India's exploding digital economy

This blog was written by Jeffrey F. Rayport who is a member of the Brodeur Partners Advisory Board, a noted digital strategist and private equity investor. He was formerly on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.

Recently, I had the privilege of moderating a conference of global entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Mumbai — an event called Founders Forum India. Founders Forum is a franchise started by two successful UK-based entrepreneurs, Brent Hoberman and Jonnie Goodwin, to stimulate US-style entrepreneurship in the European region, and now around the world. The event brought together some 250 entrepreneurs and investors for a series of panels, round tables, and a business plan competition. It also featured a showcase of hot new Indian start-ups.

What the event made clear — beyond the striking array of talent in the room assembled by our Indian host, Reliance Group’s Rajesh Sawhney — was a stunningly bright future for all things digital in India. Indeed, practically any statistic you might cite about Digital India suggests that something unusual is going on. And the impact will occur in the next 24 to 36 months, based on the following data and projections:

Let’s start with Internet access. Today, India’s population of Internet users is 80 million, which equals a penetration rate of just seven percent (or 17 percent of the urban population). That is about to change. The government is rolling out what it calls its National Broadband Plan, a $4.5 billion initiative to build a country-wide fiber optic network that will connect an additional 160 million Indians by 2014. An Indian investment bank, Avendus, projects 376 million Indian Net users by 2015.

Part of what’s fueling growth in Net penetration is an explosion in mobility. The Indian government sponsored the introduction of 3G services in 2011 with a $30 billion spectrum auction. Morgan Stanley projects that 3G penetration will reach 22 percent by 2015. Government and the private sector have spent something like $55 billion on related infrastructure. Further, we’ll see a roll-out of 4G wireless services across the country in 2012. While there are nearly 800 million mobile subscribers in India, very few use smart phones; most have feature phones that deliver, at best, premium text-based services. As unit economics enable ever cheaper smart phones (the lowest price in the market is now $65), their penetration will rise.

Fueling this explosion is a fact of national culture: Indians love media. No one aware of the nation’s obsession with “ABC” (Astrology, Bollywood, and Cricket) will be surprised to learn that the average Indian consumes 4.5 hours of media and entertainment a day, while 70 percent of the national population spends money on content, both online and off. Time spent online already comes to 40 minutes per capita per day.

Mobility will drive much of the expansion in Internet usage. One of every four Internet users in the country now accesses the Net using a mobile device. A leapfrog effect will mean that three of every four Net users will do so by 2015. Bye-bye to the clunkier and more costly PC.

One result of this expansion is that e-commerce is rapidly taking off. Granted, only 11 percent of Indian online users are transacting online. As in China several years ago, there’s a reluctance to pay for goods using the Web; most of today’s online transactions are in the travel industry (representing 87 percent of a $6.3 billion e-commerce sector, says Avendus). Still, Amazon lookalike Infibeam is growing sales handily. It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the domestic retail space more broadly. Infibeam’s founder projects growth of the retail economy from $400 billion today to $1 trillion by the end of the decade. Digital will inevitably play a starring role in propelling this growth.

At the same time, there is an abundance of local capital ready to deploy to feed new ventures. Consumer demand for innovative digital services, when executed ably, seems unquenchable; and that demand is stimulating capital flows. For this reason, one entrepreneur observed, “More companies [in India] die of indigestion than of starvation.” According to Mergermarket, the value of investment activity rose from $111 million in 2010 to $829 million in 2011, while the number of deals doubled from 33 to 66. This expansion isn’t just domestic. Indian entrepreneurs are feeling bullish about global markets. One publicly traded company, OnMobile, an operator of premium SMS services, now does business in 52 countries around the world.

Growing confidence among Indian entrepreneurs is related to one other market attribute: Indian consumers are extraordinarily demanding. Many at the conference articulated the idea simply. As they say in Manhattan, the Mumbai crowd averred, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

Yes, there are challenges. There are at least 16 languages spoken throughout the country. There’s the question of how to develop robust legal, regulatory, and financial infrastructure (including payment systems). There’s the problem of sound policing of intellectual property rights. There’s an aversion to subscription-based offerings. And, as ever, there’s something else you cannot ignore: executional risk.

