Archive for October, 2015

Have Your #NetNeutrality And Eat It Too With #ProNetChoice

Friday, October 30th, 2015

hynn03Enough water has flown under the bridge since I wrote Goodbye #NetNeutrality Hello #ProNetChoice. During this period, I got a chance to deep dive into the principle of “zero rating” and understand how it can coexist with Net Neutrality. For the uninitiated, under a Zero Rated Plan (“ZRP” from here on) in the Indian context, the ISP / MNO provides limited access to the Internet for free. “Limited” means websites of companies (“ZRP Participant”) who pay the ISP / MNO for the bandwidth required to access their websites e.g. Facebook (There could be other flavors of ZRP. In Belgium and USA, for example, zero rating allows access to some services without using up the consumer’s data quota).

ZRP is meant primarily to spread the Internet to people who can’t afford a conventional Paid Plan (PP) where consumers pay for Internet and enjoy full and unfettered access to all legal content.

To clear any confusion – and there’s bound to be a lot of it in case you’ve been following all the chatter on this topic – ZRP is not the only plan. All ISPs / MNOs, including the ones that have announced a ZRP, continue to offer Paid Plans, with consumers being free to move between ZRP and PP and vice versa. So, it’s not a question of limited content versus full content but free versus paid Internet access.

Supporters of Net Neutrality (“#NetNeutralistas” from here on) have been lashing out at ZRP on various grounds. IMO, most of them lack merit and some of them are downright ludicrous. Let’s take some of their major objections to ZRP.

#1. ZRP Violates Net Neutrality

No, ZRP doesn’t contravene the provisions of Net Neutrality. The US FCC has enshrined Net Neutrality as law but permits ZRP. See T-Mobile Lets You Listen to Apple Music Without Paying for Data for an example of T-Mobile’s ZRP.

#2. ZRP Projects Limited View of Internet


#NetNeutralistas claim that the have-nots who will sign up for ZRP will grow up with a limited view of the Internet. That’s true because ZRP Users can only access content of ZRP Participants like Facebook. However, without ZRP, the have-nots who don’t have a Paid Plan have NO view of the Internet. Like in many things in life, “something is better than nothing” and, IMHO, limited access via ZRP is better than no access because of lack of PP. My view apart, it should be up to the have-nots to decide. More on that in a bit.

#3. ZRP Starves Bandwidth for Paid Plans

In Net Neutrality: The Culprit is the Government, the author says, “In a paid package, there should be no faster lanes, but in a free package, there are no rules since it is free.”

But soon after agreeing that Zero Rated Plans should be allowed, the author launches into a fit of hypotheticals. He claims that since an ISP / MNO earns 4X money per GB from a ZRP Participant than from a Paid Plan Subscriber (“PPS”), they’d divert all their bandwidth to ZRP, thus throttling their PPs. This is a highly simplistic logic and if it were to be applied to, say, the Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate, the Group would divert all its resources to Tata Housing Limited (which sells homes) and starve Tata Chemicals Limited (which sells salt) since it makes INR 10 million or more per customer of Tata Housing and only INR 100 or less per customer of Tata Chemicals. Since the Tata Group doesn’t do any such thing, this line of reasoning is preposterous. And totally betrays ignorance of the way a company prioritizes resources among its various lines of businesses, which, in the case of bandwidth allocation by an ISP / MNO, depends on many other factors like

  1. Relative count of ZRP Participants versus “ZRP Holdouts” i.e. content providers that don’t participate in ZRPs, whether on principle or lack of money or both
  2. Relative traffic attracted by ZRP Participants versus ZRP Holdouts
  3. Current rates, prices and revenues from paid plans.

So, prima facie, there’s no justification to fear that ISPs / MNOs will starve bandwidth for their Paid Plans because of their ZRPs. If and when they do that in future, the regulator can always rap their knuckles at that time. It’s too premature to ban ZRPs now because of that.

