A Future for IVR

When thinking about the new new thing, it’s quite easy to lose sight of opportunities in older technologies, such as Voice. Voice was obviously the first service to emerge in mobile telephony (that was the only thing you could do with the early phones, Best Beloved) and is still easily the highest revenue earner for operators around the world.

IVR (Interactive Voice Response) pre-dates even the first mobile, being first deployed in the 1970s and really taking off in the 1980s. Uses ranged from annoying customers to screening calls in call centres (Press 1 to book a ticket etc), to voting, entertainment (and sex) and pre-recorded information, such as weather, horoscopes (and sex). To give you an idea of scale,Wikipedia claims that today “Currently, IVRs are serving more customers than all fast food and coffee chains combined”, although a citation or geographic area for the information is missing. But it’s big.

A parallel theme (bear with me a moment) is that in developing countries, the mobile is the de facto digital device for many people. In countries like India, Indonesia and China, many more people have leapfrogged the PC and do everything from make calls to surf the mobile web on their phones. AdMob has nearly 500 million page views a month in India, as an example, and it’s our second largest market. In China, 5 Billion mobile web pages are viewed every day.

Another theme we’ve been writing about is that companies like P+G are looking for their next Billion consumers in order to continue growing outside the saturated markets of the West – after all, it’s hard to get us to use more soap powder or toothpaste, but many of the developing markets represent virgin territory for these products. At the same time, traditional media has little reach and impact for many of these consumers – they don’t read the press, watch TV or have PCs. But they do have mobiles, making it potentially the only media option available.

So where am I going with this? One of the final megatrends in developing countries is illiteracy. India has 250 million people who can’t read or write. There’s at least another 100 million in China – and that’s the number they admit to. In reality, it’s probably far more. And in total an estimated 1.2 Billion people in the world are illiterate.

This raises all kinds of issues for us as a society as a whole. Illiteracy is strongly correlated to poverty. Illiterate people are usually poorly educated too, making them vulnerable to extremist ideologies and propaganda.

But while illiterate citizens might not be able to read or write, they can speak and understand speech, which means that mobile IVR is a perfect way to level the playing field for these people. They can compete and use telephone services on an equal basis to their literate compatriots, whether these might be mobile banking solutions to education programmes, or social media to job seeking.

There may also be a role for advertising to play in this programme, by doing what it always does – providing the funding model for free-to-consume media and services. Perhaps advertisers interested in reaching out to this market might be in a position to fund and produce the content. Could yesterday’s Soap Opera become today’s Soap School?

So if you’re reading this and looking for your next big idea, please have this one with my compliments. There’s an addressable market of 1 billion+ people out there, which by any definition is a big one.

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