How Xavier Niel got 42K Twitter Followers in 4 Tweets and Shook-up the French Mobile Market


Behold Xavier Niel, the man who may very well be on his way to achieving Steve Jobs-status in France. It would be a first for the country that has traditionally celebrated the bureaucratic public sector to private enterprise. But Xavier, who is a college dropout and ranked amongst the richest Internet entrepreneurs, is about to change that.

Photo: Nouvel Observateur (PRM/SIPA)
This week, the man who introduced France to triple play (high-speed internet, fixed telephone and TV for €29.99 a month) via his Freebox, made a similar revolutionary offer in the mobile space that has the other operators going a little, well, crazy. Modeled after the Freebox broadband package, the mobile offer includes unlimited text messages, mobile data and domestic and international calls for just €19.99 per month.

Xavier, you forgot your black turtleneck.

For those unsure as to how the Xavier Niel and Steve Jobs comparison came about, look no further than the communications strategy. In a very obvious tribute to the late Apple founder, Xavier presented his new offer in a keynote presentation Tuesday – a practice which is still somewhat uncommon amongst French entrepreneurs when announcing new products (or anything, really). Yet, many were quick to judge his presentation for it’s commercial angle. One journalist from the Nouvel Observateur went as far as to say that the “materialist” Xavier Niel had hardly anything in common with the “utopian” Steve Jobs, calling him a “telephone salesman” more than anything else.
Ouch. Yet, this type of criticism is only to be expected, especially in a country where shameless self-promotion is borderline shameful.

Tweet, tweet.

Prior to the infamous keynote, Xavier caught some attention with a few less-than-innocent tweets. His Twitter following has grown exponentially over the last few days, from 4K to 42K in just 4 tweets.
The first one went out with a bang on December 13th.

He then went for a more subtle, poetic angle, playing on the words of French poet Paul Verlaine one month later:

And finally on Tuesday, January 10th, he announced his new offer via Twitter (and a second one at just €2):

Using Twitter so centrally in a company’s communications strategy is also very new in France – and given that Xavier had never Tweeted before December 13th, it was somewhat surprising to see him turn to Twitter for this announcement. #FreeMobile was the number one hashtag in France on Tuesday, with Xavier Niel and the other operators also amongst trending topics throughout the day.

No, Orange, don’t cry.

So how are the other French mobile operators – Orange (France Telecom), SFR (Vivendi) and Bouygues – responding to the news? Well, a New York Times article published yesterday about Free’s new offer correctly stated that it would put pressure on the others to lower their rates in order to hang on to customers.
Orange has already made a move to lower the prices of its Sosh low-cost offers (now between €9.90 and €24.90 euros per month) in an attempt to hold on to its customers. SFR also matched those prices with it’s Red offers and also announced an “unlimited” package similar to that of Free.
Virgin Mobile is also moving towards a Free-like offer, which it announced via text message to its existing customers this morning to let them know about a new offer at €19.99 per month with “unlimited everything.”

No, you are not pigeons!

Bouygues openly addressed the issue on it’s Facebook fan page in a post titled “No, you are not pigeons!”, stating that Free’s new package may not be all that it it is cracked up to be. Jealous much? The company also reminded their “loyal” clients that a choosing a mobile provider comprises more than just the product itself and that Bouygues’ 9,200 employees would do their best to serve everyone. Unsurprisingly, the post received all kinds of reactions, including over 1,000 likes and a few “au revoirs“. The company is said to announce its new prices next week. Current Score: Free: 1 Bouygues: 0.

Shaking it up, Xavier style.

It’ll be interesting to follow France’s mobile operators as they continue to respond to this new offer over the coming weeks. Regardless of the criticism 44 year-old Xavier has received for this wannabe Steve Jobs performance, his new offer is dramatic for France and is resulting is better offers for consumers across the board. He’s one of the few French names on the Economist’s list of up and coming European business leaders and has also contributed largely to changing the French entrepreneurial ecosystem with his fund, Kima Ventures. If there is one businessman I think France should celebrate, he is definitely it.