But it was hard for me, from a moderator’s perch, not to feel exhilarated by the dramatic upside for Digital India. The subcontinent seems on the cusp of amazing developments, only beginning with broadband Net access, high-speed mobility, and e-commerce. The idea that India — with its scale, its energy, its consumers — could become a digital laboratory and growth engine for the world struck me as both likely and inspiring.

Given that, is it any wonder many who attended the conference regard India’s digital opportunity in the next few years as greater than China’s?


To differentiate, don't make these 7 mistakes

Most companies make the same mistakes when trying to differentiate their brand, products and services:

  1. They look inward, not outward – Differentiation isn’t about “making up” your company’s difference, it’s finding what objectively, authentically sets it apart. Understanding what customers / consumers need and discovering how your product / service fulfills them (or not) is the best place to start. Successful brands spur conversations and build movements.
  2. They don't engage – Despite all the lessons learned from social media, only 16% of companies fully integrate social media. Actively engaging with customers/consumers in a two-way dialogue differentiates brands from static, one-way communicators.
  3. They aren't bold – They pay homage to the God of Safe. Don’t speak colorfully. Never take risks. Don’t invest time expressing visually (with video, infographics, images). Why tell stories when you can recite facts? Always be business-like and never reveal a human side.
  4. They shy away from competition – This one always surprises me because at the C-level – and in the sales trenches – companies constantly sweat the challenges of competition, winning and losing deals. But instead of acknowledging the existence of competition, most companies shy away, acting like theirs is the only candy in the shop. Facing up to competition doesn’t mean companies have to name names or be arrogant. There are many ways to communicate differences in a professional yet more meaningful way.
  5. They aren't relevant – To become (and remain) relevant, brands need to fully engage sensory, social and emotional elements ... not just the rational. When something is relevant, the brand, product or cause becomes part of who we are. We self-identify and move from passive to involved, from indifferent to eager, and are willing (and eager) to act (buy, vote, recommend, etc.).
  6. They don't prove it – It’s one thing to convey competence; it’s another to offer up proof. Getting customers/consumers to express their views about your company/service in first-person language has a profound impact: it enables prospects to relate because they interpret your brand through a more personal lens.
  7. They don't focus on one thing – As companies attempt to zero-in on their customer-centric benefits, they compile long lists of capabilities and attributes. But they often fail to whittle all this down to one believable, sustainable advantage. Less is more – standing for one thing creates memorability.

CEOs who make PR programs great

I've collaborated with over 300 chief executive officers, from the world's largest global brands to established independents to VC-funded startups.

What jumps out is how few of them were personally instrumental at positively transforming communications and public relations programs.

The 80/20 rule holds true. 80 percent of my CEO experiences were middle of-the-road from the point of view of “making the PR effort better.” These middle-of-the-road CEOs didn’t do anything horrific, they just never put real skin in the game. They did what we needed them to do, nothing more, nothing less.Ten percent were dreadful. They paid lip service to public relations, never got genuinely engaged and expected miracle results without investing any effort. They’re the easiest to recall because they were often self-absorbed and sometimes arrogant, myopic and bullheaded, belligerent and autocratic. Some of these CEOs ruined their own companies. Others lost their personal reputations -- visibly and publicly -- due to fundamental personality flaws. Cases in point: one was arrested, prosecuted and ended up in prison. Two were profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in scathing exposes.
The remaining 10 percent stand out in my mind’s eye as clearly as the dreadfuls, but for a better reason. These CEOs were enlivening, vigorous, catalyzing leaders who worked hard to take public relations programs to a new level.
My six best CEOs shared similar attributes: enthusiasm, personal humility, straightforwardness, class, and a belief that great reputations are earned, not deserved.
One of my favorite CEOs was an engineer by training. I call him Mr. Engage. He was most comfortable hanging with his software development teams, but once we pulled him out of the R&D labs, he lit up the room with his technical and competitive knowledge. He made PR programs better by becoming intellectually engaged. He didn’t just go through the motions, he shaped discussions. He disagreed, pushed back, offered refreshing points of view and always kept the discussion lively. He didn’t suffer fools lightly and was a great match for the toughest bloggers, reporters and analysts.

