question and answer business there are two costs that must be covered each and every time a question is answered. The first is the human cost of answering a question. At 63336, we pay our researchers 30p for each question they answer. This allows us to attract highly competent researchers who are based at home and primarily in the UK. We also have to pay a ‘bulk’ charge of around 3p-5p to send the answers back via text. So, to break-even on each and every text we answer we need to generate 35p. This is before marketing costs, central management salaries, IT infrastructure and the cost of supporting this blog.
Therefore, running an ad-funded model where the questions are free whilst achieving bottom line profitability requires in excess of 50p for each and every answer we send out. Is this really possible?
Advertising rates vary depending on the type of advert and how well an explicit consumer group can be targeted. For example, an insurance advert sent in an answer to someone who asked a question about insurance companies will command a high premium and it may be possible to do this through keyword identification. The problem is that we send out of 1,000’s of texts every day and only a fraction will appeal to category specific companies.
Higher advertising rates are also achievable on “click-through” advertising (where someone not only sees the advert but also clicks on it, taking them to a website). However, such high payments are only made when a customer clicks on the advert. The average payment across all the adverts sent works out much lower because in many cases the customer doesn’t click through.
Finally, there is traditional banner type advertising seen by everyone. However, as it is not targeted, it commands very low rates per text sent out.
So what do other companies do ?
Despite the apparent unattractive economics of the ad-funded text question and answer model, there are examples of companies who have tried to adopt it. AskMeNow operated in America and were listed on the US stock market. Their results are available here. The company offered a free text question and answer service, relying on advertising as its primary source of revenue. It even tried to reduce the cost of answering the questions by employing researchers from the lower wage economy of Philippines. In the 12 months to 31 December 2007, its last full year of trading, AskMeNow managed to generate an income of USD60,000 whilst incurring expenses of USD20,980,000.
There are of course a number of reasons why the AskMeNow business model failed. However, it does demonstrate that it is unlikely to be possible to generate enough income from advertising to operate a totally free text question and answer service at a profit. It may be possible to generate some income from advertising but the customer will end up paying for an answer, the value of which is then diminished by the inclusion of an advert.
I recently came across a new service run by an American company Gogii to give away free texts through an iPhone App. It is discussed in this article here. Whilst they have raised VC funding of USD5.2million, the CEO freely admits that “advertising revenue does not come near the cost of running the service”.
It is quite easy to get a lot of customers by giving everything away for free. The real test is making money. At 63336 we were profitable after 18 months and have used those profits to grow the business. Customers can depend on us to keep delivering a good service because they know we are commercially successful.
Would we ever consider advertising?
There are clearly some forms of less intrusive advertising that are suited to mobile business models. A more obvious example is advertising within applications. This would work much like banner advertising on the web. We have developed the 63336 app that makes it easier to ask a question as well as providing insight into the questions our customers are currently asking on a daily basis here as well as our Top 5 Q&A and your question history. If we get sufficient usage of the app there may be an argument to cover some of cost of supporting it through advertising. However, unlike the text question and answer service, the customer hasn’t paid £1 for a specific answer. Rather, they are browsing for news and information, a situation much like newspapers where advertising is less intrusive and more acceptable.
Given the current technology and the space available in a text the economics just don’t stack up to make it viable to run an ad-funded model. With the micropayment mechanisms in place on mobile phones it isn’t necessary either to support a viable business. The extra income we could potentially generate might enable us to perhaps reduce the cost of the text for customers but it is marginal and doesn’t offset the concerns about independent answers and not invading our customers’ personal space with advertising they did not solicit.
63336, of course, gets asked questions all the time.
There are two questions that we staff members get asked time and again, though, when we describe our work. Most people only ask one or the other:
“How do you answer questions, then?”
“Why would I want to use 63336, when I have Google on my phone already?”
Perhaps surprisingly, the answers to these two questions lead to the same place. We do use Google, and other search engines – not as the first place we look when researching a question, and not usually as the last place, either. Search engines provide facts: they don’t answer questions.
