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'Divide and conquer' new caller tune for telcos
Pradeep Jha, a daily wager with a construction company in New Delhi, recently hung up on his mobile operator of two years to switch to

a connection offered by the new mobile operator, Aircel. For Jha, who hails from Darbhanga in Bihar, the reason was purely financial. Cheap inter-state call charges — just half of what the 26-year-old paid earlier — were almost a no-brainer.

And he is not alone. For migrants like Jha, for whom every rupee saved is a rupee earned and vital to support big families back home — nine in Jha’s case — the low-tariff plan between Delhi and Bihar would have meant a few hundred rupees saved each month to send home. Jha and others like him are reaping the benefits of ‘micro-segmentation’, as telecom operators scout for niche user groups to target their services in saturated markets.

Aircel, which launched services in Delhi in March this year, is doing this using what it calls corridor-calling which seeks to offer cheap tariffs between states where it operates. Besides migrants like Jha, its other targets are youth, including first-time jobbers and executives, women, dependants, and small businesses. The company even has an international corridor-calling between Kerala and the Gulf states, and is planning to introduce the facility between Bangladesh and India. India’s dream telecom run — with more than 400-million mobile subscribers at last count and adding around 9-million net new users every month — is fast getting entangled in the mesh of fast-saturating urban markets, decreasing revenues per user and shriller competition from players such as Aircel, which were once regional but are expanding nationally.
For the dominant GSM mobile industry, the competition is not just among themselves. Operators such as Reliance Communications and Tata Indicom, which use the rival CDMA technology, have also been turning on the heat with cut-price offers.

For mobile operators under intense pressure to keep up the numbers, micro-segmenting has come in handy, as this new tool helps them comb the market for finer, sharper and more nuanced consumer segments to attract new users, retain and better serve old ones, and more importantly, earn more. “The smallest of our segments is now in six figures,” says Shirish Joshi, marketing director of Airtel, India’s largest mobile operator in terms of users. He declined to elaborate on these segments, as he did not want to reveal sensitive competitive information.

The fact that Airtel, India’s largest and most profitable telecom company with a user base of more than 100-million users, thinks worth its while to serve and protect the identity of one segment, is a testimony to the cut-throat nature of the mobile market. “As the nth player in the market, we had to adopt a different horses-for-courses approach,” says Gurdeep Singh, COO, Aircel. The company claims to have 21-million subscribers in the 18 circles in which it operates.
A focus on migrants, whose numbers may run into millions, or catering to a niche lakh-plus consumer segment still sits atop the more common

price, demographics — income, urban, rural, gender — and usage-driven segmentation that most operators still work with. But digging deeper to search for new consumer segments is inherent to the telecom services market. “Unlike other consumer goods marketers, we in the telecom sector cannot take a unique position, as the service is fundamentally the same with no major differentiating factor,” says Idea Cellular marketing chief Pradeep Srivastava. “It is, therefore, important for us to create smaller and more manageable segments of consumers that can then be served better.”

Besides enabling targeted marketing, micro-segmenting also helps these firms save on marketing costs as micro-segments can be accessed directly through SMS campaigns — a much cheaper alternative to mass-media campaigns in print or television. Although voice telephony as a service lends itself only to limited service differentiation, operators are using value-added services (VAS) in a big way to achieve micro-segmenting. Idea Cellular, for instance, has tips on health and raising children aimed at housewives.

According to Harit Nagpal, director for marketing & new business at Vodafone Essar, his company offers as many as 400 different VAS ranging from examination results to local temperature updates. The overwhelmingly pre-paid nature of the mobile market — more than 95% of all new mobile connections pay upfront for airtime and don’t get monthly bills — also lends itself for micro-segmenting, particularly at a time when economic sentiment is weak. “Consumers are micro-managing expenses and pre-paid recharges have become more of a just-in-time expense,” says Airtel’s Mr Joshi.

No operator still has a fix on it, but this segment of frequent switchers could be a huge new one for operators in the urban market. Interestingly, while telecom brands have dissected urban consumer groups to hair-splitting detail, little effort has gone into segmenting the rapidly growing rural consumers who contribute over 60% of new connections, fuelling India’s telecom growth story.

“Telecom penetration in rural India is still low. It will take about two more years for telecom players to start micro-segmenting the rural landscape. But there will be a major need for it then. Segmentation of the telecom market will remain an evolving story,” adds Mr Joshi.

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