Move over 4G. Voice May be The Way to Get India Online

Before we get started, time to lift the curtain. This offline 400 Mn resides in the media-dark hinterland of India, the dark sub-continent if you may.
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[Edit Notes: By now, pretty much everyone has bought into the idea of Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Now how do you reach them at scale? In this post, Ram Shankar takes a look at some of the initiatives that have worked.]

The 3rd most populous country (population ~400 Mn) is practically off the media grid. Which means no TV or radio or with poor electricity, no newspaper, no internet. In fact the only communication technology they can possibly boast of is the cellphone used mainly for calling i.e. they haven’t really found a need for mobile internet, which in any case would be fairly expensive.

Here’s a question for you: how do you get them on the grid so you can vet their entertainment and information appetites while still making money?

Before we get started, time to lift the curtain. This offline 400 Mn resides in the media-dark hinterland of India, the dark sub-continent if you may.

To come back to the question posed earlier, how do you provide the dark sub-continent access to information and entertainment? Is there a business case in doing that?

Companies and even political parties have attempted to take on this challenge with promising results and to some extent, there does seem to be a business case in this. Here’s a look at some of these attempts:

HUL’s Missed Call Radio

Kan Khajura Tesan

Hindustan Unilever runs an initiative called ‘Kan Khajura Tesan‘ or the Centipede station (It won 3 Golds at Cannes). Here’s how it works: the user gives a missed call (which does not cost money in India) to a no. advertised by HUL (call 1800 3000 0123 if you want to give it a try yourself). He gets a call back from HUL with 15 mins of programming including Bollywood, music, jokes, shayari and radio jockey talk, essentially a mobile voice-based entertainment channel. HUL pays for the call in return for playing ads within the programming. In addition, HUL is also creating a database of user data, including content preference, geography, language mapped to the phone nos. They claim to reach out to 8 Mn users already with a target to reach 25 Mn users by end of this year. They consider this a crucial vehicle to reach out to the close to a third of the country which they estimate to be media-dark, with the no.rising to nearly 50% for states like UP and Bihar.

While the exact costs are unclear, HUL claims that they are comparable to regular channels. It has been successful enough that they have stopped advertising on radio.

BJP’s Video Van

BJP’s stupendous performance in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 General Elections has been much talked about. A key aspect of the campaign had been the party’s outreach to the dark areas where ~30% of UP’s voters are estimated to be living. To reach them, the party deployed 450 GPS-equipped vans with a 16 min video message by Narendra Modi, the party’s prime ministerial candidate (imagine a van-mounted bioscope).

This outreach was unprecedented and plugging this gap in coverage has been identified by Amit Shah, the party’s state strategist, as being crucial to their success.

J&J’s Child-Care Oriented Missed Call Campaign

j&jJohnson & Johnson, a major player in baby-care products ran a missed call campaign in rural hinterlands of North India to engage with their target audience i.e. young mothers who sought but had few sources for child care related information.

J&J realized that reaching out to this audience with the desired information was an excellent engagement tool. However, doing this was nearly impossible through traditional media, given negligible penetration. Their only connection to the outside world was again the mobile phone. J&J publicized a missed call campaign in which callers would get a call back lasting 1 minute with a child-care tip ending with a by-line on the sponsor. Subsequent call-backs by the no.would be served with a new tip, ensuring continuous engagement. Yet another mobile voice-based channel this time providing information.

The initiative initially publicised extensively through traditional media further spread by word-of-mouth as mothers started using the service and passing the word around.
This initiative turned out to be a remarkable success for J&J as a pull-based marketing campaign with excellent targeting and deep engagement.

***

Developing our opening question further, does the solution to this problem then lie in this case-to-case manner or is there room for an independent media provider who understands the consumer to emerge here?

The answer seems to tend towards the latter.

Media channels, mobile or otherwise, lie within the core competencies of neither political parties nor FMCG majors. Let’s not forget that this is not the first time that HUL or formerly Levers has set up a seemingly non-core business because it benefited its mainstay FMCG business. Faced with the challenge of rapidly expanding to international territories without the support of an external advertising agency with a similarly expansive network, they set up Lever International Advertising Service (Lintas). Similarly, soap operas were a content innovation heavily supported by soap manufacturers (thus the name). However, none of these companies continue to be either owning advertising agencies or to be a production house of soap operas. Once independent providers in these spaces developed, they were happy to exit these businesses and return to their core knitting of selling consumer goods.

Further, specific focus and their expertise in this area will enable media providers shape these channels better and make them more relevant to each user (think about all the data on the user) giving a strong boost to this medium. They will also be able to diversify to other advertisers, say cosmetics marketers, utensil manufacturers or even political parties.

It further makes imminent sense to media providers since they also benefit in the long-term given the potential of migrating these early-stage users to their more evolved media assets. For e.g.a Google if it chose to enter this service could gently nudge these early-stage users to YouTube, once the users are ready to go online.

India has had little patience for traditional online models, demanding significant re-inventions. E.g.bypassing the desktop trend to be an expected mobile based internet country, phone-based yellow pages by JustDial, missed call marketing think ZipDial, COD for E-commerce, etc.

It may thus be time to revisit one important assumption. While India will be a mobile-first internet economy, will it really be so in a traditional sense i.e. would the user’s first experience with the internet or information/entertainment access be over 2G/3G/4G or would it be over a voice based phone call? Or a van-mounted bioscope for that matter?

Given the success that JustDial has had with a call-in based search and the new innovations propagated by HUL, an approach based on voice calls to get this population online seems to make some sense. This pushes the envelope on the definition of online, but you get the drift.

A parting question to Google, broadcasters and media houses then: Is it time to wake up and hear the missed call?


[About the Author: Ram Shankar is a management consultant advising technology companies. In a previous avatar, he sold soaps in the hinterlands of Jharkhand where he learnt amongst other things, that Jhumri Telaiya and Wasseypur are in fact real places and the best ways to dodge Maoists. He is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur and IIM Calcutta.]

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