Published October 27, 2023
In 2011, our team at Netcore embarked on an innovative venture called phone.cc. We envisioned creating a unique, personal domain for each individual, tied to their mobile number. Thus, for instance, if my mobile number was 9812345678, then 9812345678.cc would serve as my personal domain. This domain could then become the nucleus for various services. This concept, born in the dawn of the mobile internet era, aimed to establish an ecosystem of apps and developers, akin to the i-mode transformation that occurred in Japan in 1999.
Recently, a former colleague, who had been part of the phone.cc project, prompted me to revisit this concept. Our conversation centred on the current difficulties brands encounter when communicating with their customers. With email open rates dwindling, the costs of messaging via SMS and WhatsApp escalating, and future Android and iOS releases necessitating opt-ins for push notifications, brands are facing unprecedented challenges. This made me ponder over the phone.cc idea and whether revamping it to an Email 2.0 inbox linked to a mobile number could serve as a viable solution.
In this series, we’ll delve into the difficulties both brands and consumers face concerning marketing messages. We’ll take a trip down memory lane to rediscover phone.cc, discuss my subsequent ideas of Micronbox and MuApp, and ponder whether an Email 2.0 mailbox for each mobile number could be our answer.
Let’s begin by looking at the challenges faced by marketers. Their inability to communicate consistently with their existing customers is a barrier to growing revenues. Push messages are needed to bring customers back to their properties for transactions. However, due to consumers’ “attention recession,” most messages go ignored, compelling brands to participate in costly online ad auctions for both new customer acquisition and retargeting existing customers. The skyrocketing costs of these channels has driven a huge increase in adtech spending, hurting profitability and reducing budgets for existing customer engagement.
Marketers are on the lookout for cost-effective solutions to establish direct communication channels with their customers. Ideally, they need tools that shift the conversion funnel closer to the customer. It is in this context that I have written about Inbox Commerce, Email Shops and the Five Funnel Frictions trilogy [LINK].) What else can help marketers communicate better and boost sales from existing customers via push messaging?
From a consumer perspective, we face a myriad of challenges too. Every brand we engage with seeks a digital identity through which they can connect with us. The options at our disposal are usually providing our email ID or mobile number. Regardless of the choice, we are invariably inundated with numerous promotional messages from brands. While some of these messages may be personalised and beneficial, most are generic broadcasts that offer no incremental value. Additionally, our mobile numbers and email IDs often land in multiple databases, increasing the risk of spam. Consequently, our inboxes are besieged by an incessant influx of brand messages with no efficient way to manage this flow. Even though spam filters and stringent message sending rules are in place, resourceful senders often circumvent them, leading to our desired messages being lost amidst the clutter.
Thus, there is a dire need for a solution that caters to both brands and consumers. This is where the decade-old concept of phone.cc could prove valuable.
Rajesh Jain’s Netcore Solutions is planning to introduce a mobile Internet based solution to address the challenges the industry is facing while sending SMS’ to consumers, following the TRAI SMS Spam guidelines, which limit consumers on the do not call registry to an all-or-nothing regime for categories that they can subscribe to.
Speaking with MediaNama, Netcore COO Girish Nair said that via a partnership with Verisign, the company is introducing Phone.cc, which allows each user with an Indian mobile number (beginning with 91, for India), to create his own message inbox on the web, which allows for the selective blocking of spam messages, and for the consumer to receive messages over the mobile Internet, and also allows enterprises to message consumers those messages which they choose to selectively receive. He said that this is particularly applicable to certain transaction-related messages which have not been included in the defined transaction messages list from the TRAI, and also address the SMS cost increase expected once an interconnect charge of Rs 0.05 is levied.
“The (marketing) source can be blacklisted or whitelisted by you, and unlike the TRAI regulation, which is about categories, you can bar a specific brand or allow a specific brand. In the end, the user will go to the website to see the message, but the consumer will go to publish,” Nair told MediaNama.
But won’t this limit the usage to the Mobile Internet users only? Nair agrees, but says that he expects mobile Internet users to grow. The company plans to launch a mobile application in a couple of months, and this will enable a server based mobile message push to the users mobile phone, mirroring the way SMS works.
I dug deep into my past writings and presentations to see what I could uncover. These slides from 2011 outline more of the phone.cc thinking.
