Why ‘Missed Call’ Marketing Has Taken Hold In India

Some analysts were surprised when India emerged second globally in the number of mobile subscribers (1 billion plus). It had overtaken the U.S. in 2015; China is the leader on this metric.

In the U.S., consumers are generally able to afford cell phone service. In India, however, recent census data shows that 75% of the population earns less than Rs. 5,000 ($75) a month. So how many people can afford their monthly mobile bill?

Surprisingly, the number is very high. There are two reasons for this. Handset prices are plummeting. The Delhi (Noida)-based Ringing Bells has launched a model called Freedom251, which costs Rs. 251 (less than $4). Cheap, it seems, is the way to go: Apple has submitted a proposal to sell refurbished iPhones in India at a fraction of the cost of the original.

The second reason is that a missed call (miskol in the Philippines; beep in Africa; memancing in Indonesia; and flashcall in Pakistan) costs nothing. Drivers and maids call their employers and disconnect. The employer calls back, thus effectively transferring charges.

What on earth is a missed call and why is it making so much noise in certain parts of the world? “Making a missed call – dialing a number and disconnecting it before the call is picked up — has been a way to signal a message in India without actually communicating it by voice,” says Keyoor Purani, professor of marketing management at the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode. “With a large number of Indians on prepaid plans with limited talk-time, it is important to save the available talk-time. In the era of Facebook, WhatsApp and other mobile apps, one can connect freely without using talk-time but that [requires] smartphones, access to mobile internet and technology skills. With a large number of Indians still using feature phones and not smartphones, the missed call is an economical and wide-reaching mechanism of communication.”

Kan Khajura Tesan

“Missed call marketing (MCM) is the simple concept of engaging via a free call,” says Anurag Banerjee, chief growth officer of Ozonetel Systems, a provider of cloud communication services that enables businesses to run missed call campaigns on its platform. A consumer calls a number and hangs up and receives a call back or an SMS sharing the cricket score or whatever. Most missed call activation campaigns are simple one-or-two-step processes. Some ask a few questions to profile the consumer who has opted in. Ozonetel has run a very successful campaign for Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) called Kan Khajura Tesan (which translates roughly to “earworm radio channel” in English) targeted at rural India.

Today, the missed call has escaped its rural moorings and gone mainstream. Big corporates — including many consumer-facing MNCs — are using it.

“While the world is connected and spoilt with an overload of entertainment through regular and digital media, there are parts totally in the dark and disconnected,” says HUL. “This gave birth to the idea of integrating one of the oldest mediums of entertainment — the radio — with the most-used device today — the mobile phone.” Kan Khajura is an on-demand entertainment channel that works on any mobile. It has notched up around 50 million total subscribers and 1 billion ad impressions. Because the entertainment content changes, people return to be exposed to newer ad messages. “Kan Khajura proved that the missed-call behavior of Indians can be leveraged as an advertising/communication medium that provides better accessibility to markets, is economical to both the consumers and the marketers and is non-intrusive as it is consumer-initiated,” says Purani.

Today, the missed call has escaped its rural moorings and gone mainstream. Big corporates – including many consumer-facing MNCs – are using it. Smaller, localized firms – cancer-detection centers, tuberculosis prevention campaigns of state governments, gyms, private schools and colleges, NGOs – have a missed-call number featuring prominently in their print and TV ads. It has even crossed the income divide: A luxury housing project, which took double-spread ads in all the city newspapers, had a “Give a missed call to xxxxxxxxxx for more information” tucked away at the bottom of each page.

Want to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest Mann ki Baat (Words from the heart) speech? Give a missed call. One million people did so after a new phone number was released. In the recent elections to five state assemblies, political parties of all hues climbed on the bandwagon: Want an earful of the Left manifesto, call…. Want to contribute to a certain Right party, call…. “Recently, a political party used our services for their membership drive,” says Sunil Jain, director of Niche Tech Solutions, a leading player in the segment with a brand styled iMissedCall. “In another instance, we helped a political party in Kerala to gather public views against the chief minister.”

The Employees Provident Fund Organization has started a missed-call service for its 35 million contributing members which enables them to track their account balance. India’s largest bank – the State Bank of India (SBI) – launched SBI Quick last year. It is a facility which allows you to find out your bank balance and other account-related details on your mobile. You have to first register your mobile number. Then, upon giving a missed call from that number to the well-publicized SBI number, you can get the information you were looking for. The private sector banks were first off the block; now all banks are on board. Some foreign banks, normally the first with any innovation, adopted a strategy ordained by their New York or London headquarters. They went for toll-free numbers. Anyone who has been through a “Press 1 for English; Press 2 for Hindi” sequence interspersed with “Your call is important to us” wouldn’t like to repeat that experience. Although the banks will deny it, 15-20 minutes on a toll-free line is par for the course, even if mind-numbing instructions such as “Press star-hash-star” are not included.

Advantages Over Toll-free

Most missed-call service providers offer toll-free facilities as well, so they are normally unwilling to say that one is clearly better than the other. Rajesh Jain, founder and managing director of netCORE Solutions, a Mumbai-based enterprise communication and digital marketing company, points out a key difference. “It needs a smaller infrastructure set-up to receive missed calls and, therefore, it offers huge capacity to receive user requests,” he says. “Then, using outbound dialing lines, a return call can be made as and when capacity for calling back is available. Toll-free numbers also allow users to access information at zero cost. When a user calls toll-free, he gets connected to the brand using inbound dialing lines. If a large number of callers is expected to access the number, the company has to put in more infrastructure for receiving calls. Also, at peak load, users get a busy signal. Emerging markets, particularly India, have made optimum use of the missed call as a medium.”

“MCM is primarily an Indian phenomenon even though call rates are the cheapest in India when compared to other emerging markets,” says Banerjee. “It is more than cost. It is cultural. Some of it is literacy-dependent as it is easier to give a missed call than sending a text in English.”

But India is only the

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