Some analysts were surprised when India emerged second globally in the number of mobile subscribers (1 billion plus). It had overtaken the U.S. in 2015; China is the leader on this metric.

In the U.S., consumers are generally able to afford cell phone service. In India, however, recent census data shows that 75% of the population earns less than Rs. 5,000 ($75) a month. So how many people can afford their monthly mobile bill?

Surprisingly, the number is very high. There are two reasons for this. Handset prices are plummeting. The Delhi (Noida)-based Ringing Bells has launched a model called Freedom251, which costs Rs. 251 (less than $4). Cheap, it seems, is the way to go: Apple has submitted a proposal to sell refurbished iPhones in India at a fraction of the cost of the original.

The second reason is that a missed call (miskol in the Philippines; beep in Africa; memancing in Indonesia; and flashcall in Pakistan) costs nothing. Drivers and maids call their employers and disconnect. The employer calls back, thus effectively transferring charges.

What on earth is a missed call and why is it making so much noise in certain parts of the world? “Making a missed call – dialing a number and disconnecting it before the call is picked up — has been a way to signal a message in India without actually communicating it by voice,” says Keyoor Purani, professor of marketing management at the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode. “With a large number of Indians on prepaid plans with limited talk-time, it is important to save the available talk-time. In the era of Facebook, WhatsApp and other mobile apps, one can connect freely without using talk-time but that [requires] smartphones, access to mobile internet and technology skills. With a large number of Indians still using feature phones and not smartphones, the missed call is an economical and wide-reaching mechanism of communication.”

Kan Khajura Tesan

“Missed call marketing (MCM) is the simple concept of engaging via a free call,” says Anurag Banerjee, chief growth officer of Ozonetel Systems, a provider of cloud communication services that enables businesses to run missed call campaigns on its platform. A consumer calls a number and hangs up and receives a call back or an SMS sharing the cricket score or whatever. Most missed call activation campaigns are simple one-or-two-step processes. Some ask a few questions to profile the consumer who has opted in. Ozonetel has run a very successful campaign for Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) called Kan Khajura Tesan (which translates roughly to “earworm radio channel” in English) targeted at rural India.

Today, the missed call has escaped its rural moorings and gone mainstream. Big corporates — including many consumer-facing MNCs — are using it.

“While the world is connected and spoilt with an overload of entertainment through regular and digital media, there are parts totally in the dark and disconnected,” says HUL. “This gave birth to the idea of integrating one of the oldest mediums of entertainment — the radio — with the most-used device today — the mobile phone.” Kan Khajura is an on-demand entertainment channel that works on any mobile. It has notched up around 50 million total subscribers and 1 billion ad impressions. Because the entertainment content changes, people return to be exposed to newer ad messages. “Kan Khajura proved that the missed-call behavior of Indians can be leveraged as an advertising/communication medium that provides better accessibility to markets, is economical to both the consumers and the marketers and is non-intrusive as it is consumer-initiated,” says Purani.

Today, the missed call has escaped its rural moorings and gone mainstream. Big corporates – including many consumer-facing MNCs – are using it. Smaller, localized firms – cancer-detection centers, tuberculosis prevention campaigns of state governments, gyms, private schools and colleges, NGOs – have a missed-call number featuring prominently in their print and TV ads. It has even crossed the income divide: A luxury housing project, which took double-spread ads in all the city newspapers, had a “Give a missed call to xxxxxxxxxx for more information” tucked away at the bottom of each page.

Want to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest Mann ki Baat (Words from the heart) speech? Give a missed call. One million people did so after a new phone number was released. In the recent elections to five state assemblies, political parties of all hues climbed on the bandwagon: Want an earful of the Left manifesto, call…. Want to contribute to a certain Right party, call…. “Recently, a political party used our services for their membership drive,” says Sunil Jain, director of Niche Tech Solutions, a leading player in the segment with a brand styled iMissedCall. “In another instance, we helped a political party in Kerala to gather public views against the chief minister.”

The Employees Provident Fund Organization has started a missed-call service for its 35 million contributing members which enables them to track their account balance. India’s largest bank – the State Bank of India (SBI) – launched SBI Quick last year. It is a facility which allows you to find out your bank balance and other account-related details on your mobile. You have to first register your mobile number. Then, upon giving a missed call from that number to the well-publicized SBI number, you can get the information you were looking for. The private sector banks were first off the block; now all banks are on board. Some foreign banks, normally the first with any innovation, adopted a strategy ordained by their New York or London headquarters. They went for toll-free numbers. Anyone who has been through a “Press 1 for English; Press 2 for Hindi” sequence interspersed with “Your call is important to us” wouldn’t like to repeat that experience. Although the banks will deny it, 15-20 minutes on a toll-free line is par for the course, even if mind-numbing instructions such as “Press star-hash-star” are not included.