Often that might seem a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one. With some of our questions, it’s not even subtle. If a customer types “Should I leave my husband?” into a search engine, she’ll get a number of agony aunt columns & advice websites attempting to answer that question for specific individuals and situations – which don’t include the customer, or her situation. If she texts us the same question, we have access not only to some fairly smart and sympathetic researchers, but also to all of her “question history” – the other questions she’s asked 63336, which often give us more than enough info to offer her an educated and well-balanced recommendation.
Sometimes search engines are wrong, or at least misleading, too. One recent survey indicated that most people who use Google don’t realise that the top three links on a search results page – the ones Google calls, in rather small, pale text, “Sponsored Links” – are advertising, rather than the actual search results. You get what you pay for. Google needs ads, to make a profit, even if those ads compromise its usefulness. If you text 63336, you’re paying for impartial fact; we don’t take money to promote certain businesses or services over others in our answers.
What happens when your search engine results contradict each other? If you want the true facts behind global warming, a search for either “global”, “warming”, and “facts”, or “global” “warming”, and “truth” gets you (if you know to scroll past the usual “sponsored links”) a mixture of pages that fully support the global warming hypothesis, and pages that supposedly refute it, as well as news items about the current scandal rocking the subject. The “facts” search term gets you 9 sites that accept global warming, and only one anti-global warming one; but for the “truth” search term, the proportions are very nearly reversed. There are a lot of opinionated and even biased sites out there on the web, and search engines don’t usually make a distinction between which ones are accurate and which aren’t.
That’s only on the first page of the search engine results, too. It’s not unusual for us to find the right answer ten or more pages in. Ideally we’ll work out what search terms to use to bring the result we want onto the first page, but sometimes that’s not possible, and the more old-fashioned research approach, of just sifting through dozens and dozens of possible results, is the only one that works.
There are two advantages we have over every search engine.
The first is our lean, mean powerhouse of a database, all algorithms and answers, regularly improved and updated. We’ve answered over 20 million questions so far, and they’re all in the database, ordered and searchable, ready to be picked out, altered if necessary, and re-used. Most of the time, there’s already a database answer that we can use, either just as it is, or tweaked and updated. There’s also the customer’s question history, as mentioned earlier, to give us context for each and every question.
We don’t automate our answers, though. Our other advantage is our staff. There is still a human involved, selecting the best answer, making sure it’s still accurate, and tailoring it to the customer, or completely re-writing it if necessary. Most of our staff have degrees, & many have postgraduate qualifications, so when we get a tricky or technical question, we can usually do a lot better than just re-wording the closest vaguely relevant Wikipedia article. In some ways, Wikipedia is more reliable than most search engines are, though several studies indicate that its accuracy falls down considerably on highly technical subjects, and even its own management recognise that it suffers from systemic bias. 63336 researchers probably suffer from some systemic bias, too, but it’s a British cultural bias that’s actually pretty handy for answering questions from fellow Brits.
If there’s no answer in the database, there’s quite often no answer online, anywhere, anyway. Still, most of our researchers are exactly the kind of quick-witted polymaths you really don’t want to be up against in a pub quiz. If I don’t have a rough idea of the answer to a question, I probably have a book that covers it, somewhere in my house; if I don’t, then another researcher probably does. It’s a little old-fashioned, in these days of eReaders, but sometimes the best way to store and refer to a couple of thousand reference books is a load of bookshelves and a sharp mind. Likewise, if there is an answer available online, our researchers usually have a good idea of which sites to look at directly to get the answer, rather than going via a search engine.
So — why use us when you could just Google it on your phone? Maybe you shouldn’t. If you enjoy using Google, for fun, and get a deep satisfaction out of answering questions, and can do so quickly enough to impress your friends, as well as assessing your search engine’s results and spotting all the times when they’re just plain wrong, and then further wow your friends by picking up the most interesting snippet of fun or entertaining info on whichever website you found… well, maybe you should come and work for us.