Mr. Credibility has endeared himself to customers, employees and media because he tells it like it is, the good and the bad, and isn’t myopic. When something isn’t right with his own product, he shares this. Conversely, when his company and/or products are clearly better than the competition, he isn’t shy to say this either, but does so in a way that proves his opinion is rooted in fact, not hype. Mr. Credibility sees the competitive forest clearly and doesn’t live in a “my company is always great” world. He made the PR program great by keeping the company vigorously focused on earning customer trust by delivering products that exceed expectations.

Ms. Social made an early intellectual leap to the emerging world of social media, then took bold action. Even though her company sells B2B vs. B2C, she understood the potential impact of building a grassroots following, especially with her customers. She figuratively jumped off the cliff, opening up her company’s brand to two-way conversations with newly forming online communities (which she helped create). Ms. Social embraced Twitter when everyone wondered if it was a fad. She  made sure her company blogged at a high level with non-myopic issues, trends and topics that people would search on naturally. Ms. Social made the PR program better by taking risks and trying new things that had never been done. While some panned out and others didn’t, the net-net is she created competitive advantage over others acted slowly or failed to seize the opportunity. 
Ms. Caring understands how great brands are built by going beyond solid products, profit and revenue. By creating an empowered culture of giving back within her organization, Ms. Caring has transformed her company's brand. She makes the PR program greater by increasing relevance with consumers, customers and other stakeholders who prefer buying from (and dealing with) companies who make the world a better place.

Mr. Focus is disciplined. Unlike many CEOs who want it all (or are satisfied for only a brief period of time), this particular executive continually pushes back to make sure PR efforts deliver needed value. While he’s passionate about focus, he’s also one of the most energetic and engaging CEOs I’ve ever worked with. He listens with excruciating patience and his expectations are adjustable. He makes the PR program better by truly understanding how public relations works, getting personally involved, pushing back, and focusing himself -- and us -- on the most important things.
Mr. Genuine headed a Fortune 50 company and personally made tens of millions of dollars but never let this consume him. He didn’t have a large ego, and was amazingly serene and genuinely personable. He made each individual feel like they were the only person in the room. He was patient and a great listener. He transformed his company from highly political to open and fair. He made the PR program great by subsuming his own ego and being able to take advice from his internal communications team and external PR firm.
If you have the opportunity to collaborate with a truly great CEO, enjoy the ride and remember to leverage this asset to the fullest. It’s a rare moment in a career, one that will remain as indelible as an early morning run down a fresh powder trail.

Saying goodbye to greeting cards

I’ve done a lot of things I haven’t enjoyed.

I worked in a fish-processing plant. Endless blocks of frozen cod came rolling down the line. We’d cut and pack it for millions of consumers longing for six-month-old sea catch. At least I got a uniform – a dashing cross between fast-food counterman and computer chip lab technician. My hairnet made the plant girls swoon; or maybe it was the oppressive heat.

Later, I found work in management. I managed toilets at an industrial company that cleaned uniforms, tablecloths and towels. The laundry bundles were rank with ketchup, molasses, steak juice and mayonnaise. The toilets, however, were another story. Shiny white porcelain had been replaced long ago by a black nastiness that made it impossible to distinguish between permanent discoloration and recent events.

I devoted many hours working events that inevitably ended in “athon.” Hot dog-athon. Parade-athon. Texas square-dance-athon. Although the causes were worthy, the pay was an inviting $1.50 per weekend day plus all the stimulating conversation I could muster with people attired in gingham, string ties, polka dots, petticoats and metal-tipped shirt collars who willingly responded to strange verbal calls.

