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Mobile Data Service Fuels the Desire for Uniqueness

Mobile content creators and service providers can leverage users' desire to be unique to expand revenue.


Barely have we ceased to be amazed by the tremendous changes brought about by the Internet revolution when a second wave of technological revolution has emerged. Mobile Data Service (MDS), digitized information using wireless technology and personal communication systems, is capable of providing a vast array of services via telecommunications networks, including the Internet. Such services include short messaging services (SMS), email, download services, and Internet connection services, to name just a few.

More than simply extending data services from being wired to wireless, MDS is revolutionary in a number of ways. First, it provides users with information and data anywhere, anytime—an obvious advantage over fixed-line services that have specific geographic and time constraints. Second, MDS offers highly personalized services because each user has exclusive access to his or her wireless platform (such as a mobile phone). Also, MDS providers can often pinpoint the identity and location of the user as well as his or her demographic data. This knowledge can help them provide users with context-based and situation-dependent services as well as preference-based ones. Third, MDS can reach a much larger user population than wired services can. As mobile phones usually function as an MDS platform, more people, including the elderly and the computer illiterate, can access digitized information provided by this service.

A question naturally arises with the emergence of MDS: What are the factors that affect users’ decisions to adopt or reject MDS? Understanding the factors influencing user adoption of an IT product or service has been a core task for both researchers and practitioners for decades. Many previous studies have shown that factors such as perceived risks/benefits, ease of use, and social pressure may have concerted influences on users’ adoption behavior. However, the types of technology studied in previous research have largely been tools to improve task performance or productivity (such as CASE tools) in the context of organizational work settings. Consequently, they mainly looked at performance or task-oriented factors such as perceived usefulness.

By contrast, MDS boasts functions that make it much more than a mere tool for improving task performance in job-related situations. Mobility has given MDS a more comprehensive nature. In addition to supporting job-related tasks, MDS is used to satisfy personal desires such as the need to play games and to chat with other people in a tailor-made fashion. The traditional distinction between “work” and “play” can be blurred with MDS. So an important factor that influences adoption of MDS emerges: the ability of the technology to satisfy users’ personal desires. In this article, we concentrate on one of these desires—the desire to be (or feel) unique and special among others, which has received scant attention in research on adoption behavior.

To date, most adoption research has focused on users’ adoption of a technology as a result of their wish to conform to the majority or to social norms [10]. However, people at times exhibit psychological inclinations in the opposite direction—a need to maintain or enhance their uniqueness—and therefore behave in ways that help them achieve this goal [9]. This need is labeled “uniqueness motivation” in social psychology. In the context of consumer behavior and product adoption, people may want to perceive themselves as different from others by using products that are recognizable symbols of uniqueness. Similarly, people seek out new and special products and innovations to establish social differentiation [4]. From this perspective, it can be anticipated that people may adopt and use MDS as a means of distinguishing themselves from others. MDS is often used in public, and the act of using MDS will be observed by others. Thus, features and functions of MDS that are observable will help make its use more conspicuous and attention-grabbing, thus enabling the user to derive satisfaction from presenting a unique “self” [9].

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“Self”-buoying MDS Services

Among the many MDS outlets, some are especially conducive to the construction of users’ unique “self.” The media is quite enthusiastic in covering the surging demand in many countries for download services such as cell phone ring tones and digital characters, particularly in Asia. For a fee, users in countries and regions such as Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan can download such digital products from a large repertoire established by many content providers. For example, the types of ring tones for incoming calls to a cellular phone range from a typical “buzz” to popular music, and from customized funny sounds to imitations of celebrity voices. Since unique and recognizable ring tones are immediately noticeable in public, their usages express personal tastes typically differentiated from others.

Similarly, visual displays of unique digital cartoons such as animated characters tend to boost the user’s self. The increasingly popular mobile avatar service is a good case in point. An avatar is a virtual character that symbolizes the user’s self in cyberspace. According to The Wall Street Journal [11], in Korea, portal sites and community sites such as Yahoo (, Daum (, and Freechal ( have made a special effort to maintain and increase their user base by introducing a variety of digital fashion articles (like clothes and accessories) designed for avatars from Nike, FILA, and Barbie. These sites have found that an increasing number of users want to present their unique self-concept in cyberspace through the use of avatars and digital fashion items (see Figure 1).

