From Bollywood to BBC, Bubbly is a Voice in the Audio Blogging World

Bubble Motion, a provider of mobile messaging and social media applications, launched Bubbly this year in India, making strides in the mobile audio blogging world. Audio blogging is a form of blogging in which the medium is audio content. Bubbly works by call and record, and thus can be adapted in areas with high mobile penetration and low Internet access, such as India.
A Bubbly user calls the service and through an integrated voice response (IVR) menu can record a name and message, usually less than 30 seconds. When other users choose to follow a user’s posts (or “Bubbles”) they receive an SMS message every time new audio content is added. A video by Pi Social Media on YouTube demonstrates how to record and listen to a Bubble; this one about an office party meet-up.

MobileActive.org spoke with Bubbly and the BBC, a user of the service, to find out how it works.

Not Exactly like Voicemail

The Bubbly service was built around the concept of “voice” SMS, the notion of “I want to send you an audio message right now.” Brad Porteus, chief marketing officer of Bubble Motion, acknowledged that from a Western perspective, it sounds a lot like voice mail. But, it’s not exactly the same. Voicemail is not common in many parts of the world. Bubble Motion was built on filling this particular need, via voice SMS.

With Bubbly, the founders also sought to tap “the pervasive wave” of social communication.  “Everybody has an interest at some level in social communications and social networking,” Porteus said. Bubbly facilitates this interest in social connectivity, through voice. “Being able to distribute messages and content and updates through voice – through the mobile phone – is a completely basic idea but a really unique opportunity,” Porteus noted.

Working with Mobile Operators

Since it launched in February 2010, Bubbly has reached a total of 2 million users, 1.2 million of which are paid subscribers. Porteus said that one reason for user adoption is because India is an ideal environment with 600 million mobile phone subscribers and a growth rate of 20 million per month. Coupled with the fact that only 50 million people use the Internet on a regular basis and that many people are not yet buying smartphones with voicemail sevices or audio blogging applications, this is an environment ripe for mobile-based audio services like Bubbly.

Bubbly is also a good example of how companies partner with mobile providers to facilitate mobile-based value-added sevices and applications. Porteus said an important requirement for many systems is working closely with these mobile operators.

“We literally put our servers and our technologies inside of their network and they route calls to our technology and then we re-route the content to the right places,” Porteus said. In India, Bubble Motion partners with Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications to deploy the technology.

Fees and Why Users Sign Up

But 1.2 million followers did not sign up with Bubbly because of a good working relationship with mobile providers. Many did so because of Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan (who, it should be noted, has 270,000 Twitter followers compared with 350,000 Bubbly followers, according to a MobileBeat article).

For between 10 and 30 rupees per month (via a balance deduction), fans can follow favorite actors and athletes like Bachan and listen to their audio messages. For non-celebrity audio-blogging, the Bubbly service is free (such as for peer-to-peer followers or for those that follow community audio bloggers), although users incur airtime charges to call and record content.

Bubbly and the BBC: Audio News

Another recently-adapted use of Bubbly is as a platform for audio news updates and pre-programmed content, including audio content from the BBC.  In January, the BBC in India launched a service with Bubble Motion to provide both news and sports content that is updated eight times a day.

Since the launch, the BBC has had a total of 160,000 subscriptions, but users can unsubscribe after one month, and they do not have data on how many have “dipped in and dipped out,” said Indu Shekhar Sinha, BBC’s India Business Development Manager. There are currently 35,000 subscribers for both news and sports feeds.

The BBC was already producing audio content before the launch, Shekhar Sinha said. With Bubble Motion, the BBC uses Bubbly as a “behind-the-scenes platform” for the subscribers.

In India, the BBC service is provided for Bharti Airtel subscribers who pay 10 rupees per month plus incur airtime charges. A user dials *5151* for news updates and *5152* for sports updates. The content is broadcast in Hindi.

But promoting the service has been a challenge. “There needs to be more awareness of the service,” Shekhar Sinha said.

It’s not exactly like Twitter, either

Other sources have compared Bubbly to Twitter, but a review on MediaNama suggests that doing so “would be fallacious.” The site lists three limitations to the service that differentiate it from Twitter, including operator restrictions, discovery, and skimming.

One limitation is that the service is restricted to the operator network. Because Bubbly exists through partnerships with mobile providers, only subscribers of the participating provider can post and listen to voice blogs. The MediaNama site asked, “half the time, I’m not even aware of which operator my friends are on, so how do I know whom to inform about the fact that I’m voice blogging.” But Porteus also sees this as an asset, because Bubble Motion is able to leverage the billing systems of providers to have a built-in collection system and monetize content.

Another limitation is that discovery is difficult. The MediaNama article suggests that “the beauty of Twitter is in discovering new people whom you might find interesting,” and Bubbly has no mechanism by which you can search for or easily discover a Bubbly user on a mobile phone. Also, the site suggests that it is impossible to search by keyword on a handset, making it difficult to find people speaking about specific topics of interest.

Third, “skimming” is not possible on Bubbly. To skim on Twitter to is to check updated Tweets every day or hour (or minute, for some Twitter users). With Bubbly, it is difficult and more costly to visit as often and follow as many people. But this limitation may speak more to the unique nature of audio content and less to a functional default of voice blogging. Porteus said that the ability to skim on Twitter is required because of the potential to follow an “enormous” number of people and because “there is lots of weak content.” With voice-blogging, it is expected that users will follow fewer people who will blog less frequently but with a higher quality of content.

“Less updates about their tuna sandwiches,” Porteus said. Skimming a voice blog may feel more like a voicemail inbox, where users will skip through uninspired content and stop following voice bloggers who they lose interest in.

The Potential of Mobile Audio Blogging

In addition to following celebrities, Porteus said that Bubbly can be used to build and foster community as well as issue or topic-driven conversations, though this use is less developed. Outside of marketed use cases such as following celebrities, catching up with friends, and getting news updates, Bubbly has other potential uses worth noting here (though it’s too early to document such uses).

As mentioned above, Bubbly and other services can be used to record and share audio in places where mobile phone penetration is high but access to Internet remains difficult. This has implications for citizen journalists, for example. It can also help individuals organize and mobilize gatherings by providing location information to a broad number of people, all via mobile. Within these and other arenas, it can also be an accessible form of news and information for illiterate populations.

Porteus said that the next Bubbly deployments will occur in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan.

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