If sometimes, though, you get frustrated that Google isn’t enough, or isn’t accurate enough; or if sometimes you just want the sheer luxury of having a minion scurry off to answer your question for you while you concentrate on your pint; or if you’ve tried us before and know that we don’t just give you raw data but an entertaining and accurate answer; or if you need an answer that computers aren’t good at, like “what is the meaning of life” or “what should I say to the cute platinum blonde making eyes at me across the bar” – well, you have our number.
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene ii)
There’s swathes of literature, and significant sections of the marketing industry, devoted to coming up with brand names, registering them, communicating them, and protecting them.
Why does it matter? Essentially it is the first point of contact for your customers. Interbrand and the like would advise you to consider carefully your name, to look at the qualities and meanings it conveys to your customers, employees, partners, media and even competitors.
Get it right, so the theory goes, and you have a valuable asset. Get it wrong, and it could harm your business. This is a story of how we came up with our name, and how it has changed over time.
How we named our service
When we launched the world’s first premium text question and answer service, we considered a number of approaches.
We looked at mnemonics related to our number, but ODEDO didn’t really appeal to us. Furthermore our experience showed us that whilst companies like 1800FLOWERS were effective in the US, almost no one in the UK would know that it meant you should call 18003569377.
Secondly, we didn’t initially want to name the service just 63336. It was our belief that unless you’re a notable savant, most people have difficulty remembering any number. Try it for yourself – how many of your friends’ phone numbers can you remember?
Eventually, we took the ‘ronseal’ approach – a brand famous for putting out adverts based on the tagline “does exactly what it said on the tin”. Thus, we named the service AQA – short for ‘Any Question Answered’.
Developing our name
Over time some problems with AQA become more obvious.
In the process of registering the trademark we had to negotiate with the well-known examination board. Despite us and the board being happy to coexist, our customers get confused – we still get called up by parents arguing about their beloved son/daughters poor marks. Many students continue to text us questions amazed that their examination board would recommend continuing to party through the night.
More significantly, whilst the service name accurately described what we did, it doesn’t include a ‘call to action’ – that is, how do you use it? The answer, of course, is ‘to text 63336′. This is something that we thought we could control in advertising, but it became apparent over time that it wasn’t something we could always control in either conversations people were having about us, or press articles written about us.
As an example, in one of the first significant press coverage of AQA the then editor of the Sunday Times refused point blank to include the service number. It was very frustrating to us on the day of publication – how would people know what number to use to text us? Our frustration was relieved somewhat the day after when the Mirror, Daily Express, Metro, Radio 1, LBC and umpteen other newspapers, radio stations and blogs all published 63336, causing a ten fold increase in question volume.
Although we’ve managed most of the time to get press to put the all important number in, we’ve always recognised that it is what customers do that matters. Interestingly, despite putting AQA: at the beginning of every single answer, and we’ve now sent out over 20 million of these, the public have their own names for us: the Oracle, the Answer Man, Ask any question, or even just God! Many don’t have any name for us, we’re just ‘that text a question service’.
But really we don’t care that much what people call us, what matters is whether they could remember the number to text us a question. Looking at our data, and commissioned research, it became clear. The number one reason for those people not using our service after trying it out was they couldn’t remember the number.
In 2006 we tried to address this problem by calling the service AQA 63336 (or AQA 57275 in Ireland). We wanted to retain the name so that people knew what it did, but include the ‘call to action’. It has been pretty effective in the media, who have been for us one of the most important channels to communicate with our customers. But each time a story is written we have to fight tooth and nail to get them to write AQA 63336 and not just AQA.
The plot thickens
Two good examples of this are earlier this year, the BBC commissioned a TV show based on a comedy show that we developed with some leading comedians for sell out tours in Edinburgh. At the time of commissioning, the BBC argued that whilst it could credit us, it should really include our company name (IssueBits Ltd) rather than the service name. We eventually managed to get them to credit AQA, but again, many who watched the program thought it was the examination board working with the BBC.
And despite years of practice at working with the media, last month we launched the ‘ask a stupid question day’ and managed to get press coverage worth ‘over £40,000 of equivalent advertising spend’ in British newspapers, but all just referencing merely AQA. One paper seemed to get further confused in the association with the exam board. How many texts did this coverage drive to our business? Maybe 20-30.
