With a new service and infrastructure, Next Billion helps companies advertise in the developing world and bring social good to the people
Two of the most recognisable global Internet giants have made big moves signalling a clear desire to engage the developing world.
Whether it is Internet.org or Project Loon, Facebook and Google are spending immense monetary and sweat equity resources to bring the Internet to the world’s poorest communities.
Cynics worry that the move is just an attempt to gather data and build advertising revenue. Idealists laud the campaigns as transformative crusades to improve the lives of billions of people.
In Singapore, a startup named Next Billion is proving the two intentions do not need to be mutually exclusive.
What is Next Billion?
“So, I guess from scratch, Next Billion helps companies, governments and [NGOs] engage hard-to-reach emerging mobile consumers. As the Next Billion name implies, we aim to reach the Next Billion mobile consumers,” begins Next Billion Project Director Oliver Gilbert as we sit down for coffee.
Next Billion is a subsidiary company of Newton Circus, a Singapore-based tech company building social enterprise startups.
The ‘social’ for Next Billion includes educating developing communities, empowering employees with a 50-50 payment scheme and offering a service that allows the average person to make a little extra cash.
‘Enterprise’ is the partnership with corporations to advertise to, and glean data analytics from, the world’s remote communities.
Since then, Next Billion spent the last year building the ground infrastructure for a sustainable future and developing a new product called MOAR!.
“Which is why I am just now coming up for air,” says Gilbert.
But wait, there’s MOAR!
MOAR! crowdsources data analytics and incentivises participants with the prospect of making a little cash. Gilbert took me on a tour of the app in which, should we have been inspired, presented us with an opportunity to earn US$0.50 from Febreze at a nearby Cheers convenience store.
The app works by creating ‘tasks’ for the user to complete at nearby locations. Participants will go into the specific store and the app will ask questions about the product — where is our product displayed? Can you take a picture? etc.
The information will get passed along to a corporate brand manager and the user will get paid via EZlink or PayPal. Next Billion is working on developing localised payment systems for other countries in the future.
“[MOAR!] is helpful in Singapore, but it is particularly helpful in countries like Indonesia or Bangladesh. Because [in those countries], a company might have a product that comes off the factory line, goes to wholesaler that sells to a mom and pop shop and eventually it ends [up] with a kid selling [the product] next to a bus stop. At that point [the company], has no idea how the product is displayed. So it becomes harder to stay competitive in these markets,” says Gilbert.
Plus, he adds, the app allows for context-based questions to help understand the behaviour of a consumer base.
“Whenever you are eating a hamburger anywhere, tell me about that. Then, I crowdsource a data understanding of ‘OK, it is a Friday afternoon in Singapore, where are all the people eating hamburgers today?’.”
The service is currently being piloted in Singapore and it is in the experimental phase in other markets.
After launching Mobile Movies in Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam nearly two years ago, Next Billion took the service global with a new programme in Mozambique in late 2015. It also started a new project in Bangladesh in August.
The genesis of Mobile Movies was to target rural areas, but the recent Mozambique project occurred in a more urban environment.
The business model works by providing a local entrepreneur with a mobile movie kit loaded with about three months’ worth of content (it could be educational movies, kung fu movies or anything that will be deemed entertaining and appropriate).
The employee will then visit communities within the general vicinity of the regional homebase on a daily rotation and host the movie event.
For example, Village A may have movie night every Monday, while the neighbouring Village B gets the experience on Tuesday.
“The key is to keep it regular so it become an institution. Everyone knows Monday is movie night, so [community members] know to go over to Oliver’s shop and watch the movie there,” says Gilbert.
To peek into programme operations, the relatively new Bangladesh programme has 15 agents and seven district managers in the Rangpur and Barisal areas. Fifteen agents have a potential reach of around 13,500 people a month leading to a rough six-month benchmark of an 81,000-person reach in six months, according to company documents.
The revenue stream comes from an atypical advertising strategy implemented during the movie — pitched as “building responsive relationships with hard to reach communities”.
Corporate partners (the most important being the food and sanitary giant Unilever) buy ‘commercials’ during the event.
“Our clients ask us for commercials, product demonstrations, sample distribution and data collection. We can actually accommodate three to four brands per presentation. We can mix and match,” says Gilbert.
For example, a Unilever-sponsored video may be stopped so the agent can demonstrate proper hand-washing techniques, distribute free sample products and teach participants how to use the new product.
“Everything that [the corporations] provide for us we split dollar for dollar with the agents,” says Gilbert.
While innovative advertising is appreciated, data collection may be Next Billion’s most valuable service.
“We give [our agents] a portable kit. Part of that kit is a smartphone with data collection software installed. So they take the phone and document the insights they encounter in their home community,” says Gilbert.
The smartphone app operates offline and online because many of the target communities do not have reliable, if any, access to the Internet. The agent needs to be able to record data before bringing the information to the regional headquarters which is set up with a more reliable connection.
“In Bangladesh, one of our NGO partners has developed an agent network filled with female sales ladies who sell hygiene products. What we found is that by promoting those products with mobile movies, we boosted their sales by 258 per cent. So immediate [growth] and it stayed for 12-weeks,” says Gilbert.
Next Billion faces challenges that common sense would suggest comes to any company operating events in underdeveloped communities — finding venues, organising transportation, addressing security concerns, navigating government regulation and ensuring the movie is enjoyable and culturally appropriate. Boiled down, the hurdles can be described as ‘logistics’.
But one interesting challenge is understanding differences in technology literacy.
Gilbert says in one village he will need explain ‘what is GPS’ while training agents on how to use the app. Whilst in other communities the Next Billion smartphone simply becomes a replacement for the employee’s phone that was, moments ago, sitting in their pocket.
“When you read that smartphones are flooding into emerging markets. That is partially true, but people don’t necessarily know how to navigate [the new technology],” says Gilbert.
But, he concludes, the company has one important asset that transcends any location.
“In every country, people enjoy movies.”
All photos courtesy of Next Billion.
The post In photos: Next Billion engaging the world’s hard to reach communities appeared first on e27.
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