Airtel will be piloting an advertising supported Caller Ring Back Tones project in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), contentSutra had reported earlier today. The project is expected to start around the 8th of July, in two cities in the state, with a test base of 5000-10000 customers.

We spent a lot of time today trying to verify this information, and have received mixed responses from sources – some say that the service isn’t being launched and is just at an idea stage, others say that it has been piloted and been running for a while now, while some senior executives in Airtel UP have denied any knowledge of the service. Last year, I had heard a rumour that Airtel was piloting ad-supported CRBTs in Chennai, but wasn’t able to confirm it. I’m wondering if Virgin Mobile’s launch earlier this year has necessitated this step.

Leads Or Branding?
In the past, mobile operators have set up advertisement-related CRBTs for companies: for company sponsored phones, like in case of Coca Cola, they’ve kept the jingles as the CRBT. However, the value for the advertiser is in communicating with the person who is calling up, not the one whose number is being called. So ideally, the CRBT should be variable, and listener specific. As per the report, Airtel is going to enable interactivity – for users to get more information on a service by pressing *.

The real question is – what do ad-supported CRBTs offer to advertisers – leads or branding? I’d be surprised if it works as a lead generation tool, since users are more likely to be interested in talking than pressing *; it’s more likely to be branding. While it might help reduce the cost for users – what really would you think of someone who makes you listen to an advertisement every time you call them up?

Operators Have Been Mining Data
Mobile operators and VAS companies collect a vast amount of data on users. With subscriber verification, a mobile number can be linked to an individual, and it isn’t too difficult to know what the Indian consumer is up to – who is downloading which game or ringtone, traveling from one state to another, and with what frequency; who is making overseas and STD (cross-state) calls and how often. There is a tremendous amount of data being mined right now, and the belief is that an aggregation of this data can help market services to users. For example, if Standard Chartered wants to target as specific set of users for opening a bank account in Delhi, an offer can be sent to them in an SMS, and given certain profile information, the chances of success are higher. Given the current regulations, users would have to opt-in.

However, it is unlikely that Operators will share subscriber data with clients; they’re more likely to use it to power the service.