Enough, is enough
Finally, you might argue, we’ve come to our senses and the new name will just be 63336.
Answers will now have 63336: in them, it will be ‘63336 thinks’ when you need an opinion, and of course ‘63336 apologises’ for all those customers that proposition us. It is our belief that this will make it easier to remember the number, and all other things being equal people will continue to use us if not more.
But nothing much has really changed. The most important thing for anyone to know is the number on which you text to get an answer. Remembering one thing is easier than two things. In retrospect, this should have been our Ronseal approach. The service should be called 63336 because that’s the number you text to get an answer.
Even if we’re not all savants and this name, by being a five digit number, is difficult to remember, it’s still the only thing that you need to remember. Everything should be focused on that.
And just to eliminate any possible further confusion about who we are, or what we do, from today, our company name has changed. The 63336 text service you use to answer all of your questions is now provided by 63336 Limited.
And finally, somewhat loosely related to our name change, if you can name the character in this picture as well as the well loved TV series it is from, then we’ll give you a free copy of our latest book More Brilliant Answers. Email your answers (with your postal address) with ‘competition’ in the subject reference to email@example.com.
Name the series and the character to win a book
1. With ‘only’ 250,000 words in the English language, almost every word that’s usable as a brand name has been trademarked. Worldwide, there’s over 13 million active trademarks registered.
2. Often misquoted is a story about a General Motors fiasco of mistakenly naming a car ‘Nova’ for the Spanish market, when ‘no va’ means ‘doesn’t go’. However, I would urge you to seek the truth at snopes, the doyenne of myth busting sites.
3. An interesting development, five years after launching the service, is that increasingly less phones have characters next to the digits making this argument for not substituting numbers for letters more compelling.
4. Despite not including our number, the Sunday Times on July 18th, 2004, generated around 150 questions from customers and we recorded a ‘record’ of most questions answered in one day of 460. This was a very short lived record as the very next day, thanks to subsequent media coverage including the all important 63336 number, we had to answer 4,266.
5. One way in which PR companies try to convince you of their worth is that they charge you £X per month retainer to get coverage which, had you placed an advert in the same space, would have cost you £X*5, making it the best ‘bargain’ you’ve ever had. Of course the fact that you would have never even considered spending £X*5 in the first place doesn’t come into it.
6. We get 2 marriage propositions a week. We also get a regular number of other slightly more risqué propositions, some of which will now get the answer “63336 apologises but as we are a mixture of human researchers and machines we simply could not do that. Besides, 63336 is washing its hair and has a headache.”
118 services are still not coming clean about the true cost of directory enquires (DQ) calls. It is an amazing fact that after years of phone regulation it is still mind-boggling difficult to find out the cost of calling a DQ service from a mobile phone.
We have all heard or read statements similar to the one below when looking at an advert promoting a DQ service.
“Calls to 118118 cost 79p per call, 29p per minute from most landlines. Mobile charges vary”
It’s an official statement, approved by the regulator and it is there to protect the public. But hang on, what is the cost of making a call from a mobile?
Who uses a BT landline these days?
This is 2009. More and more of us use mobile phones and we don’t ring from a BT landline. From discussions I have had with industry insiders there are upwards of 50% of people calling DQ numbers from mobiles and in some age groups that figure is considerably higher. I have tried to get some evidence of the exact figure but I can’t find it anywhere on the web. Perhaps one of the DQ companies can come on line and tell us the correct figure?
So what is the cost of a call to a DQ service using a mobile phone and why don’t the DQ companies make it clear?
Well I thought I would try and find out how much it would cost. But rather than make the call and wait for the bill to come in I thought it would be good to find out before I made the call.
My thought process went, “I’m going to make a call to a DQ service so I will go on their website and find out the cost”.
Ahem, it is not that straight forward. Indeed, it is next to impossible. I challenge anyone to find out the cost of mobile call to a 118 number by searching the specific DQ website. Next I rang someone at Yell to ask them what the price was. After a number of escalations within the organisation someone knowledgeable about these matters explained that part of problem is that the price varies by network. Since the prices vary the DQ companies are allowed to state “Refer to network operators for prices”.
