Hey ICT4D, It Is Time We Take Fun Seriously

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Five million mobile value-added service subscribers in three months. 25,000 hours of user engagement daily.  All in remote villages in Bihar, one of the most marginalized states in India. What drives these extraordinary numbers? Entertainment. Hey M4D – it’s time we take fun seriously.
Hindustan Unilever (HUL), India’s largest consumer goods maker, runs the Indian state of Bihar’s most popular radio on mobile phones via a free call-back service that plays entertainment mixes with ads for fifteen minutes, specifically targeting villagers in remote areas – a key M4D target market. In a recent interview with the Economic Times of India, Hermat Bakshi, Executive Director for home and personal care at HUL, stated that “there’s a lot of demand for content or entertainment in media-dark villages and mobiles become their only route into that world. So, we thought, we can institutionalize missed calls into an entertainment channel.”
The conversation in M4D needs to shift from debates on vendors and platforms to discussions about campaigns and content. As scholars Gajjala and Tetteh note in their excellent research article “Relax, You’ve Got M-Pesa: Leisure as Empowerment”, entertainment is a blind spot in the ICT4D literature. “[ICT4D] research rarely takes into consideration that people in developing world contexts do in fact use digital technologies for leisure even as they do simultaneously use them for economic upward mobility”.[1]
Organizations outside of ICT4D are quicker at recognizing that play is as important as work in planning their mobile campaigns. Fast-moving consumer goods companies such as Unilever and P&G have been using basic mobile services in extraordinarily successful ways to target BOP markets, often leveraging highly localized entertainment content to make their messaging ‘go viral’.
These companies aren’t designing and running these mobile ad campaigns themselves – they’re partnering with local commercial value-added service providers who are experts in designing and delivering such services, combining advertising, informational messaging, and entertainment into a potent mix. I have been following the work of some of these commercial mobile marketing providers for years, marveling at their savviness in mobile campaign design and wondering why we in the development sector don’t partner more with them. It’s time we open up those dialogs.
Applying a user-centric approach to make platform and service design decisions is crucial; honoring those decisions by then ensuring the content you put through that channel is engaging, local and relevant is even more so. Would you want to be on the receiving end of some of the M4D interventions you’re familiar with? Would you choose to sign up for some of the thousands of ‘informational alerts’ that get sent out globally every day? Likely not. Even in the toughest situations entertainment is important – perhaps even more so in the toughest places. Enter the Ebola song.
As I have written elsewhere, M4D is still very much in the “spinach without sugar” phase – health, agricultural and economic development services provide vital information to end users, but struggle to find the viral scale of ‘fun’ content such as SMS joke subscriptions, which are accessed by 52% of mobile users in India. Learning from sectors who have strategically integrated entertainment into their mobile campaigns with enormous success – and partnering with the local providers who have the savvy to design ‘viral’ mobile campaigns – are essential to make the impact we all seek to have with M4D.
Footnote: [1] Gajjala, R., & Tetteh, D. (2014). Relax, you’ve got M-PESA: Leisure as empowerment [ICTs for Leisure in Development Special Issue]. Information Technologies & International Development, 10(3), 31–46.