Why CTIA

Last week Charles Ansley, the CEO of Symon Communications and an executive on the Digital Screemedia Association (DSA) Board, wrote an article that articulated the value of augmenting traditional digital signage tradeshow participation with that of non-traditional tradeshows.  In the article, Charles referenced the collaborative efforts that the DSA is making with the Specialty Graphics Industry Association (SGIA) and Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) tradeshows – shows in which the combined attendance is close to 60 thousand.

Charles’ article spawned range of comments that ran the gambit from approving to curious.  As was expected, the majority of the comments have been positive, but understandably there have been some who are not clear on the value.  As I have participated in CTIA events for almost twenty years and have worked in and with the digital signage industry for the last six of those twenty, I thought I’d take this opportunity to respond to some of the feedback to Charles’ article and provide my perspective on the benefits of a DSA/CTIA alignment.

First, one cannot understand the benefits of a DSA/CTIA collaboration without understanding the impact that current mobile trends are having and will have on the digital signage and visual communications industry.  Second, anyone who considers the impact of mobile trends in the context of the last 25 years of wireless will need a mind-set adjustment.  The mobile trends of the next 25 years are going to be nothing like the past 25 years.

The last quarter century of wireless has been about growing the number of wireless users.  Prior 1985, there were less than 500,000 cellular subscribers worldwide.  Today, there are nearly 4.5 billion worldwide.  For the last 25 years, the primary goal of wireless carriers has been to grow their subscriber base.  Their secondary goal has been to increase their average revenue per subscriber (aka ARPU).  Carrier market valuations have been dependent on these two metrics, but a funny thing has happened in the last few years – particularly in the U.S., Europe and some Asian countries.  The carriers have almost tapped out the pool of net-new prospects.

Wireless penetration in every developed country is running close to 100 percent of the qualified prospects.  Since there are a rapidly declining number of new prospects, the wireless carriers have had to resort to cannibalizing the subscribers of their competition in order to grow.  Prior to 2007, the primary means of doing this was to reduce prices.  Some carriers however recognized that this was a fast-track to oblivion and began to consider alternatives.  2007 was the year that things began to change in earnest.

In 2007, AT&T did something that no major carrier had ever done before:  it allowed a third-party, Apple, to have an unprecedented level of control over what it could put on the AT&T network.  Apple responded by launching the iPhone and made it easy for mobile users to access and purchase digital content, e.g. songs, videos, etc. over the air.  Consumers went crazy for this new phone and it supporting services and started scrambling to join AT&T’s network.  Not only did AT&T see a dramatic increase in subscribers, but they also saw an improvement of their ARPU as new iPhone users rushed to subscribe to the data plans necessary to support all those content purchases.  With Apple free to use AT&T’s network, Apple pressed its innovative juices into redefining the mobile experience.  By 2008, Apple changed the game forever with the launch of their new iTunes App Store.

The mobile app concept was so appealing to consumers that AT&T added new customers by the millions.   In fact, the apps were so popular and consumers were becoming so engaged with their iPhones that AT&T’s network struggled to keep up with demand.  Never in the history of any technology had a use-model been so popular, so well embraced and in such a short time.   None of this has escaped the attention of Apple’s / AT&T’s competitors.

The wireless industry has learned the AT&T/Apple lesson:  It is better to compete via innovation — particularly third party innovations — than it is to compete with price cuts.  The industry has also learned that you can grow your subscribers while also charging a premium price (i.e. higher ARPU) if you can deliver the right innovation that consumers will embrace (e.g. Android).   So what does all of this mean?

First, it means that there will be a tremendous amount of new mobile product and service innovations in the coming years – many of which most of us cannot even imagine today.  Second, it means that consumers will likely engage with tomorrow’s innovations at a higher degree than they do those of today.  Third, it means that consumers will likely be looking down at their mobile phones more than ever.  Fourth, it means that consumers will likely grow to expect an even richer one-to-one experience with content than they have today.  Fifth, it will likely mean that advertisers and content providers will increasingly gravitate to mobile as it becomes the defacto personal computing/communication/social platform.

What does this mean to the DSA?  It means that the DSA must participate in this revolution or face the risk that it will be marginalized over the coming years.  It means that the DSA must identify and define its role in this new revolution.   It means that the DSA must be recognized as a player in this space by both the digital signage and mobile industries.

Where does the CTIA fit into this picture?  First, the CTIA is where the innovators in the mobile industry congregate to share ideas.  The DSA must become a part of this dialog and begin to understand where it can play a role.  Second, the CTIA is attended by those who are looking to understand how mobile will benefit them, e.g. retailers, hoteliers, etc.  The DSA must be there to share experiences and then identify and articulate potential synergies.  Third, CTIA membership struggles with many of the same problems that are familiar to DSA’s membership, e.g. how to monetize content, how to attract advertisers, how to analyze viewer metrics, etc.  The DSA can benefit from working in collaboration with the CTIA to jointly solve some of these problems.  Fourth, the CTIA membership represents a source of prospective DSA members.  Finally, as Charles Ansley said, the CTIA membership represents a rich pool of potential sales leads.

In summary, Charles Ansley is right in his assertion that we must augment traditional tradeshows with non-traditional.  He is also right in advocating the DSA’s collaboration with the CTIA and its tradeshow.  Charles’ foresight and “out of the box” thinking are to be commended.

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