So if you want to find out how much it costs you actually have to go to the network operators rather than the DQ companies to find out. That is strange, to say the least. It should not be too complicated for each DQ company to put a simple table showing the prices from each network operator on their website? Anyone would think they didn’t want to show them to us or they were in some way embarrassed?
So, onto the next stage of my search and a visit to the websites of each of the network operators.
In order to keep it all simple and make the comparisons work I chose to find out the prices of just one 118 service. I chose 118118 because back in 2007 they claimed to be the largest DQ suppliers with a market share of 53%.
The search for evidence proved quite difficult and the ease of finding information varied from site to site. I used the various website search engines and tried, “Cost of a Directory Enquiries call” then, “Cost of a DQ call” then, “cost of a call to 118118” and then, “Cost of a premium rate call”
Virgin ask you to call the team to find out this information. This call put me in a waiting list where unsurprisingly all of their operators were busy and expected wait time would be 20 minutes. I emailed instead and got an answer 2 days later.
T Mobile told me “for the cost of 118 refer to customer services”. However, a search on customer services brings up 100 hits, none of which is customer services unless you want a job. Eventually I emailed them and they called me back.
The numbers they don’t want to publish
Ok so what were the results? I have tabulated them below
Per min cost
Cost of a 1 minute call
£1.00 per min
£0.40 per min
£0.73 per min
£1.50 per min
£1.00 per min
£0.49 per min (starting from 2nd minute
For anyone new to DQ charging models the distinction between the “fixed cost” and the “cost per min” is actually very important. You see DQ services make money by keeping you connected. This is not just through the, “Do you need anything else sir?” but also when they ask, “Would you like us to connect you?” If you say yes the cost per minute keeps on ticking. If you are on T Mobile that clock is ticking at £1.50 per minute. You might only have connected to a standard number, perhaps the dentist or doctor, but all the time you are booking that appointment or describing your symptoms you are incurring a premium rate charge. It is enough to make you ill all over again.
So what is the message ?
More people call DQ services (and other premium rate services) from a mobile than from BT. It is therefore misleading and inappropriate to quote charges from a BT landline especially when charges from some mobile networks are higher. Cost of calls from mobiles should be on the DQ website and be much more prominent and easy to find. If the pricing structures are too varied and take up too much space the industry should rationalise this. Pricing should be the same across all networks, as it is for texting.
The App Store launched on 10 July 2008, followed by the iPhone 3G the next day. With 800 apps available for download, by 14 July – just 3 days later, over 10 million apps had been downloaded. A phenomenal take-up by any measure.
This success has continued, with 35,000 apps and 1 billion downloads by 23 April 2009. Latest figures (from 27 October 2009) are 100,000 apps and over 2 billion downloads. An AdMob study of 1,000 mobile phone users suggests that iPhone users download 10 apps per month and that iTouch users download 18 apps per month. Such figures are simply stunning and suggest that a completely new market is in the making.
While many of these apps are free, they are often commercial in purpose. For example, at 63336 we have been developing a Java ME app for the 63336 service, which we are launching today. An iPhone app is on the way and should be available by early December. The app allows a customer to ask a question of 63336, to see their question history, to see our daily top 5 questions & answers and to see what we call the 63336 Buzz. 63336 Buzz is made up of short articles highlighting the questions customers of the 63336 service are asking each day. It lets you see what’s on the mind of the nation.
New App Stores proliferate
Unsurprisingly, the result of Apple’s success has been a flurry of App Stores launched by the rest of the mobile phone industry. For example, network operators: Orange, O2 and Vodafone; software platform providers: Symbian with Symbian OS, Sun with Java ME, Google with Android and Microsoft with Windows Mobile; mobile phone manufacturers: Samsung, Sony Ericsson, LG, RIM, Palm and Nokia. And still more to come.
The problem with all of this is that none of these App Stores are really addressing the needs of the app developers. As commercial organisations, developers want to address the largest possible market for the least cost. The target demographic is customers of all the network operators using any mobile phone.
