Indians, their missed calls and unmissed opportunities

Author — Lokesh Dahiya (LinkedIn)

You dial a number, it starts ringing and right after three rings, you disconnect the call. You know the person on the other end of the call will get your message. Indians started employing this hack to use missed calls as code or shorthand in early the 2000s when the call charges were exorbitantly high and even the incoming calls were chargeable. Friends could give a missed call to signal that they have arrived. Maids or drivers could call their employers and disconnect. The employers would then call back, effectively transferring the charges. Later, even as call rates plunged to among the lowest in the world, missed call practice evolved into a general tool of convenience.

The fact that the missed call demanded only basic numeric literacy made them accessible to the third of India’s population that was illiterate. In 2008, one study estimated that more than half of Indian phone users were in the habit of calling people with the expectation that they wouldn’t pick up. It had become so commonplace as to vex the country’s telecom operators: missed calls clogged up over 30% of phone lines but generated no revenue. Such consumer behavior gave way to the concept of ‘Missed Call Marketing’ (MCM) — engaging customers with a free call. A consumer calls a number and hangs up and receives a callback or an SMS sharing the cricket score or whatever.

In five years, from 2006 to 2011, the number of mobile subscriptions had soared from 166 million to nearly 894 million, according to the World Bank — over two-thirds of the country’s population at the time. The missed call proved to be an astonishingly versatile tool for brands that were struggling to reach offline consumers. Corporates, local firms, state governments, NGOs, educational institutes, gyms and public health campaigns — all used a “Give a missed call to xxxxxxxxxx for more information” tucked away at the bottom of their ads. 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. In exchange for content, companies learned about their customers’ preferences and created viral offline marketing campaigns for their products. MCM started with serving consumers with little access to data or connectivity but soon went mainstream in the early years of the past decade.

Ozonetel Communications, ZipDial, dial2verify, FlashCall (Pakistan) are few companies that developed business models on top of MCM. ZipDial tested the tool during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa to provide updated scores over text in response to a missed call. Over the next two years, ZipDial acquired more than 400 clients, including Fortune 500 companies like Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, and Disney. In 2013, Unilever partnered with Ozonetel to establish an innovative use for the medium: a mobile-based on-demand music service called Kan Khajura Tesan. To listen to Kan Khajura, residents of Bihar and Jharkhand — states where daily power outages were common, but 80% of households now owned at least one mobile phone set — would send a missed call to the station. In return, they would receive a callback with 15 minutes of Bollywood content interspersed with Unilever ads. Kan Khajura grew to become, for several years, the most accessed “radio channel” in Bihar and had notched up around 50 million total subscribers and 1 billion ad impressions.

However, with the frantic pace of technological change over the past five years, the internet paywall in India has largely come down. Budget smartphones and dirt-cheap data rates have ensured that half of Indians are online. And missed calls are just about obsolete. Most of these companies have pivoted to mobile marketing with internet-based channels. Innovative use cases such as missed calls to switch credit cards on and off or exchange business cards between two callers remained aspirational.

An interest group at the Indian School of business, India. We write about technologies & their applications in businesses.