Election trail proves an 'SMSing' success

"This is Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Five years ago you gave me a chance to serve you. In these years, our country has come a long way... But there are still a lot of things to do. A new age has to be found in India - an age where there is no poverty, no unemployment... Let‘s get together and realise our dreams."

That was the prime minister‘s speech, not spoken on a podium in front of a crowd... but into the ears of many a mobile phone subscriber.

A lot of brouhaha has already been created around the kind of monies that the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) has been spending on this political ad campaign. Innovation is the buzz word here and politicians are clear about their agenda - to get maximum eyeballs, or in this case, votes!

What it does bring out load and clear is just how ubiquitous the mobile has become as an effective tool to get the message across. And while it was the direct call that was used to get the prime Minister‘s message across the communications tool of choice for most marketers when we talk mobile is the short message service (SMS) technology. Contests, downloads, information, trivia... all at the press of a button. Mobile phones are becoming ever more pervasive as technology gets cheaper by the day!

And there is plenty of that going around as regards the upcoming general elections. Politicians and various news channels alike are using SMS to seek and influence viewers‘ opinions.

Reliance‘s Mukesh Ambani‘s mobile agenda

Among the political parties, the BJP has left its rivals way, way behind in terns of techno-savvy media management. The BJP‘s e-campaign has stormed into millions of Indian homes using the country‘s vast telecom network, e-mail, mobile phones and even spots on popular TV channels. BJP call centers have been set up and details collected of the 72 million phone connections in the country (46 million fixed lines and 26 million mobile phones). The party has been using the Reliance and BPL subscriber base to play a message by the PM seeking votes over the phone. The e-campaign also would allow voters with mobile phones to download ring tones of BJP‘s anthem and photographs of Vajpayee.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee‘s Bharat Uday (India Shining) Yatra

While Reliance‘s database is being used by BJP to send out messages from the PM, Reliance officials were apprehensive to talk about a "sensitive issue like this" and refrained from offering a viewpoint when contacted by Recently a PIL was filed against the Ambanis‘ owned company on the grounds that using a personal and private facility as public media by a political party was equal to unwanted infringement on the privacy of their communication apparatus. A visibly disgruntled Reliance subscriber Anand Jaisingh said, "I have been getting five calls a day since the last three days with Vajpayee‘s messages on my Reliance phone. It‘s ok once or twice but five to six calls in a day is atrocious and it‘s quite irritating listening to the PM‘s long message." These calls can be traced to a Delhi based landline number and are likely to be coming from the BJP call centers.

The Congress on the other hand, has identified 48 media centers, both urban and rural, from where viewpoints on radio, television, print, Internet and other media would be disseminated. SMS and telephone calls would also play an important role, where the Congress would use a variety of leaders including some from the senior team like Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjea. But unlike the BJP, the Congress would be using this medium respecting the privacy of an individual.

Say Tata to politics

Tata Teleservices however, has refrained from sending out SMS messages on behalf of any political party. The company‘s president Amit Bose said, "However, we believe that our customers have the right to information and during the elections we will facilitate election related queries through SMS service. The regular rate of two rupees per SMS for information will apply."

Hutchison Telecom‘s vice president - corporate marketing Harit Nagpal takes a far stronger stand on the matter. "We believe that unsolicited communication including SMS invade the privacy of our users and is tantamount to spamming. We do not have tie-ups with any corporate or political bodies for sending bulk messages to our subscribers and do not intend to do so for any consideration," Nagpal states.

The PM‘s phone calls have also been doing their rounds on the BPL Mobile subscribers base. The calls like in the case of Reliance have been coming from a Delhi landline number. BPL Mobile officials too, refused comment on record. While the telecom companies may not be directly involved in doing PR for the PM, nevertheless their services are being used and the BJP‘s purpose is being served.

To sum it up, political telemarketing with maximum use of technology and minimum manpower has been at its peak in elections 2004.

News channels onto SMSing in a big way

News channels are also using the SMS service to keep viewers abreast with the latest happenings. Almost all news channels - NDTV, Star News, Aaj Tak, Sahara and Zee News are using the interactive medium for various polls, contests, trivia et al. NDTV has a wireless service - SMS 6388, on its website and a whole range of activities are being planned on that for the elections informs NDTV Media chief executive Raj Nayak. "The idea is to provide the user easy access to the latest results, news and other relevant information and what better way of doing it than receiving it as an SMS from a television channel like NDTV, reputed for its in depth election coverage," says Nayak.

NDTV on an SMS spree with 6388

NDTV uses Lifetree ASP (Application Service Provider) to run the SMS service and the responses to these activities have been phenomenal, Nayak says. "There has been an amazing interest that mobile phone users have shown in all the interactive services offered on 6388. Be it sending feedback on our channels or accessing the latest scores or news on 6388." The idea behind SMS service is to provide instant access to the latest news. With NDTV‘s tie-ups with all the telecom operators, this unobtrusive news-on-demand service can be accessed at any point of time from anywhere in the country. So as people get more and more techno savvy, a whole lot of activities can be expected from telecom companies, general entertainment and news channels alike.

Zee News: What‘s your political agenda?