#4. ZRP Holdouts Will Die

#NetNeutralistas argue that ZRP Holdouts will lose their traffic because people who access their content today would opt for ZRP – not because they can’t afford to pay for Internet but because they’d be tempted by free access – and lose access to their websites. This is an overly cynical worldview of consumer behavior and a gross underestimation of their own value proposition. In any case, it’s not a good enough reason for denying Internet access – however limited – to hundreds of millions of Internet-deprived people. In any democracy, the government has to regulate in the interest of the majority of citizens, not just a bunch of startup entrepreneurs who holdout from ZRP.

#5. ZRP Stifles Innovation

A corollary of #4 is that startups are doing a lot of innovative stuff and, when they get locked out of ZRP, innovation would be stifled. This is a very self-serving view: It’s always possible that the hundreds of millions of new Internet users could spark off a lot of new innovation that’s missing today when the have-nots don’t have access to the Internet. The government can’t regulate on the basis of the assumption that innovation is the sole preserve of ZRP Holdouts.

Frankly, all these and more grounds for opposition of ZRPs rely on hypotheticals. Even if some of the predictions come true, startups should leverage them to learn how to disruption-proof themselves, which is not such a bad thing after threatening to disrupt everyone else!

In a recent town hall at IIT Delhi, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, noted that #NetNeutralistas are going too far in claiming that Zero Rated Plans violated Net Neutrality. Not just me but even some people arguing against ZRP, like the author of the article cited in #3 above, would agree.

Given the above background, I reiterate my preference for #ProNetChoice:

Pay for Internet, get full and unfettered access to all content i.e. Net Neutrality OR Get Internet for free, accept limited content i.e. Zero Rated Plan. Let consumers choose what they want.

(Let me hasten to add that I’m not in favor of any other options e.g. Pay 25% of price of a Paid Plan and get access to 25% of content.)

But that’s only me.

This debate is rife with the “haves” unilaterally deciding what kind of Internet access the “have nots” should or should not have. IMHO, it’s time to throw open the debate to the “have nots”. The question of whether to allow ZRP or not should be put out to referendum (like all issues affecting the common man are in Switzerland). This poll must be conducted offline since, as Zuckerberg points out, the have-nots can’t participate in an online poll. As for the cost of the referendum, it’s only fair that #NetNeutralists should bear it: If it weren’t for their opposition, service providers would’ve expanded their zero rated plans, service receivers would’ve accepted or rejected the limited access and this referendum wouldn’t be required.

Rid SEO Of Fly-By-Night Operators

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

seobdm-fi We focus on the SEM and CRO elements of digital marketing and work with third party service providers for SEO whenever we believe the technique could be useful in a specific campaign. For a primer on the difference between SEM and SEO, see my blog post SEO or SEM?

Through the years, I’ve found it damn hard to source a suitable SEO agency. At the risk of painting a whole industry with the same brushstroke, the field is full of con artists.

Let me first take the case of countless SEO agencies who contact us out of the blue. We get at least 2-3 emails per week from such agencies.

They begin with the claim that our website is ranking low.

When we ask them what’re the keywords for which this is the case, we expect an immediate response since they must be having ready access to all the keywords on which they tested our website and found it lacking SEO juice. However, most of them simply vanish.

The few of them who do get back will enlighten us with the information that our website ranks low on “marketing” and “digital marketing”. We get rid of them with a “Duh. Thank you, Captain Obvious”. If our website had ranked highly on such extremely competitive keywords, I’d be sipping the proverbial diaquairi on some Caribbean island and not struggling with some fly-by-night SEO agency.


Why do we need SEO to rank high on our company name?

Moving on from these spammers, let me share my experience with the SEO agencies we “discovered” after online / offline research.

A couple of them fixed up appointments and did a “no show” for the concalls or face-to-face meetings without prior – or post – intimation.

One or two came back with a price of $$$$ for page 1 ranking within N months. While their proposals ran into several pages about how they’d build backlinks, do keyword stuffing, and so forth, they were silent about the keywords for which they’d do all these nice things. When pressed for details, they told us that they’d be in a position to share that information only a month or two after starting the assignment. When we asked them how they quoted a fixed price without fixing the keywords, they sheepishly admitted that their effort estimate was based on company-specific keywords like – ahem – our company name! As though we needed an SEO agency to help us appear on top of Google search results when somebody searched our name!

