American Marketer


How marketers in India use SMS differently from US peers

August 5, 2014

Ritesh Bhavnani is chairman of Snipp Ritesh Bhavnani is chairman of Snipp


By Ritesh Bhavnani

I travel back and forth between the United States and India and it is always fascinating to see the evolution of mobile usage in each country.

While the U.S. is clearly more advanced in terms of its adoption of mobile technologies, India stands out for the sheer centrality that mobile phones have to everyday lives: for most Indians, their mobile phone is their only means of communication, the only way they access the Internet and is usually their main expenditure outside of basic necessities.

As a result, the kinds of mobile usage patterns one sees in India are by their nature very different from those in the U.S., naturally focused more on scale and weighted towards the lowest common denominator.

Missed opportunity
It is not surprising then that SMS and missed calls continue to play a central role in developing countries such as India.

In the U.S., SMS in particular seems to have become a dirty word, reserved only for spammers and the lowest of the low-tech. And yet, every time I go back to India, I am always struck by how effectively low cost infrastructure like SMS and missed calls have been deployed by companies looking to enhance their customer interactions.

While a lot of these SMS interactions are not marketing programs in the strictest sense of the word, they are all focused around enhancing customer interactions, thereby giving brands the opportunity to provide better customer satisfaction, improve recall, strengthen loyalty and provide additional touch-points to deliver their message.

It would not be a stretch to say that U.S. companies could stand to benefit by copying and adapting some of the programs in place in India. Below are some of the kinds of programs that may be worth adopting.

Sales and customer service callbacks
This one might well be my all time favorite.

Instead of calling an 800 number, navigating through an overly complex IVR and then waiting for an hour to speak to a customer service or salesperson, for certain companies I just need to text a keyword to a short code and get a callback when an agent is free.

It is a win-win-win: I do not waste my time or lose my patience while on hold for an eternity, the company saves money by smoothening out peak call volumes and the customer service agent is able to offer better customer service by virtue of having my account up and my identity already verified based on my mobile phone number.

Service requests
In India when I need to order another cooking gas cylinder, set up a servicing appointment for my car or book an appointment for a plumber/electrician/service person I simply text a keyword to a short code – or give a missed call to a particular number – and the order is added to their system.

In the best case, I usually get back a service confirmation along with an expected date and time when the provider would come over. And typically I receive a reminder text message on the day of the appointment to that ensure I will be home.

Imagine if I could simply text “home” or “work” to FedEx to schedule a pickup, or text “dentist” to get the next available appointment time for dentists in my area.

Incremental sales
To add an additional cable channel to my package or watch a premium movie I have to send a text message. Similarly, if I want an additional service on my mobile phone, I text for them.

Most of the companies with whom I have existing billing relationships allow me to add or remove services through SMS.

Appointment and payment reminders
A few weeks ago I made an appointment with a dentist and was pleasantly surprised when I received an automated reminder text message on the day of the appointment.

Yes, even my dentist in India has a system to send out automated reminders.

Reminder messages such as this result in significantly lower cancelations and are great for small businesses such as hair salons, exercise studios and doctors for whom capacity utilization is critical. Payment reminders for when bills are due are similarly effective in ensuring customers pay their bills promptly. Reminders can also be used effectively for package deliveries to ensure someone is at home to receive a package.

In India, all online transactions with your credit card or through your bank account require two-factor authorization, which requires you to validate an online purchase by entering a keyword that is sent to your phone number via SMS.

It is a small extra step for users to take, but it does wonders for reducing online fraud and theft.

Transaction notifications
Most people get notifications sent to their phone when any transaction occurs.

Wives hate it since their husbands always know when they are shopping and, worse, how much they spent, but it does prevent Mikhail in Russia from buying a new car on your account – and gives you a good sense of how much money you have in your accounts at any time, in case you wanted to buy that new car.

None of the stuff I describe above is particularly revolutionary – and in fairness, a lot of these things are already being done in the U.S. But it is nowhere near as pervasively deployed as it is in countries such as India – and hence a lot less useful.

SMS CONTINUES TO be a workhorse for customer interactions because it is the only mobile communication channel other than voice that is truly ubiquitous.

All phones have SMS, all carriers support it, and all consumers know how to use it.

Furthermore, because SMS open rates are nearly a hundred percent and significantly greater than email open rates, text messages are noticed and acted upon in a way that email never will be.

U.S. marketers would do well to strengthen their customer interactions by incorporating SMS as a core part of their interface.

Ritesh Bhavnani is chairman of Snipp Interactive, Washington. Reach him at