Pissing in the pool

UberPool or OlaShare, aim to change the mentality of people using both personal and public transportation in India. By providing fares at 30-50% discount of their regular fares, which are themselves subsidised, they have become an attractive alternative for people in urban India.

However, I have heard complaints of how these carpooling initiatives often end up wasting time and money for people. Some stories speak of drivers waiting way beyond the stipulated time for passengers and often turning back to add an additional passenger. Others are disgusted about fellow riders and often feel uncomfortable having to travel with strangers.

The true challenge for both Uber and Ola lies in the sales incentive structure that has been built. Designed to enable both customers and drivers to push carpooling, it rewards drivers who take up car pooling by considering each passenger as a ride, and customers get a discounted fare. This results in drivers often going way out of their route to pick up additional car poolers , even if that inconveniences the existing passengers.

At the same time, passengers have not been informed of the risks of carpooling. They expect the service to be an extension of the current services and are dismayed by the difference in service quality. This can have a impact on future usage of carpooling and the cab service itself.

The answer lies in technology. While both Ola and Uber are using machine learning algorithms and data science to help improve efficiency, they need to improve the algorithms and build in features to avoid wastage of time and petrol. After all improving the time per ride allows drivers to pick up car poolers and build on their incentives.

Similarly carpooling firms need to incorporate customer satisfaction into the incentive mechanism. If drivers realise that an unsatisfied customer will also impact their sales incentives, it might help reduce some of the incidents. However customers also need to understand that if they do not turn up on time, they can lose the fare / can be penalised by not being allowed for future car pooling rides.

The challenge lies in marrying technology with the human touch. Understanding not just the patterns of rides but also the subtle tricks played by drivers and customers. That’s where Uber can potentially use the data of a Didi Mau while Ola still lacks access to the data and talent pool who can suitable make sense of such data.

While driverless cars are still some time away, I foresee a point where we may have automated shuttles with no drives plying on roads.At this time, rather than rebuilding Indian cities to accommodate new modes of public transportation, maybe it’s time we focussed on how options like carpooling or driverless shuttles may help reduce congestion, along with an approach of charging drivers of cars , a la Singapore.



Spamming us to Death

In the last two weeks, I have seen daily front page ads for myriad e-commerce firms, starting from the Big bullies like Amazon and Flipkart to smaller players like Craftsvilla . All these ads proclaim big discounts and scream about sales. Apart from regular sales, e-commerce players and now Mobile wallet companies blast offers through emailers, messages and other channels. As if this is not enough, some companies even force you to download their app when you are trying to visit their website.

Most Indian companies, e-commerce or otherwise have a poor understanding of digital marketing. They reapply the old print and TV marketing techniques of sustained marketing blasts and maximum eyeballs to drive sales, forgetting that these sales last only till the next player spends even more money or the discounts dry up. Worse, over time, the customer gets inured to the nature of these discounts and only reacts when the discounts are significantly larger. In the middle of all this, the brand loses hard earned equity as people concentrate more on discounts and choose to purchase products depending on the discount available.

If one were to measure the effectiveness of these promotions in terms of driving sales, we would probably see a definite correlation. However one needs to ask – is this customer sticky? What enables him to stick to an e-commerce platform or brand knowing that tomorrow another rival brand can offer him a better discount ? Is the cost of acquisition(in terms of discount offered + promotional cost ) valid considering the lifetime value of the customer cannot be calculated accurately?

Equally importantly, one needs to measure the brand impact. With concurrent discounts, app based sales and flash sales, e-commerce firms have created a false expectation in the mind of customers which will last until the VC funds last. Once the discounts vanish, the customer may well retaliate by switching / opting for offline retail outlets. Building a brand identity over time , even if initially costlier might have helped e-commerce firms slowly gain customers.

Traditional media is losing eyeballs and moving to the digital world. It’s high time marketers understood that in this modern world, it’s not sustained spamming and media blasts but quality content which works best. Equally important for a brand is to be innovative and not just reactive. Although Oreo abroad and Amul, in India have a good reactive campaign, its taken them decades of research and work to create a clear brand image. It behooves brands to work on creating their own space online and not blindly copy the existing trends.

Spaces where there exist great scope for marketing and customer engagement include travel, healthcare and education. However Indian brands need to realise branding and marketing isnt just social media and specifically media blasts but also judicious use of channels and innovative content strategy.

One wonders how marketers will survive when email finally vanishes. How will they cope with the loss of traditional digital marketing channels. It’s time for marketers to come up with alternative solutions. After all, this is the age of Slack, Whatsapp and Uber.