Advantages Over Toll-free

Most missed-call service providers offer toll-free facilities as well, so they are normally unwilling to say that one is clearly better than the other. Rajesh Jain, founder and managing director of netCORE Solutions, a Mumbai-based enterprise communication and digital marketing company, points out a key difference. “It needs a smaller infrastructure set-up to receive missed calls and, therefore, it offers huge capacity to receive user requests,” he says. “Then, using outbound dialing lines, a return call can be made as and when capacity for calling back is available. Toll-free numbers also allow users to access information at zero cost. When a user calls toll-free, he gets connected to the brand using inbound dialing lines. If a large number of callers is expected to access the number, the company has to put in more infrastructure for receiving calls. Also, at peak load, users get a busy signal. Emerging markets, particularly India, have made optimum use of the missed call as a medium.”

“MCM is primarily an Indian phenomenon even though call rates are the cheapest in India when compared to other emerging markets,” says Banerjee. “It is more than cost. It is cultural. Some of it is literacy-dependent as it is easier to give a missed call than sending a text in English.”

But India is only the tip of the emerging iceberg; there is more action here because the active mobile base is so large. The reasons for the popularity of MCM are, however, much the same across the developing economy spectrum. “The wide use of missed calls in developing countries can be attributed to a multitude of factors, including: there is no cost associated with making a missed call; it’s easy and fast; it’s the simplest call to action; it’s universally understood and accepted; there is no app to install, no account to create; and, above all, it is a human-powered ecosystem that’s already in place,” says Salman Jamali, founder and CTO of the Karachi-based Flashcall Inc., Pakistan’s first MCM platform. Adds Jawwad Jafri, Flashcall CEO: “The cost is the one big reason. Our target audience is very frugal and constantly struggling to save the last penny.”

Want to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest Mann ki Baat (Words from the heart) speech? Give a missed call.

“The use of missed calls is a function of the economic condition of the caller,” says Rajeshwari K., professor of marketing at XLRI: Xavier School of Management. Explains Sainath Tripathi, marketing executive at the Mumbai-based MCM firm VivaConnect: “It started with the early days of mobile phones in India. Initially, the call charges were exorbitantly high and incoming calls were chargeable.” Adds Rajeshwari: “Incoming calls free has become a hygiene factor now.”

Amiya Pathak, COO & founder of, one of the earliest companies in the business, makes the same point: “This is primarily an emerging markets phenomenon because incoming calls and inbound SMS are free. Users spend less time on the internet as it’s expensive and penetration of mobile internet has historically been on the low side.”

Secret Code of Missed Calls

“People are talking less on the phone,” says Rajeshwari. That’s not entirely because of the shift to data. Tripathi says the young have devised a system of their own. “Normal notifications like yes, no, I have reached and I am missing you are delivered via missed calls,” he says. For instance, one missed call equals Yes and two missed calls No. It is a secret shorthand, ideal for the romantically inclined or mere friends. But the telecom service providers earn nothing and have no way of monetizing it. This may be why, as Rajeshwari puts it: “There is a dearth of literature on the subject. MCM is not a well-researched phenomenon.”

Proof that MCM works is largely anecdotal. Jafri gives an example of a successful campaign. Nestlé’s Bunyad is an iron-rich product specially focused on school-going children to prevent iron deficiency. The brand offered free talk-time top-up to anybody who gave a missed call and listened to the Bunyad message. “We called the user back through an automated system, educating them on the issue,” says Jafri. “The response was way beyond our expectations. Also, we now have a database of these listeners to engage them further with Nestle Bunyad.”

In India, VivaConnect talks about one of its success stories – the L’il Master TV program on Zee TV. In an earlier avatar, you had to send a ‘short code’ (a one-digit number) to vote for a particular participant. This was replaced by a missed-call-to-vote platform. A unique number was assigned to each participant for voting purposes. The result: 100 million missed calls were received during three shows. The method saved the voter Rs. 3 per SMS. And the response was 12 times more.

Apart from several successful campaigns, VivaConnect has another feather in its cap: It has an exclusive tieup with Facebook. “We are tech partners for telecom infrastructure only,” says Vikram Raichura, managing director of VivaConnect. “We are also at liberty to generate business via this tieup. The relationship is based on an exclusive partnership wherein they use our platform to scale up their business and reach, and we leverage their social network to carry out targeted campaigns.”

