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Reaching India With Twitter and SMS

by on July 13, 2010

The big “revelation” of Twitter, which has been frequently discussed by those anti-tweeps among us, is that nobody cares what you had for breakfast this morning (yogurt, a nutrigrain bar and some oatmeal for me today, if you’re curious). This is undoubtedly true unless, of course, you are famous. The power of this double-standard for twitter content couldn’t be much more obvious, particularly recently as LeBron James (@KingJames) picked up more than 400,000 followers in his first week on Twitter with 11 tweets, including the compelling:

“Good Morning everyone! Just got up so I can get ready to head down to my B-ball Camp”

Not all celebrities pass up on their opportunity to captivate the masses, though, which does add some humor to the Twittersphere (I personally enjoy @rainnwilson and @OGOchocinco). Looking to India (with help from Guaravonomics), despite being on the otherside of the world, its interesting to see Indian celebrities beginning to take the same approach. Although India contributes less than 1% of the total tweets on Twitter, it is 4th in Asia behind Japan, Indonesia and South Korea, and Twitter saw Indian signups grow nearly 100% from January to April 2010.

Sachin Tendulkar

Sachin Tendulkar celebrates discovering Twitter

Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt), an Indian cricketer, is embracing this growth with an audience roughly the same size as Lebron. For the most part, he tweets responses to his fans, but occasionally he points out something personal, such as the fact that his most prized possession is one of Bono’s guitars signed by each member of U2.

Other celebrities from India’s sports and entertainment industry have a similar impact on Twitter, and I think the reason for their popularity is obvious. By interacting with their fans, and letting their personality show through, they’re giving their audience the “t-shirt and jeans” view of their lives. The lesson here, which has been widely-shared since the Cluetrain Manifesto, is that your audience wants to hear your human voice, your personality, and if they don’t, they will move on. Which is why I would guess that ultimately LeBron will have trouble growing a Lady Gaga-esque following, and that Sachin will continue to keep his following happy.

Although these celebrities are able to reach a large number of followers in India, what about the rest of the population that’s “stuck in 2G”? According to Forbes, “globally there are 1.8 billion Web users and 4.6 billion mobile phone subscribers, double counting some multiple SIM cardholders.” This is just as true of India where 500 million people have cell phones and just 52 million have PC internet access. The response to this is SMS-based GupShup.

GupShup, which is Hindi for chitchat, essentially gives users the tools to build communities to send text messages to. My first reaction when I saw this, without doing much research, was it probably wouldn’t be that popular. Reading through Guaravonomics take, I saw the value with news updates of many kinds and how popular it has been in the early stages of its existence. Still, with my limited experience of trying to send group text messages, or signing up for sports score updates, I’m hesitant to feel great about using SMS to reach an audience.

Even though GupShup can reach out to these “tier 2 and tier 3” towns, intuitively there is something very impersonal about mass text messages, even compared to Twitter. Maybe it’s because each Twitter user gets an picture, includes a personal bio and can make their own profile background. Finding a personalization strategy with text messages is very difficult, and I feel like thats a major hurdle.

Which brings me to a troubling question. If social media is the key to connecting with an audience, one to many,  in a meaningful way, is the opportunity to find that meaningful connection a luxury only afforded to those with access to these tools? Or, does GupShup give it’s audience a good alternative to more content-rich social media tools? Let me know what you think.

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4 Comments
  1. shinetteb permalink

    I like when celebrities tweet about normal things like what they are having for lunch because it DOES humanize them and give them an authentic voice. On the otherhand, when I get text messages from a company that I inadvertently gave my number to, I get annoyed–I think b/c it is less content-rich and impersonal. But, if I didn’t have access to the internet via a smartphone or a PC I may very well appreciate recieving a mass text message since it’d be my only way to stay connected.

    • I agree Shinette. I think the larger value for Indian cell users with GupShup is the ability to connect large extended families in many to many text conversations that are probably a little more authentic/human. As far as brands are concerned, I think you’re right about appreciating staying connected initially, but I have trouble seeing how companies can keep their audience interested for the long term. Regardless, it looks like GupShup is making plenty of money, so they must be doing something right.

  2. To give you my take on your question – I think it already is hard to get that personality to come through with many forms of social media, and I agree with you that it will certainly be tougher to have it through something like a group SMS versus Twitter which many might argue is also somewhat impersonal due to the space constraints. I liked the format of this post, though, and your choice to contrast the growing use of Twitter versus SMS made for an interesting post.

    The idea of group SMS working as a way to mass communicate is certainly different to what would work here in the US and focusing in on this made sense as a way to try and understand how people communicate with one another using social tools in India. One question that your post seemed to raise through the examples and way that you spoke about these tools was whether GupShup might be more effectively used by organizations versus Twitter’s use by celebrities or individuals. It would have been great if you went a bit deeper to at least mention this point, but other than this small point it is an excellent post.

    One small thing to work on (which I know is tough) is to decide where you need to put a link in order to offer more context for your post. One ideal spot is in places where you use phrases like “frequently discussed” at the beginning of your post or “Lady Gaga-esque following” where some more context would be great. Also, the point where you link to the post showing how Twitter is growing around the world, it would be clearer to link the words “signups grow nearly 100%” than to link the word “Twitter” alone to try and offer more context around where the link will take you so it is easier as a reader to decide if I want to click the link or not. (5 + 1 for being first)

  3. @John: Yes, the real value of Twitter lies in the searchable public timeline and the open API that allows third-party developers to build applications on top of it. SMS in itself not really social, but a web-SMS hybrid model becomes really powerful. See my talk on designing social platforms on SMS: http://www.gauravonomics.com/blog/my-newcomm-forum-talk-on-sms-as-a-social-networking-platform/

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