Making People Happy to Get Advertising

Most advertising companies extract your data and give you nothing in return. But a Boston start-up targeting emerging markets rewards consumers who engage in ads with real benefits.The service, called Jana Mobile ("Jana" means “people” in Sanskrit), is tapping into several major trends: people are recognizing the value of their personal data and will increasingly demand something in return; advertising is no longer about one-way communications and thus can become more targeted; and more ad dollars are targeting emerging markets.


“Most people are not aware of the intrinsic value of their data and give it away for free so this is part of a mindset change,” says Nathan Eagle, Jana Mobile’s co-founder and CEO.

At the same time mobile phones are helping advertising to become more of a two-way dialogue, giving brands much better data about what really resonates with consumers, he says.

Messaging Turns Into Listening

The start-up’s inspiration came from Eagle’s time in Kenya. In 2006, while serving on the faculty of MIT and at the University of Nairobi as a Fulbright Professor, Eagle and his students built an SMS blood bank platform to enable nurses in rural Kenya to send critical information on blood supply directly to officials in the centralized blood banks.

While the application initially seemed a great success, soon the number of text messages from rural nurses began to decline. Eagle and his team realized that the system was failing because the cost of a text message represented a substantial fraction of a nurse’s daily pay.

So, Eagle and his students modified the system: upon receiving an SMS message with the day’s blood supplies, the system would automatically transfer a small amount of airtime back to the nurse who sent the message. A switch flipped; the nurses began enthusiastically sending daily updates.

Jana’s approach to advertising leverages that learning and the appeal of free minutes, allowing advertisers to communicate directly with customers they are targeting. Many believe all advertising is headed in this direction. “Messaging turns into listening. Products become experiences, with much of the experience delivered virtually," says Esther Dyson, an investor in Jana Mobile and a member of its board.

“Messaging turns into listening. Products become experiences, with much of the experience delivered virtually”

Esther Dyson, investor and board member

The company has had early success. More than 20 brands, including CNN, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé, Unilever, P&G, Danone, Google, and General Mills, are using Jana Mobile to reach audiences via mobiles in emerging markets. The service is integrated into the billing systems of 237 mobile operators, so can they reward 3.48 billion emerging market consumers in 102 markets in 70 local currencies with prepaid airtime.

If people in emerging markets — some of whom live on under $1 per day — feel like they are getting something in return and the advertising is engaging, they are willing, even eager, to receive ads.

People Happy To Receive Messages

A 2013 “Emerging Markets Mobile Attitudes Report” prepared by Upstream, YouGov and Vanson Bourne polled 3,670 respondents in Brazil, Nigeria, India and Saudi Arabia. Among its findings were:

  • 68% of respondents said they are happy to receive promotional messages over mobile on a weekly basis;
  • one in five said they are happy to receive promotional messages daily over mobile; and
  • 7% would be happy to receive promotional messages more than once a day.

The acceptance underscores how mobile advertising is finally starting to take off. For years participants at Mobile World Congress were told that mobile advertising’s day had arrived. This year it appears it finally has.

eMarketer estimates that overall, worldwide mobile ad spending was up 105.9% in 2013 with a further 62.1% growth expected in 2014. By 2017, advertisers worldwide will plunk down anywhere from $41.9 billion (according to research firm Gartner) to as much as $72.32 billion on mobile — nearly 10 times 2012 spending levels, if eMarketer is right.

And emerging markets — the location of the next billion mobile customers — represent some of the biggest and most attractive opportunities for advertisers.

Gartner predicts that in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, mobile advertising growth will largely track the technology adoption and stabilization of emerging economies, but will mostly be driven by large markets such as Russia, Brazil and Mexico.

Going forward, Gartner expects the high-growth economies of China and India to contribute increasingly to mobile advertising growth as the burgeoning middle classes in these markets present promising targets for global and local brands.

This is just the beginning, says Jana Mobile’s Eagle. Four years from now, as feature phones disappear and are replaced in emerging markets with smartphones that are affordable to the masses, the type of advertisements that can be displayed will become more engaging, leading to more clicks for brands and more free mobile minutes for consumers.