A new study suggests strong gains in prepaid mobile phone plans are the result of consumers increasingly turning to cost-effective wireless service alternatives during the economic downturn.
Digital media research firm ComScore has released its quarterly review of the U.S. prepaid wireless industry based on online visitation and search referral activity, which found that the combined visitation to the top six prepaid wireless providers grew 37 percent versus a year ago to nearly 8 million visitors, representing more than 4 percent of the total U.S. Internet audience.
The review evaluated the six leading prepaid wireless sites: VirginMobileUSA.com, TracFone.com (Am??Â«rica M??vil), MetroPCS.com, MyCricket.com (Leap Wireless), BoostMobile.com and Net10.com (Am??Â«rica M??vil). Growth in the category was driven primarily by MyCricket.com, which grew 107 percent, and Boostmobile.com, up 105 percent. Both companies more than doubled in visitation versus year ago. MetroPCS.com and Net10.com also experienced strong gains, growing 63 percent and 37 percent, respectively. VirginMobile's total prepaid wireless audience, however, was down 3 percent, and TracFone.com saw a 7 percent drop in audience share.
The report also found that while the marketing messages of most prepaid wireless providers target the youth market, prepaid wireless site visitation data suggests considerable interest in the plans among 35-64 year olds. ComScore reported the majority of visitors to Net10.com (60.3 percent) and TracFone.com (58.7 percent) were from this older age segment. Even for sites where the majority of visitors were under 35 years of age, such as Boostmobile.com and MetroPCS.com, 35-64 year olds still made up at least 40 percent of visitors to the site.
ComScore also conducted an analysis of search referral activity to understand the marketing factors driving traffic to prepaid wireless sites. The results suggested while both paid and organic search are driving increased referral activity, organic search is substantially outpacing paid search referrals on the whole.
Organic clicks to BoostMobile.com grew 310 percent, while paid clicks grew 119 percent; organic clicks to MyCricket.com grew 123 percent compared with 63 percent growth in paid clicks; and organic clicks to MetroPCS.com grew 148 percent compared with 17 percent growth in paid clicks. ComScore said this dynamic indicates an underlying consumer demand for prepaid wireless services not just being driven by paid search marketing expenditures.
Although in this report VirginMobile lost audience and saw its paid clicks drop 18 percent (organic clicks were up 44 percent), the company is branching out in ways that may help it make gains. The company said it will soon be offering Broadband2Go, a nationwide 3G wireless Internet pay-as-you-go service. As with Virgin Mobile's cell phone service, there is no contract to sign, no monthly subscription and no activation fee.