How Facebook Can Fix Internet.org

When I first heard about this initiative, called internet.org, I was thrilled and thought it extremely charitable of Facebook to give free mobile internet access to the poorest people in the world. People for whom the decision often boils down to choosing between adding a data plan and putting food on the table. It just felt like the right way to give back; for a large, super wealthy corporation that has profited from a free internet. The logic seemed altruistic; access to knowledge empowers more people. The mission almost poetic; provide free access to “two thirds of the world that doesn’t have internet access.”

The one thing that struck me as curious is that Facebook was always included in the basket of so called “basic services” they were providing free access to; this basket included education, government, NGO, job listing, and e-commerce portals. But I was willing to accept this self-serving move for the greater good they were arguably doing.

However, as a result of neutrality debate in India, large web companies have now publicly dropped out of internet.org initiative due to a severe consumer backlash and based on how it might actually skew the level internet playing field. All this based on the curtain being lifted on a startlingly important fact, that was previously not made clear – the “basic services” internet (i.e. which websites to include in each country) is going to be determined by Facebook.

I will not waste ink talking about how this new information about the initiative clearly violates the core principles of net neutrality; while arguably trying to turn poor customers into Facebook addicts. SavetheInternet coalition has written an article here about why we should be concerned about the seemingly arbitrary and anti-competitive nature of the decisions on which services to include; e.g. in India the world’s largest search service, Google, has not been included but Microsoft’s Bing has.

With his pet project under attack, Mark Zuckerberg also penned an Op-ed in Livemint defending internet.org. While I agree with his basic argument that giving the poorest people access to “some” internet services is better than no access at all – I also believe that Facebook must let people decide which sites and services they want access to. So I want to offer Mr. Zuckerberg some suggestions on how he can fix this initiative to genuinely deliver on his mission of empowering the poor.

The way it could work is under the same basic principles they have outlines (large internet companies would still pay telecoms for the data costs, and Facebook could pay for smaller sites that cannot afford to):

  1. Customers would choose from a list of the top 10 sites (based on traffic rank, in each country) for each category of basic service e.g. ‘SEARCH” would include Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask, etc. and so on and so forth for ‘JOBS’, ‘TRAVEL’, and every other category offered
  1. If necessary, for cost reasons, the total basket of basic sites could be limited to the same number allowed now; I have seen between 12-15 sites depending on the country
  1. Consumers would be able to change the list of sites at the beginning of each month AND go beyond the initial top 10 based on personal experiences, level of satisfaction with a service, word-of-mouth from friends and family, or due to their own discovery on the internet

By doing this Facebook would achieve their noble goal but also ensure that EVERY person has access to a free, fair and service-competitive internet – the way God and Tim Berners-Lee intended it.

Big Numbers. Small Research.

Many companies fall for the big numbers being touted about the size of the Indian middle class, the fact that it is the second most populous nation on earth and has had the second largest economic growth rate for most of the last decade. These figures can and have dazzled even the most seasoned marketers, and here begins the fallacy of easy growth and big revenues. For years the middle class number being thrown around was 300 million, by both the UN and the US President. In 2001 it was finally accepted as being total tosh after a comprehensive McKinsey Global Institute Study. But it did not matter because the allure was enough for many brands to pour money into India without ever questioning the numbers, and far more importantly without trying to understand the local market dynamics and unique consumer behaviour.

Today, it is accepted that India’s middle class will grow to be an astounding 583 million people by 2025 (source: McKinsey Global Institute). To give you an idea, five percent share for a company like Kellogg’s would equal 29.5 million customers. In the UK, Kellogg’s is the market leader with a commanding forty-two percent share of the cereal market, which amounts to a mere 27 million customers in comparison. So, essentially even a relatively small share number, that in any other market would be scoffed upon, in India can amount to a larger customer base than leadership share in most developed markets. Many a seasoned marketer has looked at these numbers and dangerously never bothered to scratch beneath the surface before diving headfirst into India.

In the 1990’s Kellogg’s was one of the many companies that fell victim to this and had to learn their lesson the hard way. They invested some $65 million into launching their No. 1 breakfast cereal brand, Corn Flakes, in India; relying entirely on the population numbers and dreams of converting a meager one or two percent of consumers, without bothering to study and understand the existing breakfast habits that have been around for thousands of years.

If anyone at Kellogg’s had simply bothered to ask any Indian they would have known that Indian’s like to eat hot and savory foods for breakfast; like idli & sambar, aloo paratha with pickle, or spicy mixes like bhujjia. Furthermore, Kellogg’s never bothered to change any aspect of its marketing strategy or packaging for this vastly different customer. Instead, they relied on their Western strategy to win the day. Employing their world famous marketing strategy of “crispy flakes and premium quality” – unfortunately for them it turned soggy the moment it landed in hot Indian milk on every breakfast table. Their price premium also made them an unaffordable luxury for the vast majority. Kellogg’s was so confident of replicating their global successes that they proceeded to immediately launch a whole series of brands, one after the other; in the end only compounding woes.

In 2001, Kellogg’s finally realised their combination of ignorance and arrogance had led to dismal failure in India. They realised that they were not going to change the Indian consumers’ age old eating habits, in one short decade, and that they needed to change their strategy to succeed in India.

Kellogg’s is by no means alone; Mercedes Benz, Coca-Cola, MTV, Domino’s Pizza and a host of other well-established global brands and savvy marketing companies all learned their India lessons the hard way – by basing their entry on flawed assumptions, doing scant local research or arrogantly expecting to replicate Western strategies, they too failed to set themselves up for success as early entrants. Yet there is an equally long list of hugely successful companies that took the time to understand the market, adapt and cater their product offerings to suit the Indian palate and local tastes; they are now laughing all the way to their Indian bank accounts!

(Sources: Brand Failures – and lessons learned! and Brandalyzer)