One increasing problem is the proliferation of software platforms: iPhone/iTouch with a special version of Mac OS X, Windows Mobile, Android, Symbian and Java ME, amongst others. However, Java ME has significant market penetration, probably well in excess of 50% of all UK mobile phones. With iPhone sales approaching 3 million in the UK, the market for Java ME apps is at least 10 times bigger. This represents a terrific market opportunity that exists right now.
It’s marketing, stupid
Currently, if a developer wants to market their Java ME application to the widest possible demographic, they would have to make it available on the O2, Orange and Vodafone App Stores at the very least. As Three and T-Mobile do not have App Stores, it would probably be necessary to do Nokia’s Ovi App Store and RIM’s App Store as well. So that would be five different submissions, and then, every time the App was updated, another five submissions. Very costly in time and effort, especially in maintaining a commercial relationship with five App Stores.
However, just making your application available on App Stores is not even a tenth of the battle. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan, “it’s marketing, stupid”. That’s right, you now have to market the application. As the iPhone app developers are finding, it is not much fun when there are 100,000 applications listed. With so many apps available, there are typically 10 or 20 variants for every kind of app and the volume of apps is still growing steadily. You will need marketing to persuade customers to download and use your application.
Marketing is already terrifically expensive, without being made more so by the proliferation of App Stores. It is hard enough developing a single marketing campaign without having to target it to 5 different App Stores. Even if you run national marketing campaigns, it will still be expensive, because you are paying to reach a much broader audience than your target demographic.
A single App Store for Java ME apps
What developers require is a single App Store providing Java ME apps that will reach all the customers of all network operators using a mobile phone that can run Java ME. Developers would have a single marketplace from which to promote their applications, and a single commercial relationship. Customers would need only to go to one location to find and download applications. All of which would reduce friction in developing a substantial Java ME app market that could potentially dwarf the Apple App Store.
This situation is very similar to when SMS was first available. Initially, each network operator restricted SMS traffic to its own network, limiting the market for their customers to communicate with mobile phone users on other networks. Again network operators were focused on their own requirements and not on the requirements of the wider market. As soon as the agreements were made which allowed cross-network SMS traffic, SMS took off and has not stopped growing since.
The mobile industry has an excellent track record of working together to create and grow markets. GSM and SMS are good examples of that cooperation. There is a great opportunity for the mobile market to work together to produce a single App Store. In particular we are looking to Virgin, Three, TMobile, Orange, Vodafone and O2 to all get together and create a single App Store for Java ME applications.
There is more to this story on applications. Look out for further instalments, which will be on dealing with the complexities of multiple mobile phone form factors, and why the network operators didn’t really want their customers to run applications on their phones.
“The only thing needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing” – Edmund Burke
63336 has become one of the most successful and widely used 5 digit short-codes in the country. Yet we work in an industry that is associated with bad consumer experiences. From expensive ring tone downloads, to telephone voting rip offs, to plain old spamming. All of these abuses have severely dented the public trust in the premium rate industry. At 63336 we have chosen to behave well and it is exasperating to see the abuses that go on in the industry and the sometimes feeble efforts to stop them.
So why is the premium rate industry a good place to be?
Premium rate mobile phone services offer a route to market for lots of innovative companies who can prosper because of the highly successful micropayment mechanism. Consumers can purchase small value items using their mobile phone. No need for credit card details every time you purchase; no need to remember your mother’s maiden name and the date of your daughter’s birthday every time you spend 25p; it is all done for you on the phone.
However, with such a simple and easily accessible payment mechanism there is always a risk of abuse since a company can simply charge your bill just by sending a text to your number. To reduce this risk we rely on regulation. The regulator has an important role in protecting the consumer and policing the system.
You can normally judge the success of the regulator by the trust the consumer has in the system and in some key areas this trust is missing.
So what are regulators doing?
The key player in the regulation of mobile services is PhonePayPlus. This is an offshoot of Ofcom dedicated to regulating the premium rate goods and services that you can buy by charging the cost to your phone bill and pre-pay account. That means they regulate us at 63336 and they also regulate the television voting lines, directory enquiries and various subscription and chat services.