Indeed, more new attention-drawing services that seem to help users stand out from others are becoming available with the advance of mobile technology such as General Packet Radio Services (GPRS) and 3G services. For example, SK Telecom of Korea started a mobile movie service that allows users to enjoy movies on their mobile phones. Similarly, Japanese and Korean MDS users are able to watch TV programs in real time with a mobile phone through a DMB (digital mobile broadcasting) service. NTT DoCoMo of Japan and Hutchison Telecom of Hong Kong introduced a videophone service that enables users to have a conversation while seeing each other’s faces. These new multimedia mobile services are quite innovative and distinguishable from other typical mobile services, so people who have a strong desire to be unique may establish their self-concept or status by using these new services among others, just like trend setters or fashion leaders.

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How Does the Desire for Uniqueness Affect Adoption?

It is expected that users’ need for uniqueness will influence their adoption decisions in order to satisfy the personal desire to be different. That is, when a user finds it unpleasant to be very similar to others, he or she may adopt and use MDS to restore the self (that is, lessen the threat to identity). Therefore, the higher the uniqueness motivation, the more likely it is that a user will decide to use MDS.

It is also believed that users’ need for uniqueness reflects their aspiration for social status by representing their unique self-concept [9]. The perception of being unique or symbolically different is dependent upon the reactions of others. By possessing and using socially recognizable products, people often attempt to obtain and communicate status within their social systems. When the reactions from others are positive, possession and usage of a unique product can help the user obtain the perception of dominance and leadership in his or her social hierarchy [2]. Within a typical social group, by using a particular system favorably perceived by other members, one can assure membership and further enhance status and leadership. Accordingly, uniqueness motivation is expected to be the facilitating factor in both self-concept and social status [9].

Our hypothesis regarding the impact of uniqueness motivation on users’ MDS adoption decisions was tested with data collected from an online survey conducted in Hong Kong—an appropriate place to carry out the study because mobile phone and Internet penetration there is the most advanced in the world [5].1 This implies that people in Hong Kong are well exposed to MDS either through direct usage or indirect experience. Hong Kong residents’ frequent exposure to MDS validates the survey measurement of MDS adoption processes.

The survey questionnaire was administered on a free public Web site. The Web site provides Hong Kong residents with various e-governmental services such as driver’s license renewal and tax return filing. A banner advertisement for the survey leading the Web site visitors to the questionnaire was displayed on the portal. To encourage participation, a lucky draw was organized, with the winners being presented products such as mobile phones and MP3 players.

A total of 1,328 valid responses were acquired from potential MDS users who were aware of MDS but had not yet used it at the time of the survey. Seven hundred and two respondents were male (52.9%) and 626 were female (47.1%). The age of the respondents ranged from 15 to 66, with 30.3 years being the mean and 29 the median. Most of the responses came from people in their 20s (39.0%), 30s (30.3%), 40s (15.5%), or teens (11.7%). Some 45.1% of the respondents had a bachelor’s degree. Among the respondents, 381 described themselves as potential users of communication services such as SMS, email, and chatting services; 436 of information content services such as content downloading services (such as weather, market information, news); 372 of entertainment services such as mobile gaming and adult services; and 139 of transaction services such as purchasing tickets and performing financial transactions.

The respondents were given questions measuring the level of uniqueness motivation along with the degree of intention to use MDS. There were also other questions measuring the levels of perceptions that were likely to affect adoption decisions (such as perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, perceived enjoyment, and perceived monetary value).2 These perceptions have been considered to affect users’ intentions to adopt a certain innovation in the previous literature on information systems [10] and consumer behavior [7]. Table 1 gives examples of the questions used in the questionnaire.