But these adventures pale in comparison to setting foot in a Hallmark Store.

Oh, I’m sure Joyce Clyde Hall meant well when he invented the business in 1915. He thought greeting cards represented class and were “more than a form of communication, they were a social custom.” By 1944, this philosophy had been ingrained in the public’s consciousness via a clever tagline: “When you care enough to send the very best.”

Fast forward nearly 70 years, however, and greeting cards have become arduous and quaint.


I’m always amazed how something so simple becomes so complicated. They’re all cards (one idea), but there are so many layers:

  • Recipients (grandmas, brother-in-laws, dogs, neighbors!)
  • Categories (stress, consolation, surprise, death!)
  • Occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, retirement, weddings!)
  • Varieties (Shoebox, Maxine, Forever Friends, singing cards!)
  • Mood (serious, sappy, sublime, inspirational!)
  • Quantity (50 different card choices – at least - per major category)

When I’ve worked through the layer matrix and finally zeroed in on the card zone I need, my frustration spikes again. Despite the expansive choice, the words never feel right. I don’t talk that way, and I don’t think that way.


Sending a greeting card seems so irrelevant in this age of social networking; the way we communicate has changed radically since Clyde invented a new social norm.

People communicate more than ever and they’re very comfortable doing it. Whether it’s sending Tweets, Facebooking, writing blogs, texting, posting videos or sharing photos, our country and the whole world for that matter is connecting and expressing constantly.

We’re also much more aware of our environment and sustainability. We care about what we buy, consume and dispose of. How many beautiful, life-giving trees is Mr. Hall’s social custom responsible for?

So I’m wondering:

Do we really need to waste a half hour in a store looking for a printed card written by someone we don’t know that’s consumed in a few seconds and thrown away? Is social media really more impersonal than a card? Could hearing a live human voice be, by any chance, more meaningful? If I convey my own thoughts using my own words and send that message however I choose, is this not the most personal touch of all?

The greeting card business is headed the same place as film cameras. And I no longer feel guilty about not sending the very best. I'd rather don a hairnet, pack fish and clean a toilet.

Checkmate post is 2010's #1 social media blog on


The #1 social media blog on the popular site in 2010 was a Checkmate blog about Nestle and Facebook called Seven social media lessons from Nestle's reputation crisis. See our original post here.

These lessons are still relevant as we enter a New Year with social media's continued omnipresence.

Interpreting Gladwell: Why the revolution will be tweeted

Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in The New Yorker stirred a reaction.
Small change – why the revolution will not be tweeted” draws a clear distinction between weak-tie activism and strong-tie activism. The former is aligned with social media, the latter with “critical friends” and hierarchical organizational structures. He cites the American civil rights movement and Al Qaeda (before it became a loosely bound “network”) as two examples of strong-tie activism.
True activism, Gladwell says, embodies critical elements social media can never deliver: a feverish zealousness that’s “high-risk” where people are motivated to “make a real sacrifice.” By comparison, social media is “low-risk” activism where people get involved “by not asking too much of them.”
Gladwell explains, “The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.”
Some critics have cited his misunderstanding of social media. My reaction was different; I think Gladwell gets it. There is a difference between sacrificial activism and easy activism. It’s an important distinction. What I don’t agree with is minimizing the role social media plays in seeding activism. Unstructured, weak-link-ties can eventually inspire personal commitment and real sacrifice. Angus Johnson makes a case for this in his post.
American Cancer Society’s birthday movement, for example, has gone from zero to 100,000+ Facebook friends in a few months. While the vast majority of people may never become “feverish” activists, they are playing an important role in raising money, getting involved and raising consciousness. Yes, fighting cancer is different from fighting intolerance. But, it’s not an either-or scenario; the two can (and do) co-exist in driving movements forward.