First it is worth making clear that PhonePayPlus has started to tackle the problems. The year 2008/09 was a wake-up call. Their annual report for that year shows that they received 21,401 mobile related complaints, a huge number. This prompted them to undertake strategic actions set out in the PhonePayPlus Mobile Review which reported in July 2009. There were many good things in this document with new measures covering subscription services and promotional texts. PhonePayPlus can also point to a dramatic fall in complaints in Q1 of this year compared to last year, although how much of that can be linked to falling usage of premium rate services as a whole due to the recession is not clear. Yet is all this enough? PhonePayPlus reported that there were still 3,119 complaints in the mobile sector in the 3 months to 30 June 2009.
I would like to look at just one area of ongoing weak regulation in order to highlight the problem. Over the coming months we will highlight others but today I want to focus on spam.
Spam on your mobile is tantamount to an invasion of your personal space. We all know what spam is and that feeling of anger when we receive a spam. It is an unsolicited message sent to your phone. It comes out of the blue. You never ticked a box saying text me. It is spam.
There are government laws covering spam. Under Section 22 of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, “it is an offence to send unsolicited promotions using electronic mail (including text messages) for direct marketing purposes, either where the recipient has not specifically consented to receiving such promotions, or where the recipient’s details were not obtained whilst purchasing a similar or related product or service to that being promoted. Even where such consent or details have been obtained, recipients must be given the opportunity, within each promotion, to opt out (without charge) of using their details for such promotions”.
That seems pretty conclusive. Indeed, the regulator of the Mobile Industry, PhonePayPlus, has its own code of practice and supporting fact sheet, “Unsolicited Promotions” which states “service providers should note that senders of automated direct text messages must have the prior consent of the recipient before the message is sent”.PhonePayPlus
So if you get a message out of the blue, perhaps from a company you used a few months ago, complain and PhonePayPlus will take appropriate action perhaps fining the service or even stopping it…….
Er, well no.
You see, PhonePayPlus has a different take on this. They have come up with concept of an “implied opt-in”. Somehow by texting a service, providing the terms and conditions of that service say somewhere that you have agreed to receive marketing text, you have implicitly opted in. The fact those T&Cs are on the web somewhere and were not visible when you made your purchase of a service on the phone is deemed irrelevant.
I’m not a lawyer but I don’t see any implied opt-in. When you go to a sweet shop and buy a chocolate bar you don’t implicitly tell the sweet shop owner to bombard you with marketing literature offering great deals on sweets. Yet in the mobile world because your personal phone details are captured at the point of purchase you have somehow miraculously agreed to be spammed.
It is wrong and an example of where lax regulation allows ongoing abuses of the rules.
Good behaviour is good for us and good for our customers
At 63336 we have chosen to behave well. This doesn’t mean we will never make a mistake or that we won’t ever interpret the industry code of conduct incorrectly. However, it does mean that we are genuinely trying to do the right thing for the consumers and our customers. This goes beyond the letter of the law. It means interpreting the laws from the perspective of the consumer. We believe you can succeed by doing the right thing and that customers will ultimately reward those companies that do so. However, we also need to ensure that the “premium rate mobile environment” is not trashed by other, irresponsible companies thus destroying the market for everyone.
We have over 2.2million unique customers who have used our service. Perhaps there is a loophole that means we could spam some or all of them, under the pretext of an offer or a survey. However, it wouldn’t be the right thing; we know it, the big companies know it and the regulator ought to know it.
If there are no current vacancies then bookmark the page and return periodically to check for updates.
If there are vacancies in your country of residence, follow the instructions on the site. You will then be sent an application form and a short test.
So I just fill in these forms and the job’s mine, right?
These candidates tried that approach:
“I am a very thorogh and detailed worker, putting a lot of effort int attention to detail”*
“I have always been taught the importance of accurancy”*
“I also have the excellent English read and writing skill”*
They didn’t get offered a position.
Oh. How should I tackle them then?
For the test, the most important thing to do is read the instructions before you start. Thoroughly.
