Commercial services that use rich communications services (RCS) technology to deliver multimedia messages to mobile subscribers are replacing similar platforms based on legacy SMS and expanding rapidly to eclipse similar services offered on over the top (OTT) platforms like WhatsApp and Viber. A panel discussion at the “Mobile Ecosystem Forum (MEF) Connect” event this year saw telcos and mobile network operators (MNOs) in Europe discuss their current plans for RCS, and particularly RCS Business Messaging (RBM). RBM upgrades traditional SMS business to consumer (B2C) communication with improved branding, rich media, interactivity and analytics embedded natively into Google’s Android messaging app.
European operators advancing RCS deployments
In France, choosing Android as a single enabler allowed the country’s telcos to quickly solve any compatibility issues and deliver compelling solutions which offered greater consumer reach for aggregators. Bouygues France, for example, began piloting RBM services in July 2020. By April this year, it was carrying 15 messages with chatbots live on websites such as Nespresso, Bonmarché and AXA Insurance. The French telco has noted a conversion rate that is 2.5x higher than SMS. Alexandre Cottereau, the telco’s RCS product manager, believes consumers no longer look at the price of the offers they receive but by the quality of the photo, for example.
The trial has been sufficiently successful for Bouygues to predict the rapid expansion of RCS adoption in the country. By the end of 2021, it expects it will have 21 million users, and by 2022 26 million, which is more than WhatsApp currently has in France.
In Germany, three operators, including Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, have launched RBM platforms which collectively accounted for more than 23m active devices at the start of 2021. The country has an estimated 60m smartphones, which gives RBM a presence on more than a third of all of them. Deutsche Telekom is now in the process of enabling its mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) partners to adopt RBM, and the operator plans to launch complete commercial RBM services within the next few months following successful pilot projects.
Orange Spain reports there are currently around 13m RCS users in the country, and its MNOs expect to reach 40% of their collective subscribers by the end of 2021. By that point, there will be sufficient market size to tempt more businesses into exploring what RCS can do for them. A recent Orange pilot project results found that consumer RCS engagement rates are 10-20% higher than both SMS and email, for example.
Collaboration between rival operators has also helped MNOs launch RCS services in the UK. UK MNOs, including 02 and BT-owned EE, currently have around 12m RCS users between them and expect 18m by the end of 2021. Suitable frameworks only came at the end of 2020, and commercial propositions are still under incubation. But the operator has seen considerable interest in RCS’ capabilities from brands over the last two years. However, momentum has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent change of priorities for telcos.
Other operators in Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, Poland and Portugal have also launched RCS services and currently have around a third of their subscriber base using RCS enabled devices. Those numbers are expected to grow further this year as more businesses recognise the value the technology can bring to their marketing campaigns.
Consumers value personalised multimedia content over price
The significant advantage of RBM and RCS is that it allows businesses to send personalised content to existing and prospective customers rather than use generic messaging. By replicating the chat like experience offered by social media and messaging platforms, those consumers are then more likely to engage with the content they receive.
A survey conducted by omnichannel communications specialist Infobip estimated that 21% of consumers switched brands due to the poor quality of their communications, while 47% ignored generic messaging.
Chatbots, in particular, became a more important tool for content creation, all the way from ordering goods and services to reserving travel tickets and allowing people to check delivery status, for example. The multimedia capabilities of RCS also make it well suited for producing and delivering promotional material and marketing messages. That can include new data tariffs or roaming data packages offered by MNOs to their subscribers to prevent churn.
Challenges still to be overcome
Though considerable, the reach of Android smartphones alone may not be enough to push mass-market RCS adoption, and the mobile industry may have to do more to make sure that RCS can also be used on Apple iPhones in the future.
Though legacy SMS platforms now look outdated, they remain efficient and well used. Part of the challenge for MNOs is to convince businesses that RCS will deliver more for them than similar WhatsApp type services and that it is worth paying a premium for over SMS.
Verified sender, for example, could prove to be a reason to use RBM in its own right because it gives brands enhanced anti-fraud capabilities and security protection. Directory services that allow the consumer to search for goods or services on their smartphone, then establish a direct messaging engagement with brands supplying the information, also attract attention alongside the ability to deliver in message advertising.
But telcos also need to recognise that not every brand will want to utilise the complete feature set of RCS. Therefore, they should explore ways of offering trimmed down services – or RCS Lite – which best meet customers need as a replacement for SMS – read receipts and brand validation may ultimately be all that some organisations need to justify the upgrade.