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Preventing Mobile SMS Abuse – Beerud Sheth, SMS GupShup

Beerud Sheth is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Webaroo and SMS Gupshup. SMS Gupshup is the largest SMS Group Messaging company in India, and recently announced that it had crossed the 35 million users mark, with 3.5 million communities, and over 150 Advertisers Run Campaigns.

The recent debate in the media around “bulk sms” resembles the old story about the blind men and the elephant. Everyone seems to be missing the big picture and debating out of context.

First, let’s recap the “blind” myths floating around, before we try to describe the complex elephant:

Myth: All bulk sms is bad.

The most popular argument is that *all* bulk sms is bad. There are numerous good uses of bulk sms. Transactional messages from banks to their customers, news and disaster alerts broadcast by agencies, schools broadcasting to parents are all essential services that consumers have come to rely on. So, yes, while there are abusive telemarketing practices, let’s not paint all bulk messaging black. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Myth: Unsolicited Commercial sms is bad

Clearly there are plenty of consumers that are taking advantage of deals arriving in their sms inboxes. If that wasn’t the case, no telemarketer would be spending good money on ineffective forms of advertising. For a person shopping for a new camera, that 40% discount offer is a valuable sms, unsolicited or not. The real problem tends to be when consumers receive large numbers of irrelevant ads: sending diaper promotions to those without kids can be truly annoying. The ideal solution should retain the good uses, while preventing the bad.

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Myth: “All or Nothing” solutions are the answer

Solutions like “Do Not Call” or “Do Call” are all-or-nothing solutions. They force consumers to accept all messages or none at all. These are false choices. Most consumers will want to receive messages from some brands and merchants they purchase from, without receiving messages from others. There are good brands I buy everyday and maybe ok receiving offers from. I may want my neighborhood store or my religious guru to send me messages, but not other merchants. All-or-nothing solutions take away flexibility and control from the consumer. The ideal solution should not be black-or-white, but allow for the many shades of gray. At SMS GupShup, we know from first-hand experience that such a solution can work. SMS GupShup has built the world’s largest SMS opt-in community with 35 million subscribers that have opted into 3.5 million communities – they decide for themselves which content they want or don’t want.

Myth: Raising sms prices is the solution

It is possible that the most profitable marketers may also be the most abusive marketers. Raising prices may push out the “good” telemarketers, leaving only the abusive ones to continue telemarketing. So, raising prices may not only not solve the problem, but further exacerbate the problem by eliminating the potentially “good” senders of messages. Price is not an effective tool for determining which messages are ok to send.

Myth: Policy makers can determine “good” messages

If I go to my favorite restaurant and leave my business card, I will not be surprised to receive messages from them. Now, even if I don’t want to receive these messages, I certainly don’t want them paying a penalty for sending me a message. It would be nice if I could simply get them to stop. Another customer may be fine receiving these messages. It’s a very subjective choice. This determination of “good” vs “bad” is best left to merchants and consumers – it’s virtually impossible for any third party to draw a line between good and bad uses of sms. Just like the government / operator has no business telling consumers which friends they can call or what they should say, similarly it should stay away from telling consumers which merchants they can get offers from and what it should say. The regulators should merely setup a level playing field that gives enough control to both sides, thereby preventing abuses.

Then, how does one solve this problem?

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First, let’s take a look at how other media, such as TV, print and email, tackle similar problems

– Have you wondered why there’s no such debate on excessive advertising on TV? For example, few viewers seem to complain if a TV channel carries too many ads or uninteresting content. The reason is that viewers have a very powerful device in their hands: the remote control. If they don’t like a channel, they can instantly switch to another channel or shut off the TV.
– Similarly if you don’t like a particular newspaper, or think it carriers too many annoying ads, you don’t subscribe to it. Readers vote with their wallets and can stop the content they don’t want to receive.
– Now, think about email, a medium that’s virtually impossible to regulate since it’s an open platform. However, the spam problem is mostly solved by sophisticated spam filters that most email systems now have. Also, most well-behaved telemarketers include an unsubscribe link in their emails, so users can easily opt-out.

Rough outlines of a solution

At SMS GupShup, we believe it is indeed possible to develop a “better” solution that balances the needs of all the stakeholders. The ideal solution should have the following attributes:

User Control: Let the consumer decide what they want to receive or don’t want to receive. And give them the control necessary to reflect their choice. Give them a “remote control” that allows them to switch marketers ON or OFF.

– Specificity: Users should be able to selectively opt-in or opt-out of messages. This is better than the false choices offered by all-or-nothing solutions such as “Do Not Call” or “Do Call”. SMS GupShup is the world’s largest SMS opt-in community with 35 million subscribers that have opted into 3.5 million communities – so we know this approach works.

– Market driven: the ideal solution would let the market figure out what messages are good or bad, not regulators. What may be good for one user maybe bad for another. Let the market determine the value of individual messages.

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– Technologically scalable: one of the problems with the current implementation of the NDNC database is that it hasn’t scaled to meet the needs of the rapidly growing market. The NDNC servers are sometimes down, or slow, making it hard for even the most well-meaning telemarketer to adhere to the regulations. Also, why does it take 30-45 days for a user’s NDNC request to be effective – with today’s technology, it should be done in near real-time. Thus, the ideal solution should be highly scalable and offer near real-time response to users.

– No loopholes: the current regime leaves plenty of loopholes for unscrupulous telemarketers to exploit, giving all telemarketers a bad name. The ideal solution should be water-tight and enforced uniformly across all operators.

A solution along the above lines would benefit all the stakeholders in the ecosystem:

– Users: will now have the tools to control what they receive or don’t. This enables each user to customize their own experience based on their preferences.

– Telemarketers: will have the incentives to behave “well”. If they don’t, users will now tune them out. Good telemarketers will be able to build meaningful, engaging experiences with their users.

– Operators: will see a reduction in abuse reports, which are correlated with expenses in customer support and legal/compliance departments.

– Innovators: will have the freedom to innovate with a stable regulatory regime. There is plenty of innovation yet to happen on the SMS platform. Education, commerce, content etc. will all be delivered via SMS.

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– Regulators: will have removed the “bad” uses, while retaining the “good” uses of SMS. They will have surgically removed the “tumor” with precision, without “killing the patient”. They will enable further innovation in the ecosystem, while giving consumers better control over their mobile experience.

The elephant, in the story, is more complex than any of the blind men realize. Preventing mobile abuse requires a holistic view of all the different perspectives to develop the ideal solution. SMS GupShup believes such a solution does exist. We have been sharing specific implementation details with regulators and key industry players and are optimistic that the best solution, on its merits, will emerge over the next few weeks.


These are the authors views, and are not necessarily representative of this publication

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