Many Internet companies, especially some of the much-hyped Web 2.0 startups, are busy building tools and applications for which no mainstream consumer demand actually exists. In my view that's what killed many of early Internet companies after the first bubble burst – there was no existing use case to sustain them.
But the opposite is true of nascent "mobile local search," a set of half-baked tools and embryonic applications that seek to deliver local content to wireless users. People are eager for local information on the go; and when wireless data services become fast, easy to use and more affordable, you'll see adoption ramp quickly. Remarkably, the user demand for local content on mobile devices is much more developed than the carriers' and wireless content providers' current mobile offerings.
It's in this larger context that I write about a new study released this week from Tellme, an automated voice services provider and directory assistance (411) wholesaler. The company engaged Harris Interactive and surveyed 1,425 adult Americans about directory assistance usage. The study was conducted between March 31 and June 7 of this year.
At the highest level, the survey revealed that the majority (55%) of people calling 411 these days are doing so from wireless phones. (That makes sense because the Internet/local search is often a 411 substitute.) The study also revealed demographic differences in behavior and attitudes toward directory assistance. The findings showed, in addition, that mobile 411 callers are most interested in entertainment (restaurants, bars, movies), shopping and travel-related information. And reading a little deeper you also get a fascinating sense of the immediacy and intensity of user interest in local content in the mobile context.
Directory assistance is a mature, multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S. and Europe (although the industry structure in Europe is different). It is based on a consumer pay-per-use model, although a number of providers in the U.S., such as 1-800 Free-411 and 1-800-411-Metro, are now offering free, ad-supported 411 to consumers.
But as I lay out some the Tellme survey findings don't think about "directory assistance" (i.e., "What city, what listing?") per se, think about mobile local search with a voice interface. That's where directory assistance is headed anyway: category search with a voice front end.
From a user-experience perspective the wireless industry must address some of the more challenging usability issues before mobile data becomes mainstream in the U.S. Imperfect though it is, voice is one of the potential responses to some of those wireless usability questions.
On to the survey . . . First, the demographic findings:
As mentioned, 55% of all U.S. adults used 411 in a mobile context. That number was even higher for 18 to 28 year olds (63%). According to the findings only 26% said they used directory assistance most frequently at home. Almost half of women use 411 one or more times a month as compared with 37% of men.
The survey segmented the data by gender and according to three demographic groups: Boomers (41-60), GenXers (29-40) and Millennials (18-28). You can read the segmentation breakdowns by content category usage in the release. In the aggregate, however, when users called 411 they were typically looking for the following information:
• Restaurants & Bars: 43%
• Retail Stores: 36%
• Hotels/Lodging: 24%
• Movie Theaters, Amusement & Recreation: 20%
• Transportation: Taxis & Airlines: 10%
Another interesting cluster of findings surrounded use of 411 "alternatives." In other words, what did people do when they didn't call 411? (I for example pay Sprint $1.25 every time I dial 411, so I don't.) Again, there are differences by age and gender. But here are the overall data:
• Called a family member: 58%
• Called a friend: 46%
• Stopped at a phone booth: 29%
• Called a colleague: 27%
• Torn page from phone book: 7%
• Booted up computer in the car: 7%
• Driven to wireless “Hot Spot”: 5%
These creative alternatives – we've all done some version of this – reflect both the determination and the immediate need of mobile users to get information en route to their destinations. I believe these alternative behaviors also show a pent up desire for mobile applications that are more flexible and versatile than today's 411 (i.e., "What city, what listing?"). In other words, it reflects the demand for true "mobile local search" capabilities. Friends at home, for example, can also look up reviews, menus, store hours and so on.
According to mobile analytics firm Telephia 34.6 million U.S. wireless subscribers accessed the Internet from their mobile phones in June of this year. However, none of the top 10 mobile sites had a reach of more than 3%. Here are Telephia's top 10 sites:
1. Yahoo! Mail
2. The Weather Channel (Weather.com)
4. Google Search
5. MSN Hotmail
7. AOL Mail
9. Yahoo! Weather
10. Yahoo! Search
Last September, Telephia reported on the top mobile content categories:
7. City Guides/Maps
Earlier this year AOL released the results of its own mobile user survey. Among the findings of that survey were that maps were the number one "must-have" new feature. And last July TNS found that local content (driving directions, restaurant reservations, and weather and traffic alerts) topped the list of services that users wanted on their mobile devices.
These myriad data points show the demand among wireless users for local content is strong and that they'll go to some lengths to get it. And unlike some of the startups online -- that will be waiting for a long time for consumers to show up -- users already have an expressed desire for mobile local search. It's now a question of the carriers and content providers getting all their "ducks in a row" and making wireless data services more affordable and more usable.