Home / Industry / How much is a missed call worth?

Facebook and Twitter have a not-so-secret weapon to building their revenues in India—the ubiquitous missed call.

India has 833.02 million active mobile phone users as of December, according to regulatory data. Around 90% of mobile phone connections in India are prepaid and, despite the relative inexpensiveness of calls, it isn’t all that uncommon for people to tell each other, “Give me a missed call". Over the years, missed calls have been used (and continue to be used) by children to tell anxious parents (or spouses to tell anxious partners) that they have reached somewhere; to summon their drivers; or people to order food, receive cricket scores and bank balances and just about any other information or content.

There’s money in the business, which is why Twitter recently acquired Indian company ZipDial. It is also why Facebook forged a partnership with VivaConnect, a rival of ZipDial, in November last year.

It’s a business that could be worth as much as $1 billion of annual revenue, said Vikram Raichura, managing director, VivaConnect Pvt. Ltd, without putting a time frame to the estimate.

How does it work?

And will companies use it?

To answer the second question first, they already do.

For instance, in 2013, when consumer goods company Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) looked at ways to increase engagement with its consumers in Bihar and Jharkhand—it believed the two markets were relatively underserved by media—it decided to use missed call marketing. The company set up its own mobile radio channel, ‘Kan Khajura Tesan’ (earworm station) along with a campaign to build awareness. Consumers could give a missed call to a number and, in return, receive 20 minutes of free, on-demand content, ranging from Bollywood songs to popular Hindi entertainment.

The campaign seems to have struck a chord with users and has, to date, racked up calls from around 30 million people, nearly 200 million ad impressions (the number of times callers hear the company’s ad), and the consumption of around 500 million minutes of content. “That’s the power of harnessing something as simple as a missed call," said Anaheeta Goenka, executive director, Lowe Lintas+ Partners, which led the initiative. The station also pushed out information to consumers on HUL’s various brands, including detergents such as Wheel and Surf, and soaps such as Lifebuoy and Lux.

State Bank of India and GlaxoSmithKline have also used missed call marketing, which has gained currency in recent years. Many marketers see it as an easy and cost-effective means for brands to reach out to a larger target audience, particularly in semi-urban and rural markets where Internet penetration is still low. “It works since we’ve always been a value-driven and price-conscious nation," said Goenka. “While most campaigns push information at consumers, missed call marketing works the other way round."

Companies in the business say a missed call marketing exercise could come as cheap as a few lakhs, and cost up to several crores depending on size and scale.

Which is what makes it attractive to companies such as ZipDial and VivaConnect.

“There are more people in emerging markets who bought their first mobile phone in the last couple of years, than all of the people in the developed world," said Valerie Wagoner, founder and chief executive officer, ZipDial. A good number of these next 3 billion consumers will access the Internet for the first time from their mobile phones."

Indeed, the missed calls phenomenon is already prevalent in Africa, where it is called flashing or beeping, and Latin America.

ZipDial, which has worked with consumer companies such as Procter and Gamble India Ltd and Colgate Palmolive (India) Ltd is optimistic about the reach and scale of missed call marketing. So is Twitter, which will be integrating ZipDial’s platform into its core platform to enrich the user experience. ZipDial said its mobile platform lets people follow and engage with content across all interfaces, SMS, voice and mobile Web, and also facilitates offline consumption of content. These interactions are especially appealing in areas where people aren’t always connected to data or only access data through intermittent Wi-Fi networks, said Wagoner.

Rishi Jaitly, market director, India and Southeast Asia at Twitter, said that the ZipDial deal will help drive user growth.

And engagement too, people in the missed call marketing business say.

Facebook, for instance, has integrated the tool into its interface for select campaigns. When a person sees an ad on Facebook, he or she can place a missed call by clicking on the ad from a mobile device. In return, the user receives content— music, cricket scores or celebrity messages, alongside a brand message from the advertiser.

Men’s personal care and grooming brand, Garnier Men, part of the French cosmetics and beauty company, L’Oreal, said it witnessed significant success when it ran a campaign during the popular IPL (Indian Premier League) cricket tournament last year, where Facebook created a missed call campaign for it.

The campaign resulted in a reach of more than 15 million and 2.5 times more online sales year-on-year. Rupika Raman, general manager, Garnier, L’Oreal India, said that it was also more effective than the print campaign. “We also ran a print campaign simultaneously and noticed that engagement levels were higher on mobile— nearly 16 times more usage than on other platforms."

Maxine Schlein, product marketing manager for emerging markets at Facebook, in an earlier statement released by the company, said that brands are able to deliver entertaining and useful content that people find valuable enough to take the time to listen to and even interact with.

VivaConnect, which claims that it can handle a capacity of around 1 million missed calls per hour, says that people do tend to engage more through missed calls. “Engagement levels witness an almost 10 times increase with such services," said Raichura.

He added that consumer product companies, banks, and insurance companies were early adopters but that e-commerce firms and realtors are catching up.

Still, companies need to realize that missed call campaigns may not always generate high-quality leads, said Rajiv Dingra, founder and CEO, WATConsult, a digital and social media agency, part of Dentsu Aegis Network. People could just call for the sake of it, he explained.

As the tool matures, marketers have to find out what works for consumers.

“As users become more picky about the kind of content they wish to consume, brands will need to ask themselves why would consumers want to seek out their brand," said Goenka.

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