Zee News is keeping its SMS plans for the polls under wraps for the present. "For the elections, we haven‘t come out with anything definitive till now. Though an initiative is in the offing, we cannot talk about it at present," said Zee News editor Alka Saxena.

SMS savvy Star News

Star News also has a SMS service Star 7827 wherein a comprehensive SMS contest, logo and ringtones downloads, trivia, poll etc is already being done through its website for the Indo-Pak ODIs. As far as the elections are concerned Star News‘ brand manager Keertan Adyanthaya said, "We are planning a series of polls using the medium of SMS on Star News during the elections. We used SMS polls during the State Elections in November. The polls will focus on current topics and will give people an opportunity to let their opinion be heard instantly." The recent cricket contest which got approximately 30,000 responses has led Star News to come back with similar activity for the General Elections.

Says Adyanthaya, "We are expecting a whole lot of excitement around the elections and have a wide range of programming which is centered around our property – Kaun Banega Pradhan Mantri. The SMS polls will be used largely to support the same."

SMS... easy access to news, anywhere, anytime

For many news channels (unlike Dr Prannoy Roy‘s NDTV) this will be the first time they will be covering the general elections and no doubt it will be the most important event of this year, both in terms of their individual futures as well as getting increased viewer interest in their channels.

Says TV Today Network manager (marketing) Rajesh Sheshadri, "In light of the elections, we have planned a series of programs and segments for capturing the elections in their entirety. Most of the offerings will provide viewers with the opportunity to participate and opinionate on the elections. Some of this may be in the form of contests while others may involve eliciting viewer opinions, feedback and comments as part the content."

For the India - Pak ODIs, Aaj Tak and Coca Cola had partnered to set up a prediction-based contest wherein viewers had to predict results or match related outcomes. Winners of the contest received prizes sponsored by Coca- Cola. Other notable tie ups that the channel has done are the ones with Electrolux for the ICC World Cup and Reebok for Sachin Tendulkar‘s birthday. "These contests have elicited tremendous a response from viewers. The World Cup contest alone saw more than a million responses within a month. A testimony to the success and popularity of contests as a whole are the nearly 10 million responses we have received from our viewers within a short period of 10 to 11 months. For the elections, there are various paid brand sponsorships of election programming. Apart from that, we may have other forms of marketing tie-ups and these discussions are still on in this regard," says Sheshadri.

Mobile users across the country can also express their opinion on various critical issues affecting the country as well as access news on the go by sending an SMS to Aaj Tak on 2424 from their mobile phones. Also Airtel subscribers nationally can receive Aaj Tak news alerts on payment of a nominal fee of Rs 30 a month. Reliance subscribers, meanwhile, can view live Aaj Tak news on their handsets. The charges are as per the rates levied by the various mobile service providers and no extra charges levied on these SMSes. Its technology at its best!

The moot objective of all news channels seems to be to move from a unilateral dissemination of news to a more interactive format that allows viewers to be more involved thereby participating in the entire process as opposed to being mere spectators.

"The rapid growth in the telecom industry has tremendously increased the base of mobile users in the country, and it is no longer an elitist gadget as it used to be a couple of years back. The current mobile users base in the country is 31.4 million and the same is growing at an extremely fast pace and our aim is to target this base through our initiative," says Sheshadri.

In the news channels‘ race the four channels of the Sahara Parivar are definitely not left behind. Sahara Samay Rashtriya‘s Arup Ghosh said that the issue polls prepared by DRS Polls are already on air and the prediction polls will start on the channel from 10 April, opinion polls on Muslim factor and daily polls from 15 April and Sahara will wind up with the Exit Poll on the day of counting.

The SMS services technology is being outsourced by Sahara Samay Rashtriya. Said Ghosh, "It is not only an SMS service alone. Our polls are different as our own people along with DRS people will be going out and getting the answers."

Sahara Samay‘s (regional) head Prabhat Dabral said, "We have a contest in which we ask viewers to respond to questions related to the elections. The first correct answer gets a cash prize."

SMS is only one of the various media (and a cost effective one too) that is being used by news channels to stay connected to their viewers. More often than not, the only cost that a channel has to incur is to create the contest and put it on air. With the penetration and growth rate of wireless telephony far outstripping that of any other form of communication, a lot of synergy between this medium of communication and news channels can be expected in the near future.

SMS news for people on the move

As far as the target group for SMS related activities such as NDTV‘s 6388, Aaj Tak‘s 2424 and Star News‘ 7827 are concerned; by virtue of the medium being used to send out information or interact; it is for people who are on the move and want instant access to updates, be it cricket scores, stocks or election updates. With mobiles no longer remaining a luxury item, SMS related activities are a part of the regular mobile subscriber‘s life.

Mobile technology has completely revolutionised how information is accessed, handled and viewed in our society. At some level, the quantum and quality of impact of this technology on the world, is as fundamental as the coming of the Internet. The time is not far when the mobile will be a one stop medium that will give people access to everything that they want. "Mobile penetration (CDMA and GSM) is growing too and soon will overtake fixed line connections and with the adoption of a single telecom license for all services, India has anyhow cleared the last major hurdle holding back growth in the telecom sector. So the sky is the limit," said Nayak.


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