The impact of uniqueness motivation relative to that of other perceptions of users’ intentions to adopt MDS was tested. Since MDS encompasses a wide variety of different services, and different services may give rise to different perceptions at different levels among users, the associations between different factors and adoption intentions were tested in three different mobile service categories: communications, information content, and entertainment services. A similar categorization scheme has been applied by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in a mobile industry report [5].

Consistent with our hypothesis, uniqueness motivation had a strong positive impact on intention to adopt MDS (see Figure 2) in all MDS categories. The results indicate that people are more likely to use MDS when their desire for a unique self-concept and social status is high, and that uniqueness motivation plays an important role in potential users’ decisions to adopt MDS.

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Business implications

Our findings indicate that the desire to be different from others is one of the driving forces behind potential users’ MDS adoption decisions. Considering users’ willingness to pay for services over the wireless network [3], the implications of MDS to practitioners are clear: Mobile content creators and service providers can leverage this aspect of user behavior—the desire to enhance one’s self-concept by differentiating oneself from others—to expand the user base and sources of revenue. In fact, industry analysts and popular media in Korea attribute the current explosive profit growth of mobile service providers and content creators to the increase of revenue per user from the sales of services such as digital characters and ring tone downloads, rather than to the increase in the number of subscribers [6]. Such commercial success in Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong for services that enhance users’ self-concept is testimony to the fact that uniqueness motivation is an important determinant of MDS adoption.

From a marketing perspective, however, it should be noted that the life span of unique services such as digital characters or ring tones may not be long because once a service becomes popular among many users, the service quickly loses its uniqueness. To maintain uniqueness, imaginative and outstanding services should be provided in a consistent and timely manner. Service providers must create and maintain good, exclusive relationships with many capable content creators. A careful consideration should also be given to the possibility that the level of uniqueness motivation may be different across different user segments. The empirical testing result implies that the impact of uniqueness motivation on adoption intentions can be contingent on the type of MDS. For instance, the size of the effect of uniqueness motivation in regard to information content services is relatively small (0.12) compared to that in regard to communications (0.21) or entertainment services (0.18). It is understandable in the sense that most of the content available through such services is functional (such as market news, weather, and transportation/performance schedules) and normally shared with many subscribers, thus making it difficult for users to buoy their self-concept by using these services. On the other hand, there are a variety of ways to express users’ uniqueness through the use of communication services (such as multimedia messages with tailored pictures and sounds, videophone calls) or entertainment services (for example, personalized ring tones, watching TV with a mobile phone). Further, the level of uniqueness motivation might vary by demographic variables such as gender and age. Table 2 illustrates that the impact of the need for uniqueness on adoption intentions can vary between men and women. Among the information content service users, the effect of the uniqueness motivation of women was more salient than that of men. This might imply that men consider information content services to be functional, while women use the same services as a way of expressing their uniqueness. The high contrast in the level of the perceived usefulness measure3 between men and women among the information content service users supports such a conjecture (men: 0.29, very significant; women: 0.01, not significant).

As for the differences among age groups, Table 3 shows that, in general, people in their 20s and 30s have a greater desire to express uniqueness by using MDS than do older people (41 or over). However, very interestingly, the need for uniqueness among potential users aged 41 or over in the entertainment services group seemed to be stronger than that among their younger counterparts. This particular survey result may reflect older people’s defensive denial of aging [8]. That is, people attempt to maintain their youth by disassociating themselves from the stereotypical images of older people as boring, conservative, and lagging behind in trends. In the context of entertainment MDS usage, perhaps older people try to distinguish themselves from others by using MDS entertainment services that would make them look unique among other people of their age group, thus making them feel young, or as though they are trendsetters.

As such, the need for uniqueness seems to dynamically interact with other factors. From this perspective, the broad implication of our findings is that it may be worthwhile to provide differentiated services and items to different target groups, taking into account a variety of user characteristics (including the level of uniqueness motivation), perceptions, and service types. In this regard, recent attempts by some mobile service providers to promote different services for small, highly targeted consumer groups seem to be sensible step. For example, KTF, a service provider in South Korea, has launched several service brands targeting specific consumer groups such as teenagers aged between 13 and 18, who tend to value strong ties among friends [1] (“Bigi”4); college students, who are hungry for different types of information (“Na”5); young, high-income career women, who are interested in the latest fashions and look (“Drama”6); middle-aged users, who have to balance responsibilities at work and home (“Main”7); or people who are greatly interested in the latest multimedia entertainment services (“FIMM”8).