We also came across a couple of agencies who promised “pay for performance SEO” but, the moment we got into brasstacks, they demanded a setup fee before they began work!

So, whether it’s the agencies who bombard us or the ones we contact, we keep hearing many lies and obfuscation. And fairly crude ones at that.

If you’re higher up on the value chain of “being lied to”, you may be subject to more sophisticated subterfuges like the ones described in 3 Big Lies Your SEO Consultant Is Telling You.

Scamsters are fast eroding SEO’s reputation. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it – SEO is too important for that. It’s time practitioners and customers of digital marketing got rid of fly-by-night SEO operators from their midst.

Empowering Frontline Is Still Key To Customer Delight

Friday, October 16th, 2015

bad-customer-serviceThose of you that have read the all time classic business book “In Search of Excellence” might recall the anecdote of how an automobile company rushes a part by helicopter to a customer whose car has broken down in the middle of a desolate highway. Needless to say, the company wins the customer’s loyalty for lifetime.

This true story shows how empowering your frontline staff is key to delivering customer delight.

Considering that the book was published nearly three decades ago, it might seem that all companies would’ve mastered the mantra of frontline empowerment by now.

Sadly many of them haven’t. This became amply clear during my recent interactions with three consumer-facing businesses.

#1. Bank

I went to my bank’s branch for some work and took the opportunity to ask them to reinstate print statements for my company’s business account. My Relationship Manager noted down my request but warned me that his “backend” would most likely reject it, instead wanting to hear directly from me. I told him I visited the bank’s branch and was talking to an employee of the bank, why wouldn’t that count as hearing “directly”? He had no answer. Long story short, three months later, I still haven’t started receiving paper statements. Going by past experience, I’ll have to escalate this to the Branch Manager to get a resolution.

#2. Store

efk-fiI was in the market for a leather bag. I’ve been patronizing a certain leather goods brand for nearly two decades. I visited its website and found one model I liked. However, it cost a bomb. Wanting to check out the bag’s size in a physical store before shelling out that kind of money for it, I visited the company’s showroom in a nearby mall.  The salesperson at the store informed me that the said product was not available on display and told me to check it out online. I told him my rationale for visiting the store. He then informed me that they sold 285 SKUs but had shelf space to display only 80 of them. While I appreciated his problem, I asked him what’d happen if I went out and saw a competitor’s product online. His sales instinct stirred awake at that point and he realized what a dumb suggestion he’d made. When I asked him why he couldn’t show me the product online while I was still in his store, he sheepishly admitted that his company didn’t provide instore Internet access.

#3. Restaurant

The mercury had soared to nearly 40 degrees C (104 degrees F) one day past summer. I chose this QSR for lunch because it was the only air-conditioned restaurant near my office. After placing my order, I noticed that the AC was off. When I asked a waiter to switch it on, he confessed that the AC had broken down a week ago and they hadn’t been able to fix it yet. I asked him if they’d offer a discount because of shortfall in service level. He laughed at me as though I’d cracked a very funny joke. When I finally got him around to understanding me, he threw up his hands and told me that it was beyond his powers to give any discount for any reason whatever. While I was still in the restaurant, I tweeted a complaint to the company.

I got an apology from the company’s head office the next day along with an offer for a free meal to compensate for my trouble. Which was much more than I’d asked for.


As is evident from my aforementioned experiences, the customer-facing staff at these businesses were powerless to do much while – ahem – facing customers.

Had the companies empowered their frontline, they’d have delighted their customer and, in addition,

  1. avoided damage to reputation (bank)
  2. prevented defection of a loyal customer to a competitor (store), and
  3. made money from the meal they gave away for free (restaurant).

While business has adopted many new techniques since Tom Peters and Robert Waterman wrote their classic, using frontline empowerment as a tactic to deliver customer delight still remains underutilized.

But there are exceptions. In a follow-on post, I’ll describe my experiences with a few brands that have taken frontline empowerment to new heights. Watch this space.

