Giving social networking a voice

Friday, February 25, 2011

The global smartphone market grew 74.4% in units sold from 2009-10, with a 145% surge in Latin America, and is expected to realize additional increases in 2011, according to analysts from consultancy IDC.

Consultancy Deloitte, meanwhile, predicted social networking sites would boast more than 1bn unique users worldwide by the end of 2011.

Seeing these trends, Brazilian mobile services firm PMovil sensed an opening for a social network based around voices and launched Blaving, a Twitter-like site for audio posts.

BNamericas talked with PMovil chief executive Fabian de La Rúa to find out more about the company's social networking strategy.

BNamericas: It seems a lot of people have grown tired of leaving and retrieving voice messages. In this light, why did PMovil see an opportunity to launch a service where users could leave two-minute recordings?

de La Rúa: Blaving is not about leaving messages. It's about having a social network based around voices. As with other social networks, you have followers. You can post. This is not unlike Twitter, Facebook, Orkut and some of the video-based networks. But the purely audio aspect is something the market has yet to offer. There was no network to utilize voices. Our idea was to take advantage of this opportunity.

We think this appeals to humanity's primary instincts, which is communicating by voice and through sound. Blaving lets you speak and also hear others' voices. In this way, you can really sense the emotion that we seem to be losing a little bit. This is something that text, and using uppercase and lowercase, can't truly express.

And we're already fully integrated with Facebook, Orkut and Twitter. I can record my voice and post the message to my accounts on these three sites as well as on Blaving directly.

BNamericas: Will users have the ability to leave private messages for one another, as they can on sites like Twitter?

de La Rúa: Users can post public messages to their profile, and others can respond with messages that are either public or private.

BNamericas: Does this potentially threaten the mobile or fixed-line voice markets in that case? Couldn't people with data plans essentially use this as a voice mailbox?

de La Rúa: I don't think this will happen. That's certainly not our objective. Maybe eventually some people will use Blaving in this way, but I don't think it will have a big impact on telecom operators.

BNamericas: You have a goal of reaching 5mn users this year. How many people have already signed up, and how many of these do you expect to come from Latin America?

de La Rúa: This is a social network, which we see as a global phenomenon. We don't think of it in terms of Latin America, Europe or the US. At first, yes, we expect the bulk of users will come from Brazil or Latin America, countries where PMovil has a strong presence.

The site is translated so far into English, Spanish and Portuguese. Next, we are working on launching versions in Korean, Chinese, Russian and Hindi. We think this will help us to reach that 5mn mark.

So far, we have 32,000. This base has come completely through word-of-mouth up until now.

BNamericas: How are you going about attracting new users?

de La Rúa: As I said, everything up until now has been organic. Now, we're going to start an active campaign to attract users, principally through the internet. We will use Orkut, Facebook, Google ads and search-engine optimization.

We also will use mobile networks to reach people and do some phone-based publicity in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia - countries where PMovil has a strong presence. This campaign will run for the next four months.

BNamericas: You said the site will be translated into various languages, but are there any plans to develop or find a service that translates or dubs voice posts?

de La Rúa: No, right now we have no plans to translate the posts. We want the voices to be original. We think that's one of the key aspects.

BNamericas: Do you envision users of the site will fit certain profiles? Will there be any use for corporations or public agencies?

de La Rúa: The site is still too small to notice any trends or tendencies. We have seen some interest from radio stations, TV stations, politicians, musicians and other famous people looking to connect on a different level with their audiences.

But we aren’t targeting any specific profile. Obviously, young people are the biggest users of social networks. But generally, social networks are used by all kinds of people—that's somewhat of the point. Look at Facebook.

BNamericas: Yes, but Facebook started as a site specifically for college students.

de La Rúa: It was started by students but soon grew to include many other demographics. I suppose we will start with the population of people who have cell phones, which has grown substantially, since Blaving is a voice service.

We will have people blogging, singing karaoke, celebrities. This is an important point, too. With actors, football players, politicians, musicians and celebrities in general, most social networks have impersonators. But with Blaving, voices verify someone's identity, and show people are who they say they are.

BNamericas: Some countries in Latin America, particularly Brazil, are leaders in using social networks. Yet, the continent has thus far not launched any widely used social networks. Why do you think this is? Why do you think the time is right for this to change?

de La Rúa: Yes, Brazilians are very active on Orkut, but they're still a small percentage of users on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Most of the social networks have launched from the US and spread out to the rest of the world. I think it has a lot to do with the size of the US market. Also, in developed markets, you have more access to emails, smartphones and these things. But, really, I don't think it matters that Blaving is coming from Latin America. The important thing here is that we are launching a voice-based social network.

BNamericas: You are investing US$1.5mn this quarter in Blaving. How will this money be spent?

de La Rúa: A lot of this investment has already been put into areas like development, research, layout and design. Now, we're going to use some of the money for the online campaign. A big part will be research, design and layout, online campaign.

BNamericas: How do you plan to generate revenue through the site? By selling advertising?

de La Rúa: Our first objective is to increase the number of users and grow the network. That's our focus right now. In the second quarter, we'll start to look for investors and advertisers. We will also explore selling ads through mobile phones. But the revenue base will primarily come from publicity, yes.

BNamericas: Does PMovil have any plans for launching other applications or initiatives this year?

de La Rúa: Currently, we're putting most of our attention on Blaving. Does this mean we have become a social networking site? No. Toing is still our main product.

BNamericas: A decade ago, BNamericas reported on your former company Selig partnering up with Coca-Cola to sell soda through WAP applications in Latin America. How has e-commerce in the region changed over the last 10 years?

de La Rúa: The internet itself has completely changed since then. Mobility is much more of a reality today. We've moved into selling content. You can buy almost anything through the internet these days. We are moving rapidly toward a future where everything will be available in the palm of your hand.

BNamericas: How do you think the World Cup and Olympics will change the telecommunications landscape in Brazil, and Latin America more broadly?

de La Rúa: I think these events will have a great impact for Brazil, but not necessarily for the rest of Latin America. Obviously, these games will create all kinds of opportunities for telecom companies.

But really, Brazil already has more than 200mn cell phones. No European market has these kinds of numbers. So Brazil has great potential with or without the World Cup. Investors are seeing the country for the opportunities that exist and the potential in the next decade. It's not just for the World Cup or Olympics.

BNamericas: And the introduction of 4G or LTE in the next few years?

de La Rúa: As I mentioned, the worldwide trend is to bring communication into the palms of the people. That started 10 years ago with WAP and has continued to progress since then. These new technologies will just accelerate the process and improve the quality of service. Everything will be online. Voice and video streaming will be fundamental. And, to bring it back to Blaving, that's the idea we had in mind when we decided to launch the site.

About Fabian de La Rúa

PMovil CEO Fabian de La Rúa served previously as a VP at Brazilian internet service provider iG and as president of Brazilian telecom firm Selig.

About the company

Founded in 2001, PMovil develops value-added services for the mobile communications market. The company's content distribution portal Toing has more than 10mn users across Latin America. PMovil counts Vivo, Oi and Claro among its nearly 40 clients.