A hug from the Giffgaff gaffer

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O2 ‘community MVNO’ Giffgaff deploys a wiki-style that allows its members to interact, help and recruit other users. And it has created some wacky marketing to raise its name. David Pittman meets an MVNO like no other

Giffgaff describes itself as the ‘mobile network run by you’, and speaking to the team behind it, you get the distinct impression that they are supremely confident of the business model and what it offers.

Giffgaff is based on the notion of ‘power in the community’, and was founded by O2’s head of brand strategy Gav Thompson, supported by chief executive and ‘Giffgaff gaffer’ Mike Fairman.

Instead of a traditional network model, with customers and a business team that supports them, Giffgaff utilises customers as its business team. The community effectively runs the customer service through an online forum, replacing the call centre. It also helps promote the company to friends and potential customers through viral campaigns, referrals and word-of-mouth.

In return, customers are rewarded with points redeemable as cash, credit or donations to Cancer Research. Giffgaff has just paid out its first set of rewards, with top users earning several hundred pounds, and the average customer getting £14.

Thompson is said to have dreamt up the idea for Giffgaff at a Web 2.0 event in Silicon Valley, home to many modern technology giants such as Apple, Google and Intel, where the growth of Wikipedia as an online resource and the viral campaign behind Barack Obama’s presidential election inspired him.

Thompson says: “The power of the community can now run the best encyclopaedia service on the planet and be the motivating force behind a successful presidential election campaign.

“For a significant minority of people who aren’t turned on by big companies and big brands, we are of the opinion that Giffgaff can harness the power of the community to run a simpler mobile network where people get rewarded for helping out.”

Tom Rainsford, proposition and product manager at Giffgaff, says: “It is about trying to push the norm and what the normal expectations are from a mobile network provider.”
Cristel Lee Leed, Giffgaff’s head of marketing, says: “We’re empowering people to be able to make money and have a voice through the community.”

Base and marketing
Giffgaff commenced beta testing in the second half of last year and launched as a commercial proposition at the start of June. In the intervening period, it accrued a customer base of more than 6,000, with half of those actively topping up once a month.

More importantly, Fairman says, over 40 per cent of its customers earned a reward through the first payback scheme by getting involved in the running of the network. This included helping develop a range of tariffs, called ‘goodybags’, costing from £5 for unlimited texts to £35 for unlimited calls, texts and internet.

Community members have also been active in promoting the brand by using a range of novelty ‘tools’ available to hire, the company claims.

Giffgaff has various apparently hair-brained creations for rent  to community volunteers – curious character costumes, such as the Cuddle Monster and Captain Stress Relief, a portable booth called the Human Hand Dryer into which passersby can stick their hands for drying, even a scheme called Poo Handler for these dippy Giffgaff types to collect dog mess and spread some kind of wacky clappy marketing message.

It sounds very strange, and must be debateable how many Giffgaff customers actually take up these offers; more likely, they should be considered irreverant kinds of publicity stunts. But the madcap spirit of it all is clear.

Giffgaff has even now started promoting itself to the mass market as an alternative to ‘the man’, that old personification of the authority that keeps us down, and to whom oppressed groups in 1950s America were first inclined to ‘stick it’.

For Giffgaff, ‘the man’ describes all “corporate excess” and “big corporate behaviour”, and presumably incumbent tier-one network operators.

A recent publicity stunt, on a Tuesday afternoon in London’s Hyde Park, featured a flotilla of  portly men in mankinis and top hats on the Serpentine (main image) as a visual representation of the up-yours arrogance of their lazy and oppressive working lives. The sense of it was we, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, are kept down by these oafs, and Giffgaff represents a way of taking back a modicum of control.

Community members were asked to identify public figures that best fitted their ideas of ‘the man’, and Giffgaff put the most popular answers into a collage image, a kind of bastard child of Sir Alan Sugar, Maggie Thatcher, Gordon Brown, Katie Price, Anne Robinson and Theo Paphitis.

Rainsford says: “The beauty of Giffgaff is at the heart of it we are trying to do something different, to give people a different option, give them a voice and get them involved in making business decisions. Normally this wouldn’t be the case, and that’s not just in the telecoms industry either, as you don’t have that relationship with British Gas or npower.
“It’s about building up a different way of doing things where you feel more personal and interested because the more you invest, the more you get out.”

Full article in Mobile News issue 468 (July 19, 2010).

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