The value of APIs for digital services

August 27, 2020

In the second part of our series of blogs about the recent Mobile World Live webinar on streamlined payment channels and managed payment services, we look at how telecommunications operators can use application programming interfaces (APIs) to bring digital services to market faster and the importance of choosing the right partner to enable mobile payments in different markets.

Zain Group builds centralised API

Zain Group is a telco that offers fixed and mobile services in eight countries across the Middle East and Africa, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, South Sudan and Lebanon. It is already working hard to build new revenue streams beyond its core voice and data connectivity business and spent part of the last two years building a centralised platformed – dubbed the Zain Group API – to help it achieve that ambition.

“Instead of acting as an independent telco on a country by country basis, Zain acknowledged that it needed a centralised platform to manage capacity and payment access methods. This made for a strategic sense of its partners looking to get into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and North African region too” explained Chadi Alid, group API program director for digital and innovation at Zain Group.

The aim was to develop a common platform able to identify the location of the telco’s primary digital assets and gauge how attractive they were to prospective partners – namely a large customer base, trusted brand and geographically concentrated territories where the population speak the same language (Arabic). Telcos also commonly have data analytics, customer service platforms and in some cases established physical and digital sales and delivery channels built around their mobile handset and fixed broadband businesses which can be equally as useful to the companies they collaborate with as they push into new market segments.

“We have 15-20 services across eight territories, and now it is Zain’s ambition to grow into new industries and verticals, such as physical goods, and forge partnerships with banking and insurance companies,” said Alid. “We have assets which are very valuable to those companies and it makes sense to do the partnership integration by exposing our API while building a standardised platform and processes which everyone can come and adopt.”

DCB integration speeds up service provision

Zain Group decided early on that the best way to expose those assets was through an API that focusses on direct carrier billing (DCB). That strategy makes sense not only for telcos already familiar with DCB but also for merchant partners looking to launch their own services quickly whilst minimising their development overhead, particularly when it comes to building the underlying payment and customer service mechanisms.

DOCOMO Digital became Zain’s first integration partner for DCB after forging a company-wide alliance back in 2018. The collaboration helped the telco to standardise all of its APIs and integrate a single instance across several territories and markets simultaneously within “a couple of months”. One of the first commercial examples of the strategy emerged in February this year [2020] after Zain worked with DOCOMO Digital to allow its subscribers in Iraq to pay for Google Play services and apps as part of their monthly phone bills via DCB.

Zain is targeting other digital service providers such as video, games and music content providers as well as eCommerce merchants, accommodation/transport booking platforms and app stores. Brands which now use the Zain Group API include Apple, Indian movie distributor Eros International, Arab pay-TV provider OSN, gaming platforms MocoPlay and GameMine and educational video provider babystep as well as Zain’s own digital service brands (PlayVOD, Zain Kids and Zain Games). As of May 2020, the API is calculated to have driven 45m cumulative subscriptions and one-off purchase transactions across those platforms since its debut in two years earlier, with associated revenue growing eightfold since May 2019.

Selecting the right partner is key

Other factors inevitably impact success, with GSMA Intelligence highlighting not only the benefits of multi-service integration but also partnerships with third-party sellers, cross-sector expertise and the potential to expand data analytics provision across the entire ecosystem.

And to maintain anything like the sort of growth already seen at Zain Group, telcos have to carefully select the brands they partner with to give customers the sort of seamless billing and payment management experience that will keep them coming back for more rather than churn to rival operators.

“Zain is extremely selective in choosing the right partner,” explained Alid. “We have many proposals from merchants but have the customer experience in mind and don’t want to launch services that do not make sense in certain territories.”

When brokering partnerships with aggregators or merchants, for example, the telco always tries to make sure they are solid players with specific knowledge around lifecycle management and customer acquisition. Another pre-requisite is a dedicated team that continually manages digital service provision and maintenance on Zain’s behalf to attract and retain higher volumes of customers.

“We need to make sure that a partner has the know-how and capacity to bring an immaculate customer experience, subscription and acquisition and DOCOMO Digital has been very good at doing this for the last few years,” said Alid.

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