Could Mobile Phone-Based Social Media Platforms Be Used to Market Films in India, China and Elsewhere?

Internet penetration in India has reached only about 14 per cent (per the latest numbers from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India). And a great majority of India’s web-enabled population are young and live in urban areas. (In India, it's a safe assumption that the typical internet user is both younger and more likely to live in an urban area than the average online user in other markets around the world.)

In short, poor people in the countryside don't yet have internet access in India (some estimates place internet access at less than 2% in the rural areas of India).

Will that change?

If the experience of other countries is any indication, the isolation from the internet in India's countryside is going to be reduced in the coming years. But poverty is still going to make paying for web-access an impossibility for a huge segment of India's rural poor.

Yes, as I've written here before, the Indian government has ambitious plans to provide millions of Indian students with cheap wirelessly connected tablets (the Aakash will help with schoolwork, but it is also web-enabled and capable of playing video).

But what about right now?

Is there any way India's rural villagers (many of whom DO have access to mobile phones) can participate in the benefits of connectivity right now - even before internet-enabled mobile devices become ubiquitous in their areas? And even if they are so poor they couldn't afford web access if it was available?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes!

An Oct. 27th, 2013 post to Telegraph India describes how mobile phone-based social media platforms have been springing up in rural areas of India.

""These are people in remote communities who may not be literate, who do not have access to the Internet or Internet-enabled devices. What many of them do have, however, is a mobile phone. And they can use this to share information on our platform," says Ashish Tandon, vice-president, business development, Gram Vaani, the parent company of Mobile Vaani."

According to the Telegraph India, services like Mobile Vaani and CGNet Swara have sprung up to provide a voice-based social media forum for mobile telephone users in India's countryside. Some of these services - like Mobile Vaani and CGNet Swara - are designed to give the disenfranchised access to social networks even if they don't have traditional internet service, as seen in the video about CGNet Swara below:

In addition to providing a voice-based portal for the disenfranchised - where users can report local issues using a landline or mobile phone - I am also intrigued by the idea of an audio channel that provides information to a targeted audience through their mobile phones.

Such a system has proven to be a success for agricultural information in rural India. Avaaj Otalo is a voice-based social media forum in India that allows farmers to access relevant and timely agricultural information over the phone. Designed in the summer of 2008 as a collaboration between UC Berkeley School of Information, Stanford HCI Group, IBM India Research Laboratory and Development Support Center (DSC), an NGO in Gujarat, India, Avaaj Otalo asks users to navigate through audio prompts to record, browse, and respond to agricultural questions and answers, as well as offering an archive of past episodes of  the DSC's weekly radio program.

The success of Avaaj Otalo directly led to the founding of Awaaz.De (literally, "give voice"), a company in India that provides a hosted solution for deploying voice-based social media.

And businesses have begun using Awaaz.De to reach out to potential customers. For example, Logistimo, a technology company in Karnataka, India, uses Awaaz.De to send information, reminders and alerts to various stake holders involved in a supply chain.

Why is this system of social networking working in India?

Unlike the internet, mobile telephony is widespread in India. Even in rural areas people have mobile phones.  For example, almost 400 million mobile users (something like 40 per cent of India's 870 million mobile users) live in rural areas.

And the impulse to use their phones in ways that simulate (or actually give them access to) a web-like connectivity apparently has been increasing among everyday Indians.  Even if they don't have an internet connection, many rural Indians watch TV and go to movies and they're aware of the world wide web.

If a filmmaker has made a film that might appeal to India's massive audience, how might that filmmaker (employing tools from Awaaz.De?) use a mobile phone-based social media platform to spread the word about her new film or TV show?

Could an interactive campaign be built around audio on a social media platform reached via telephone?

Am I the only on who thinks it might be a good idea to use (create?) a mobile phone-based social media platform to market films (TV? other good and services?) in India?

The market is undeniably huge:

India has over a dozen mobile telephony service providers operating in essentially "internet-dark" rural areas servicing almost 400 million subscribers. IDEA (with 65 million rural subscribers), Vodaphone (82 million rural subscribers), and Bharti (82 million rural subscribers) are the three dominant players in India's rural areas.  There is also a second tier in the rural market, occupied by urban mobile telephone powers Reliance and BSNL (each with over 120 million total subscribers in all of India - or about 15% of India's total market share each). Although they are not as dominant as IDEA, Vodaphone and Bharti in rural areas, Reliance and BSNL do have approximately 30 million and 40 million rural subscribers each - with market shares hovering around 10% of India's current total rural telephony market.

Taken together: IDEA, Vodaphone, Bharti, Reliance and BSNL have approximately 300 million rural subscribers.  And, for the time being - these five companies stand in a unique position to reach rural people in India.

And it appears that the mobile phone-based social media platforms that connect users on these five phone services have already found an audience. As described in the Telgraph India: "Set up [in 2012] by Aaditeshwar Seth, a professor at IIT, Delhi, Mobile Vaani is being used by 60,000 families in Jharkhand. Between 2,500 and 3,500 calls are made each day on its Hindi and Maithili services."

And CGNet Swara provides a similar service "in the rural outback of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. It's a forum where people can discuss issues of local interest. All they have to do is call a number and leave a message in their local language — Hindi or Gondi. They can also call up to listen to others' messages. The enthusiasm for the platform is clear, given that in its three years of existence, CGNet Swara has logged nearly 30,000 calls. On an average, 500 people call in to listen and 50 to record messages each day."

What about China and elsewhere where mobile phones are prevalent?

Could telemarketing take on a new meaning in film marketing? E.g., Sponsoring audio messages that are useful or entertaining - e.g., questions and answers that create engagement through AI or take users on a game-like experience - sharing message about a new film that are spread by users of a mobile phone-based social media platform?

Could mobile phones - and social networks using mobile phones - become (for the next few years, in certain territories in transition) an exciting platform for marketing films in places where people don't yet have web access?

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