We never managed to officially launch phone.cc. While I have forgotten the specific reasons for this, the concept of a mailbox connected to a mobile number has remained a compelling idea over the years. WhatsApp eventually bridged the peer-to-peer communication gap and is now actively extending its services for business-to-consumer interactions. However, businesses are confronted with the growing expense of messaging via its platform. This challenge prompted a revisiting of the phone.cc concept: could the solution be an email ID associated with a mobile number? In this regard, two ideas I’ve previously explored—Micronbox and MuApp—present a relevant context.
I wrote about Micronbox a couple years ago, imagining it in future:
Each of us has a micronbox. It is built on email so it doesn’t necessarily need a new app or identity. This new inbox collates all the microns from our Gmail inbox and organises them better. No microns from a brand which we have not subscribed to make it through. Only a single email from a brand is present – older, unread mails get layered together into that single email. Thus, the micronbox only has as many emails as brands we subscribe to. Microns that we read are automatically deleted unless we choose to save them for future reference. (To elaborate: automatic deletion and especially only those emails getting saved which come from a conscious choice gives us and the brand added information – that people really care about this particular content; this is something that a simple open rate vs ignored will not capture.)
Microns are interactive. So, instead of just a static one-way communication, microns become dynamic and engaging. One can buy a book right from the micron itself, expand a new story to read more, provide feedback or answer questions – right from the inbox, without having to click through to the website. (The magic which makes this possible with emails is AMP.)
An element of gamification makes it fun. Customers/subscribers earn points for opening and engaging with microns. The more the continuing engagement, the better the rewards. (This is similar to what credit card companies offer – the more you spend, the more you earn. Basically, loyalty and discipline is being rewarded.) They also earn points by sharing information about themselves with brands so the communication they get is more personalised creating a mutual win-win. They can control what personal info they share with different brands. All this helps in increasing the signal-to-noise ratio in the inbox.
The micronbox is clutter-free. Instead of a ‘delete’ mindset when dealing with emails, there is a ‘delight’ feeling as we scan it. Brands have become friends whose messages are never ignored, read promptly and always acted on. Brands provide us useful info which make daily life better. They offer us what we need rather than what they want. They learn from our actions to make the relationship better daily with every interaction.
As I look back, the one idea I missed was connecting it to the mobile number.
I wrote about MuApp a year ago:
A better, unified inbox is the need of the hour.
The email address remains the best starting point. Sending emails is inexpensive as compared to SMS and WhatsApp messages. There is no intermediary like the telco or WhatsApp determining what message flows are genuine.
This new inbox needs to have built-in interactivity. AMP for Email is a very good step forward. But Apple’s mail client does not support it as yet. In developed countries where iPhones rule the roost, this could mean half the customers will be unable to experience the interactivity. In markets like India where Android and Gmail have a virtual monopoly, that number is under 15%.
Atomic Rewards in the form of micro-incentives for non-monetary transactions can help drive engagement. The gamification that comes in via loyalty points for attention and data can improve engagement rates.
These building blocks thus help give the contours of the new hotline: an app (inbox) which works with existing email addresses and mobile numbers, supports AMP to enable 2-way communication, and offers Mu (tokens) for marketer-determined actions. It works strictly on opt-in, with customers determining which brands have access to their inbox attention. The interface can resemble WhatsApp with brand names replacing those of family and friends.
There are two additional elements that are needed. Mu tokens will need a wallet for storage, and an exchange where they can be traded.
… We thus have the makings of the MuApp: an inbox connected to the two public identities (email address and mobile number), support for AMP and Atomic Rewards (Mu), a wallet to hold Mu tokens, and a link to one or more exchanges for trading. It thus adopts the best ideas from Gmail, WhatsApp and crypto wallet apps like Coinbase and Metamask.
…The MuApp [is] an inbox for brand messages linked to a customer’s email address and mobile number, a wallet to store Mu tokens and XRTs, and an interface to the Mu marketplace and exchange. The MuApp enables the easy flow of Mu between brands and customers, thus enabling the monetisation of attention and data. It integrates Email 2.0 and Loyalty 2.0. It is the hotline that creates a win-win by enabling brands to cut their Adwaste by building better relationships with their existing customers, who can in turn become promoters to assist with better new customer acquisition, providing a Big Tech bypass and an entry point to the µniverse.
I still did not connect the two identities – mobile number and email address – together. What if we did that and brought together the best of phone.cc, Micronbox, MuApp, our email inbox and WhatsApp? What would such a solution – let’s call it Number@MyMobile – look like?