VivaConnect is not alone in attracting the attention of multinational social media biggies. Last year, Twitter bought the Bangalore-based ZipDial. Pathak says he is not in a position to share more details. Business daily Mint reports, however, that the deal was worth between $30 million and $40 million. “It dramatically accelerates our ability to drive user growth in India and, over time, other emerging economies like Indonesia and Brazil,” the newspaper quotes Rishi Jaitly, Twitter vice-president for Asia Pacific, the Middle East and North Africa, as saying.

“Twitter aimed to make content more accessible to everyone through the missed call,” says Niranjan Kanade, who heads the mobility business for netCORE. “For many in India, for whom the first online experience is increasingly through a mobile device, the cost of data impinges on the Internet experience. Via ZipDial, Twitter gets access to those with erratic Internet access or with limited data plans. Facebook is using VivaConnect more from an engagement perspective. Facebook has integrated the tool into its interface for selected campaigns. When a person sees an ad on Facebook, he or she can place a missed call by clicking on the ad — a missed call button — from a mobile device. In return, he receives content — music, cricket scores or celebrity messages – along with a brand message from the advertiser.” Says Tripathi: “This product is specifically designed for emerging economies.”

Social Media on the Prowl

Twitter is among the early birds. Others are looking to enter. iMissedCall is reported to be one of the candidates for a partnership. That begs a question: is MCM likely to make a mark in developed markets also? “Right now, though missed-call services are not very popular in the U.S., they have the potential for growth if marketed well with focused activity,” says Sunil Jain. Purani is not as optimistic. “It is difficult for the West to see much value in this,” says he.

“It is more than cost. It is cultural. Some of it is literacy-dependent as it is easier to give a missed call than sending a text in English.” –Anurag Banerjee

“When we started Flashcall, we decided to launch the service simultaneously in Pakistan and the U.S.,” says Jamali. “There was a clear difference in the willingness to give it a try.” In Pakistan, people were used to the concept. In the U.S., with fast mobile Internet speeds and wide smartphone use, “it was a different ballgame. It’s not lucrative enough for us to exhaust our resources in competing against the unicorns of the West.”

Tripathi sees a different challenge. “A lot of brands do not wish to do MCM for a simple reason: They cater to an elite audience and feel MCM sounds cheap. By the same token, some customers would shun a brand if it promotes itself though MCM.”

Purani sees dangers ahead. “Just as shortsighted abuse of advertising, direct mail and telemarketing has contributed to spamming-related problems, MCM runs the risk of degenerating into a marketing tool shunned by a large number of phone users.” Once your number enters a database, you may be hounded for life. Do-not-call systems don’t work well in emerging markets.

But MCM has a dimension beyond a mere call to action. The bigger part of the business is data. “The role of consumer data and data analytics is critical,” says Purani. “Data analysis is embedded in our processes at Flashcall and that’s what distinguishes us from other players,” says Jamali. “We have the tools in place to slice and dice the generated data in extremely meaningful ways.”

Basic data reporting is an integral part of campaigns. However, advanced data analytics is an add-on that only a few companies offer. “The data points can range from location (telco circle, area), campaign metadata (media, target-user group), user-survey data points (brands ran voice survey campaigns to capture age, gender, language preferences), Internet connection details (brands ran campaigns with linked content on SMS to identify Internet preferences),” says Pathak.

How big is the business in India? There is no simple answer. Three years ago, The Economic Times put it at Rs. 5 billion. But that was in the days before Big Data came into the picture. “Trial prices start at Rs. 1,000 (less than $15) a month,” says Sunil Jain. Add a substantial dose of number crunching and the bill could shoot up to 100 times as much. “The size of the market is difficult to estimate,” says Rajesh Jain.

The success of MCM has brewed unusual clones. Yo is a startup founded by an Israeli living in San Francisco. All it does is send ‘Yo’s to your friends. It has been described as a “one-bit” communication “where the meaning of the message is determined by the context in which it was received,” says TechinAsia, a platform for Asia’s tech communities. “That could be the identity of the sender, the time of the message, or the location of the receiver…. It’s the sort of minimalist messaging ZipDial has been doing for years.” Yo has already raised $1.5 million in funding. “The founders of China’s Tencent led Yo’s seed investment,” notes Business Insider. “Yo is an app that lets users send push notifications by pressing a friend’s name. Users can’t customize the push notifications; the only message they can send to friends is the word “Yo.”

On the same trail is AiYO (‘alas’ in South India), a creation of the Bangalore-based Wow Labz, AiYO is billed as “The lamest, most annoying communication tool in the world… AiYO is one and only one thing, a tool to irritate your friends.” Like Yo, it only says AiYO. If Wow had been based in California, it should have raised several million dollars by now. AiYO, AiYO.