New technology users are no longer content with “me-too” functions. They want more new services and they want these services to be unique and outstanding. MDS provides a means of satisfying these needs. As information technology becomes an integral part of our daily lives, people’s expressions of their uniqueness through their use of technology will be as diverse as their expressions of uniqueness through accessories or clothes.

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F1 Figure 1. An example of mobile avatars and avatar items.

F2 Figure 2. The impact of the need for uniqueness on MDS adoption intentions.

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T1 Table 1. Examples of questions.

T2 Table 2. Results by gender and MDS category.

T3 Table 3. The need for uniqueness among various user groups and service types.

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    1. Carroll, J., Howard, S., Vetere, F., Peck, J., and Murphy, J. Just what do the youth of today want? Technology appropriation by young people. In Proceedings of the 35th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (Big Island, Hawaii, 2002).

    2. Cassidy, T. and Lynn, R. A multifactorial approach to achievement motivation: The development of a comprehensive measure. Journal of Occupational Psychology 62 (1989), 301–312.

    3. The Economist. A survey of the mobile Internet: The Internet, untethered (Oct. 13, 2001).

    4. Fisher, R.J. and Price, L. An investigation into the social context of early adoption behavior. Journal of Consumer Research 19 (Dec. 1992), 477–486.

    5. ITU. ITU Internet Reports: Internet for a Mobile Generation. International Telecommunication Union, 2002.

    6. Kim, J. Booming small mobile content creators in Korea. Newsweek Korean Edition, (Aug. 21, 2002).

    7. Monroe, K. and Krishnan, R. The effect of price on subjective product evaluations. Perceived Quality, J. Jacoby and J. Olson, Eds. Lexington Books, Lexington, MA, 1985, 209–232.

    8. Montepare, J.M. and Lachman, M.E. "You're only as old as you feel": Self-Perceptions of age, fears of aging, and life satisfaction from adolescence to old age. Psychology and Aging 4, 1 (1989), 73–78.

    9. Tepper, K., Bearden, W., and Hunter, G. Consumers' need for uniqueness: Scale development and validation. Journal of Consumer Research 28 (June 2001), 50–66.

    10. Venkatesh, V. and Davis, F. A theoretical extension of the Technology Acceptance Model: Four longitudinal field studies. Management Science 46, 2 (Feb. 2000), 186–204.

    11. Yoon, S. Online dressing is only virtual, but the payoffs are very real. The Wall Street Journal (June 19, 2002).

    This work was partially supported by the Korea University Research Grant, grants from the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (HKUST6438/05H, HIA03/04.BM02, HIA05/06.BM01) and the Research Center for Electronic Commerce at HKUST.

    1Hong Kong was ranked the first in the 2002 ITU mobile/Internet index, which measures how developed each economy is in terms of mobile/Internet infrastructure, usage, and market development, while also capturing how well that economy might take advantage of future information and communication technology advances.

    2Need for uniqueness, perceptions, and adoption intention were all measured using a 7-point scale (1: strongly disagree; 7: strongly agree).

    3The perceived usefulness measure indicates the extent to which using a technology (here, information content services) is perceived as providing instrumental benefits, such as productivity and convenience, in achieving a certain activity [10].

    4The Bigi brand emphasizes SMS and mobile chatting functions at relatively lower prices.

    5The Na brand boasts a wide selection of information content download services that include travel information, concert/movie schedules, and recruiting information.

    6The Drama brand targets young female customers with its emphasis on health, diet, and cosmetics information.

    7The Main brand provides necessary services to help users plan both careers (for example, foreign language lecture service, head-hunting information) and home activities (for example, family restaurant information).

    8FIMM users can enjoy a variety of mobile entertainment services that include animation, music/video clips, game downloads, picture transmission, and adult services.

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