Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Move over BPOs, it’s time for WPOs

I wake up every morning to a barrage of inane and irritating “Gm dears" and poorly photoshopped flowers or fireworks with “GOOD MORNING" written on them in fonts that should have died a horrible death in the 1990s. And it doesn’t end there. Throughout the day, I comb through an incessant and incorrigible cocktail of gossip, sexist wife jokes, dard bhari shayari (poetry of unrequited love), Unesco award announcements that invariably feature India or Modiji, and in some cases videos and GIFs that are decidedly, ahem… let’s just say, risqué. It’s the price I pay for being on multiple WhatsApp groups.

WhatsApp is India’s internet. The mobile browser, the app store, Google Assistant, Siri, email, Dropbox, etc. are all but embellishments and indulgences of the angrezi (English-speaking) elite. We might spend hours ruminating on artificial intelligence and machine learning, driverless cars, IoT (Internet of Things) and the future of the internet, but for most of Bharat, the internet and WhatsApp are one and the same.

In the last three years WhatsApp’s user base has quadrupled from 50 million to 200 million subscribers. Pretty much every smartphone in India has WhatsApp. The wonderfully simple interface, group messaging capabilities and the ability of share any kind of media mean that it expertly handles Bharat’s two most burning desires. The need to consume and communicate. It is, in other words, the perfect opiate of the mobile masses.

Given Bharat’s obsession with WhatsApp, I find it curious that there aren’t more companies trying to convert it into a low-cost customer acquisition tool. While WhatsApp is testing a “WhatsApp for Business" platform custom built for India, I suspect it won’t be enough. Simply because India is not a DIY (do-it-yourself) market, but a DIFM (do-it-for-me) market. This means that even if WhatsApp were to come out with a business platform, it’s operation will likely be carried out by agencies that provide WhatsApp marketing services to other businesses.

In other words, what businesses that serve Bharat will need is WPO —WhatsApp Process Outsourcing.

WPO firms would be the next logical evolution of SMS and email marketing agencies. They would manage user databases tagged by interest, generate engaging creatives (images, shayari and videos, all tailor-made for the small businesses they serve), engage with and respond to users directly, and even become customer support channels.

Driving app downloads, known in the industry as “performance marketing", accounts for more than half of the online ad spending in India. The cost of acquiring a download ranges from Rs50 to Rs500 or more in some cases. But if the WPO is able to leverage the “transfer file" feature on WhatsApp, app installs can be driven without the need to go through Google’s Play store. Someone once told me that the ultimate performance marketing trick would be to just name the installation file as “Sunny Leone.apk" and then forward it to a few well-chosen groups. Cheeky as it is, digital marketers in India need to begin thinking outside the box.

My hypothesis is that WhatsApp marketing could be extremely targeted by leveraging WhatsApp’s true killer feature—groups. WhatsApp groups marry word of mouth with ease of use and narrow targeting. And to see how targeted they can be, just Google “WhatsApp groups list" and see what you find.

I found reams upon reams of webpages with invite links to hundreds of WhatsApp groups organized by interest. From the sacred to the profane, every base impulse of our country finds company in these congregations of 256 people or less. The groups I’ve found include gems such as “Heart touching shayari", “Girls WhatsApp dp", “Jai Kali Kalkatte wali" and, of course, lots of groups in the vein of “Sex videos only".

A bunch of these groups are also organized around taking advantage of free coupons that companies dole out to first-time users and referrals. FactorDaily did a great feature story on the dynamics of groups with names such as “OTP Bazar", and “IN Paytm looter". And these bargain hunters (or scammers) are not the only ones to have figured out how to leverage the collective power of WhatsApp groups. In fact, the country’s most skilled exponent of WhatsApp-led user acquisition and engage is none other than the country’s ruling party: the BJP.

Multiple news reports and conversations with party operatives present the picture of a party that wields WhatsApp to capture and retain vote-share by dominating mind-share. In an article from NewsLaundry, the IT cell coordinator for the BJP summarized their strategy thusly: “Humari rajniti thi ki chunav ke pehle voter ke dimag ko capture kar lo. Subeh-shaam message bhejo. Jab dekhe, humara chehra dekhe, humari baat sune." (Our aim was to capture the mind of the voter. To message them night and day. Whenever they look, they should see us, hear our message.)

This strategy yielded rich rewards in Uttar Pradesh, and is now being replicated in the run-up to the Karnataka elections with an almost military precision. Another article by FactorDaily elaborates on how the Karnataka cell of the BJP has enlisted 100 volunteers in each of the 224 constituencies. That’s over 22,000 volunteers expected to spend at least 30 minutes a day across a total of 5,000 WhatsApp groups reaching over 1.2 million people.

All a private marketing agency needs to do is replicate this strategy by identifying these WhatsApp group “power admins" and pushing collateral on behalf of their clients. If there ever was a low-cost customer engagement strategy, this is it. After all, if you want to sell to the aam aadmi you have to go where they are.

As the Karnataka coordinator of the BJP IT cell said in the FactorDaily article, “If you see the data analysis, you will see that Facebook and Twitter are coming down. They are becoming junk these days. Now people are moving to WhatsApp, the common man’s internet platform."

In the words of Jim Stengel, the former marketing head of Procter & Gamble, “If you want to understand how a lion hunts, don’t go to the zoo. Go to the jungle."

Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. The Bharat Rough Book is a weekly column on building businesses for the middle of India’s income pyramid.

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