Why Advertisers Must Pay For Ads Seen By Bots

Friday, October 9th, 2015


There’s a raging debate about ad visibility in recent times. Much as I’d like to think it’s triggered by my post Don’t Fall For The ‘Invisible Versus Unseen Ads’ Charade, the real reason doesn’t matter. The crux of the issue is what advertisers think: Many of them are claiming that at least 15% of their online ads are seen by bots, with one FORTUNE report putting the figure as high as 50%.

In response, big spenders are writing contracts with the provision that they will only pay for ads seen by humans.

Frankly, all this sounds so 20th century to me.

If robots are going to replace human beings in many areas, advertisers are myopic in ignoring bots. Algorithms are already playing an increasing role in making purchase decisions.

Take stock trading for example. According to Flash Boys, the latest financial novel by Michael Lewis, over 60% of trading volume in the US markets are now driven by algo trading.

Even when it comes to everyday consumer goods, delivery apps like getMagicNow (USA) and Jiffstore’s Jiffbot (India) are already shaping purchase in many ways.

The way they’re garnering investor dollars and attracting engineering talent, I won’t be surprised if, in the near future, I can simply tell an app I want a “bunch of bananas by 6PM today” and a bot powering the app analyzes all kinds of Big Data about catalog, location, competitor pricing, and so on to to decide the Brand, Store and Personal Shopper app – thus automatically making several purchase decisions underlying the seamless execution of my order.

And it’s not only me. In his article What’s the Role of Advertising When Machines Do the Buying?, former CMO and current Gartner Vice President Jake Sorofman muses,



“…what happens when intelligent things and smart machines are the deciders?”

Therefore, advertisers can’t stick to their traditional stand of paying only for ads seen by humans.

As Internet of Things becomes more pervasive, the role of bots will increase: As commenter lucy notes on Digiday, a sensor in our fridge will decide when we’re short of milk and automatically tell the shopping app to purchase it. So, apart from handling the mechanics of the purchase, bots will even drive purchase intent. In other words, bots will slowly but steadily climb up from action through to consideration and interest stages of the purchase funnel.

Against this backdrop, advertisers have to pay for ads seen by bots, not just humans, although they needn’t wine and dine bots just yet!

How Online Banking Prepares You To Become An Entrepreneur

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

As startup mentors will tell you, a successful entrepreneur needs to:

  1. Take risks
  2. Move fast but be patient
  3. Thrive on ambiguity

Online banking is a great way to develop these skills. Here’s why:


Will the right IDBI BANK please stand up?

Take risks

Online banking portals mince no words when they tell you that you’re on your own while making an electronic fund transfer. Their warnings include:

  • Credit will be effected based solely on the beneficiary account number information; beneficiary name particulars will be ignored.
  • Ensure that the beneficiary account number you enter is correct. We will not validate it.
  • We are not responsible for funds transferred to an unintended recipient.

If you still proceed, you’re already a pro risk taker.

Move fast but be patient

You want to make a payment quickly. You don’t want to wait for the 1-2 days it takes for a cheque to clear and head over to your bank’s online banking portal instead. Assuming that you’ve mastered #3, you’ll be able to add a new beneficiary within a few minutes. (If you’ve not mastered #3, cheque would be faster). You’d then be told to wait for “cooling period” to get over before initiating a payment. Depending on the bank, this wait time could be as long as 24 hours. If you’ve thought “make haste slowly” was an oxymoron, this experience will not only change your mind but make you an ace at this skill.

Thrive on ambiguity

Online Banking presents a rich treasure trove of ambiguity e.g.

  • Should you enter the leading zeros in the account number or skip them while setting up a new payee?
  • How many number 0s or letter Os or both does the payee bank’s IFSC code have (for the uninitiated, IFSC code is the Indian equivalent of Bank Sort Code)?
  • Which is the right IDBI BANK out of the four banks masquerading by that name (or the right HDFC BANK out of the three…)?

After all this, if you’ve successfully set up a payee account, you’ve crushed ambiguity.


I don’t claim to be a great entrepreneur but, for the few entrepreneurial skills I do have, I’ve only my online banking to thank.