Some of the ground breaking innovations over the last two decades or so include the Google, Facebook etc. and these innovations impact the lives of more than a billion people on the planet on a daily basis. Google logs 2 billion searches everyday and 300 million people use google everyday. Out of the more than 943 million users of Facebook in the world, India accounts for 56 million users which is only 5.6% of India’s total population. What about the remaining 95% of the population who are not even aware of Facebook? It is easy to dismiss that these people are not tech savvy but the stats suggest otherwise. 900 million Indians use mobile phones and the adoption rate has been extraodinarily high.
Lack of usage of google and facebook doesn’t mean that these non-consumers don’t have needs similar to the consumers of Google and Facebook? My experience working extensively across India clearly validates the need for such technologies among the non-consumers, but because of digital divide and fear of technology, these non-consumers use a variety of other non-technological primitive tools.
One of the striking features during a visit to Madurai, my hometown in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is the poster culture. Madurai people print posters for everything from ear piercing ceremony to welcoming the political leaders to celebrating the release of their favorite star’s movie to marriage to death condolences. This has been an age old phenomenon across the whole of India but is very big in Tamilnadu and that too in Madurai. One can see posters pasted on the buses to share info about an event, wedding or even death.
With the advent of new printing technologies like Flex printing, the poster culture has exploded. Previously, the posters used to be text based and now with Flex, they can print big banners with high resolution pictures. As a result, flex banners can be seen all across the city and its rural surroundings. In fact, there is a big competition between friends and relatives to showcase who printed the biggest banner for their friends’ wedding. Some examples of the events where the new flex poster culture is so rampant..
Friends collect money to set up these boards and they also have their pictures as you can see in the ‘House warming’ picture above. The above example clearly illustrates the need to ‘show off’, publicize their effort towards their friends’ wedding which is very similar to the FB campaigns where people try to attract their friends with a like button or send a hapy birthday message. The big difference is the reach of Facebook as compared to the localized reach of the posters.
The needs for the consumers and non-consumers are very similar but the non-consumers have barriers across skill, access and affordability to use these sophisticated technology. What is the way out?
Internet subscription is expected to touch 150 million users by the end of 2012 but with 900 million subscribers, the mobile phone market is suggesting something important for companies. Out of this 900 million, more than 850 million Indians (and 3 billion people worldwide) do NOT have access to a computer or mobile data plans (i.e. mobile internet). They have been missing out on important information and services that directly impact their lives, including government programs, job/career services, news, health, education, market prices, and weather — information and services that are often found on the internet, but not accessible with simple feature phones…until now. So how do we cater to the mobile phone users who are not mainstream internet users?
Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement came up with an innovation that leveraged the SMS behaviour of the masses in India. An average Indian sends 29 SMSes per month. One of common conversations in an Indian context is ‘I’ll give you a missed call and you save my number’. Some people give missed calls indicating that they want us to call back. Anna’s team leveraged this behaviour brilliantly. Instead of asking people to just participate, Anna’s team asked them to give a missed call to a a few national numbers. This will enable two things 1. people don’t have to spend anything for the calls 2. Anna’s team will get the cell phone numbers. Do you know how many missed calls they received? A staggering, 35 million missed calls. Riding on an existing behaviour and understanding the constraints led this movement to mobilize an unprecendented number of people in the streets of New Delhi to fight against corruption.
On the private sector, Intuit has a great case that is worth examining. Intuit, the leading personal finance software company, is trying to create such a new market in India with its txtweb product. txtWeb is a dynamic content publishing and service creation platform for making information and services available via SMS for FREE”. It is the WWW for sms world, the technology which is present in 700 million subscribers. Anyone with a mobile phone can consume content, similar to the content available in internet, by SMSing keywords (very much like entering domain names into internet browsers) to ONE national number, and receive back content (up to 900 characters per SMS). Keywords represent an almost unlimited number of applications that use content from the internet or have their own original content. These apps are created by an open community of publishers and developers (which can be anyone), and can include wikipedia content, local market prices, government programs, financial literacy tips etc. A mobile phone user can think of txtWeb as an SMS-based browser, but much more accessible than web-browsers on computers since anyone with a simple feature phone can use it. We will have to wait and see whether this service will create the same impact as the internet but nevertheless, it is a great attempt targeting the masses.
Human beings have the same needs and motivations if we go to the source and try to understand it. But the way they tackle the unmet needs depends on their context, affordability, access, education and several factors. Discovering these unmet needs and their contexts will open up interesting mass markets which may not appear at the surface level.
Image Credits: chaipanidecatur.com