6 reasons why social media didn't kill PR

There was steady chatter from 2007 through 2009 about the potential death of PR. Social media - the new game in town – might make PR irrelevant. Companies and organizations could now go direct, building their own conversations, communities and visibility.
Specialized social media experts (who were ahead of the curve in the early days) understandably trumpeted this view, leveraging the opportunity to directly or indirectly de-position PR agencies and professionals. Similarly, some journalists said PR’s traditional media relations centricity was a model for extinction.
In March 2009,Putting the Public Back in Public Relations” by Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge was published, urging PR practitioners to master the art of listening, build meaningful relationships and leverage emerging social media. They educated and informed but also advocated quick, smart reinvention. They said PR practitioners should be brand/cause enthusiasts, “embedded in the communities shaping the future.” It was a needed call to action … and a wake-up for many.
Like many others, I shared my points of view along the way via blogs like Pitching is passé, What PR isn’t and Tired, faded and dead PR words.
As we enter Q4 2010, the heatedness of this debate has arguably dissipated. It’s interesting how much progress has been made. Six transformations triggered the shift:
1.       History repeated itself – remember when the www tornado caught many off guard in the mid-nineties? The communications industry was flat-footed. Web experts sprung to life - including specialized digital agency properties. For a period of time, specialists ruled – as they typically do in moments of change - to fill the knowledge vacuum.
2.       Agencies got religion –What occurred with the Web repeated itself with social media. Facing loss of relevance and revenue, many agencies, firms and communications professionals invested the time to question, listen and learn. They got smarter, broadened service offerings, aligned with experts and integrated across disciplines. Priorities and practices were re-shaped.
3.       It went from niche to mainstream – as time passed, organizations and companies also became more comfortable with social media. Ideas and initiatives that didn’t work (or make sense) were discarded; promising approaches were encouraged. As corporate and not-for-profit sectors got smarter, they ramped-up their own internal talent. Today, according to a June 2010 research study conducted by Digital Brand Expressions, 78% of companies are now using social media.
4.       Walls broke down –As the PR industry shifted from wide-eyed to eagle-eyed and as clients, companies and not-for-profits became more at ease, the early days of social media panic and pointing largely dissipated. Former adversaries let down their guards and began cooperating. This year, one of the first books on the subject “The New Rules of Marketing & PR” by David Meerman Scott was re-issued as a second edition, illustrating social media’s continuing maturation.
5.       Opportunity begat revenue – As social media transformed from emerging to embedded – and as knowledge increased - the revenue followed. An August 2010 Advertising Age article reported how social media is helping the public relations sector not just survive, but thrive.
6.       True public relations practices remained strong –the people who sounded the PR death knell were largely equating public relations with media relations. In that narrow zone, they were right. Traditional, one-way publicity is an old model that’s no longer relevant in an age of social-media-driven two-way conversations, communities and grassroots empowerment.                                        

But true public relations practice isn’t publicity. It’s much broader, taking into account every stakeholder (or “public”) with which an organization interacts: 

Strategically practiced, PR takes on a wide-ranging role, focused on earning a trusted reputation by acting in the best interests of these publics – not the organization’s own myopic agenda.

Social media is the latest expression of relationship building (a two-way model that’s far more inclusive and participative); other exciting new iterations will follow. Solis and Breakenridge were right, we’re the industry in the best position to “put the public back in public relations” and keep it there by never staying put.

Rules to tweet by

One of the best and worst things about social media is that anyone can make up the rules, i.e. the conventions, protocols and etiquette by which we collectively conduct ourselves. For instance, someone once made up a rule that PR people shouldn’t blog on behalf of clients. Like sheep, we all nodded and went along for a while murmuring slogans like “Must be authentic.” Someone else finally questioned “Why?” Debate ensued, logic prevailed, and blogging services (with the proper disclosure) have become a standard PR offering these days.