You will have 12 diverse questions to answer, via any appropriate means, and you’ll need to adhere to rules about content, spelling, grammar and length. The application form is self-explanatory, but yours will still be scrutinised to ensure you’ve filled it in correctly and demonstrated a good command of the English language.
Sounds simple enough. What can possibly go wrong?
63336 has very high standards – only 1 in 10 applications is successful.
The most common reasons for failing the test are:
Not reading/following the instructions ; Poor spelling, punctuation and grammar ; Answers are too long or too short; Insufficient research
Q: How many Mister Men characters are there and which is the best? A: Very interesting question? I will research and let you know*
Q: Which Charles Dickens novel should I read, and why? Not Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Christmas Carol or David Copperfield. A: To be honest, I have no idea as so far I have only read Oliver Twist*
Failure to provide a decision/prediction
Q: Cafe Rouge or Pizza Express? A: Well that depends on what your in the mood for. Do you want Pizza or do you want something else? The choice is up to you.*
Q: Who will win Wimbledon this year? A: The person who wins Wimbledon this year in the male section will be the one who wins all his games and the same goes for the female winner.*
Misinterpretation of the question
Q: How many points will I get on my licence for going through a red light? A: Unfortunately dear, you will not get a point driving through the red light because it is against the driving rules.*
Not answering the question
Q: Explain how the US elections work. A: The U.S election process is baffling to both voters and candidates alike, it seems to be that you cross your fingers and hope for the best person to win.*
Simply getting it wrong
Q: How many paper planes laid end to end would reach from London to Pluto? A: It would take 95 paper planes to reach from London to Pluto.*
Understood. Now, where do I find the answers?
The test has a variety of questions, some of which require research and others simply an opinion, a decision, an estimate, advice or just creativity. For fact-based questions the obvious source for answers is the internet, but be aware that not everything online is valid or accurate. Other useful reference sources include dictionaries, thesauruses, newspapers and maps.
Do I have to get them all right?
Some questions will have no right or wrong answers. For those that do, the correct answer, though important, is not vital, as long as both the research process and the written English are of the highest quality. That said, you won’t pass the test with several incorrect answers.
Is there a time limit?
No, but if you can’t find an answer within 20 minutes, then move on. Remember it’s the quality of the answer that is key, not the research time.
Anything else I should know?
Yes. 63336 is a human service and, when appropriate, its answers are witty, humorous and elicit a “wow” from customers. When completing the test questions, make your answers stand out by giving consideration to these factors:
Q: Which cartoon character do I resemble? A: With your big black ears, bulbous nose, fixed staring eyes and red pants, you strongly resemble that most popular of cartoon characters – Mickey Mouse.*
This applicant was offered a position.
Both the following answers are also acceptable, but the latter will not only get the applicant past the test, it will delight customer and recruiter alike. An answer such as that will ensure an incredibly positive relationship with 63336 from the outset.
Q: Is the world run by lizards? A: No, unfortunately the world is not run by lizards although sometimes the world would be better if it was run by lizards.* A: Although some refer to world leaders as cold-blooded, they wouldn’t be genetically classed as lizards. However in 1400 BC, dinosaurs did rule the earth.*
OK. I think I’m good to go. Please remind me of the key points.
• Read the instructions carefully
• Make sure you answer the question
• Check the answer length
• Sanity check the answers
• Ensure your grammar, punctuation and spelling are perfect
• Add that wow factor
So, what happens next?
Once you’ve sent off your application pack, it will be scrutinised and you’ll hear our decision within a few days.
If successful, you’ll be sent a conditional job offer and a contract. On receipt of your signed contract, we will contact you to arrange an introductory session. Following this, you’ll have to complete a batch of questions to confirm that your answers are up to 63336’s exacting standards.
And that’s just the beginning.
Your performance will be monitored regularly to ensure that our customers will be consistently delighted with your answers.
And everybody lives happily ever after.
* From real 63336 application forms and tests. (If you think you’ve spotted all the errors, email them with your address to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re right, you’ll get a copy of our latest book, and you should try applying – you’d be in with a good chance of success.)