Social media norms tend to be self-regulating. We now all agree that censoring blog comments is bad (except for trolls and incendiary words).  Writing in upper-case sentences = SHOUTING = impolite. And our Farmville-playing Facebook friends got the hint and stopped annoying us with their barnyard updates.

Twitter, on the other hand, remains largely un-self-regulated. Despite the wealth of tools available for filtering and finding good information, Twitter’s poor noise-to-signal ratio remains the #1 obstacle to adoption cited by our clients. So in the spirit of self-regulation, I want to direct you to Mathew Inman’s witty 10 things you need to stop tweeting about from the popular The Oatmeal site, even though it may suck 80% of the oxygen out of the Twittersphere if the rules are embraced.


Apple's sour grapes bruises a stellar brand

Even the ultra-cool sometimes just don’t get it.

After a few haughty responses earlier in the week to complaints about its iPhone 4 dropping calls, Apple made a smart move and offered free cases iPhone 4 consumers. The cases will prevent the “death grip” problem that cause the phone’s reception to fade and sometimes drop calls if held a certain way.
But Apple CEO Steve Jobs apparently just couldn’t just hand out the cases and live to fight another day. Standing on a dais in front of an image that said “Antennagate,” he had to show a video illustrating problems with competing phones like the Blackberry. Then he insisted there’s nothing really wrong with the iPhone 4 – that the situation is a media creation.
“We're not feeling right now that we have a giant problem we need to fix,” Jobs said during a press conference at Apple’s Cupertino, Calif. headquarters. “This has been blown so out of proportion that it’s incredible. I know it’s fun to have a story, but it’s less fun when you're on the other end of it.”
Has Jobs grown too accustomed to the rainbows and unicorns he usually gets from the media? I have to wonder if his PR people warned him he’d look like a whiner if he complained about the press because that’s how he came off – defensive. The media did not, as Jobs intimated, create this problem. Apple’s arrogant response to customer complaints did. When customers got the high hat from Apple, they started complaining publicly through social media and the news media picked up on the story.
When are executives going to learn a little humility and contrition go a long way in situations like this? You’d think that coming so soon on the heels of Toyota’s and BP’s PR Armageddons that Apple, normally a PR-savvy company, would have had a response as slick as its products. Considering the vast reservoirs of customer good will it has to draw on, Apple could have snuffed this out before it became a problem. It might have had to eat a little crow by admitting its hot-shot phone had a flaw, but at least it wouldn’t be getting bludgeoned in the press at the same time.

BP triggers dark side for augmented reality

No sooner did brand managers and marketers discover augmented reality (AR) as the next big marketing frontier then did consumers find a way to use AR to voice their own opinions.
AR developers Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking are keeping BP’s feet to the fire with a new AR iPhone app that lets users visualize the Deepwater Horizon oil spill at their local BP gas station or wherever they happen to see a BP logo.
Called “the leak in your hometown,” the app transforms the logo into the source of the deep sea gusher. Just point your phone at the logo and your outrage and sense of futility over the unceasing disaster is rekindled.

If you’re new to augmented reality, it’s technology that overlay’s digital information and imagery onto your view of real-world things, typically using a webcam or smartphone camera as the visual conduit.
The BP gusher app is pretty simplistic as far as AR apps go. Yet it’s a brand manager’s nightmare. As the app’s creators describe on their blog … 
An important component of the project is that it uses BP’s corporate logo as a marker, to orient the computer-generated 3D graphics. Basically turning their own logo against them. This repurposing of corporate icons will offer future artists and activists a powerful means of expression which will be easily accessible to the masses and at the same time will be safe and nondestructive.
Remember back when brand managers first swooned over the potential of social media as a new direct-to-consumer marketing channel, not yet realizing how the technology gives consumers their own, sometimes critical, voice? With AR, it’s déjà vu all over again. Google ‘augmented reality’ and ‘marketing’ and you'll see what I mean. But the effusive praise by marketers will soon be tempered as they discover that AR can be a double-edged sword, as much a threat to their companies’ corporate reputation as it is a powerful marketing tool. 

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