Despite many options available for brands and consumers to interact with each digitally, I still feel there is a gap in the market. Here are a few considerations that strengthen the case for a new service:
- Rising Smartphone Penetration: The number of smartphone users is increasing exponentially. This global trend offers an immense opportunity to leverage the ubiquity of mobile devices (and therefore mobile numbers), which can be the basis of our new communication service.
- Need for a Unified Communication Platform: People are using multiple platforms for various forms of communication, resulting in scattered conversations and data. A unified platform offering various services, including email, SMS, RCS, and notifications can streamline communication.
- Increasing Digital Marketing Spend: Businesses are investing heavily in digital marketing, implying the increasing importance of reaching customers through digital channels. A new service that simplifies brand-customer communication and reduces AdWaste could attract significant interest from brands.
- Consumer Data Privacy Concerns: Consumers are growing more conscious of their data privacy. Providing a platform that respects user privacy while still delivering personalized experiences can bridge this gap and foster trust among users.
- Adapting to Changing User Behaviour: Today’s tech-savvy consumers prefer instantaneous, convenient, and efficient communication methods. A new service that addresses these expectations can effectively cater to this evolving demand. Ensuring that it optimises consumer attention will be a much-needed advantage.
- The Pandemic Effect: The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation. People have adapted to a more digital lifestyle, including work, shopping, and even personal communication. This new norm presents a ripe opportunity for innovative communication platforms. The last email inbox innovation, Gmail, was almost two decades ago.
- Need for Enhanced Spam Management: With a surge in digital communication, spam has become a major annoyance for users. A new service that can effectively manage and reduce spam will significantly improve user experience.
- Gamification and Atomic Rewards: Incorporating elements of gamification can significantly increase user engagement and create a sense of achievement and reward. Brands have focused on loyalty programs based on consumer spending. There is a need for non-monetary rewards. For example, Atomic Rewards can be designed to incentivise user actions, such as opening emails, responding to surveys, or making referrals. These rewards could then be used within the ecosystem for purchases or redeemed for services, effectively creating a virtuous cycle of engagement.
Given the ubiquity of email and the fact that it’s often the primary digital identity for many individuals, the email inbox serves as a potent platform for innovation. It is already an established channel of communication between businesses and customers. It can be made better by incorporating new ideas and innovations like AMP, Atomic Rewards, Microns (micro newsletters), Inbox Commerce (with Email Shops and Engaging Footers), in-place payments, and Actionable Ads.
Let’s begin by summarising the most key features that Number@MyMobile will need to have.
User Registration and Verification
- Mobile Linked Email Address: Auto-generate email addresses tied to users’ mobile numbers. Users can claim these by verifying their mobile number using an OTP.
- Email 2.0 Integration: Enhance user experience with the incorporation of Email 2.0 features, including AMP support for interactive communication. Users can opt to forward emails or use this as an independent IMAP inbox.
- Built-in Spam Filter: Empower users to control their inbox by filtering unwanted messages. Promote the usage of the Number@MyMobile email ID to deter spammers.
- Inbox Organisation: Aggregate and organise brand emails from the user’s primary inbox (Gmail, Yahoo, etc.), ensuring a clutter-free experience.
- AI Assistant: Introduce a built-in AI assistant for managing brand messages. It could sort emails, set reminders, handle spam, or even draft responses based on user habits.
- Easy Archive & Search: Develop a user-friendly system for archiving and searching emails, ensuring an organized and clutter-free inbox.
- Unsubscription: Let users easily unsubscribe from unwanted brand emails.
User Engagement and Rewards
- Customisable Information Sharing: Allow users to control what zero-party data they share with different brands.
- Engagement Through Gamification: Implement a rewards system (Mu points) for user engagement. Tie rewards to user actions (reviews, ratings, referrals) to foster continuous interaction.
- Discovery: Enable users to easily discover new brands and content sources
- Integrated Wallet: Embed a wallet feature for storing and trading Mu tokens. Future versions could facilitate micro-transactions with stored money.
- Transactional Support: Enable direct transactions within emails, creating a seamless buying experience.
- Personalised Dashboard: Provide a central hub for users to manage interactions, view Mu points, and customize settings.
- Social Media Integration: Enhance social sharing by integrating the service with popular social media platforms.
- Calendar and To-Do List Integration: Sync with users’ calendar and to-do list apps, adding events or reminders directly from emails.
To create a solution that serves as a win-win for both brands and consumers, brands would need to have a more direct, cost-effective way to engage with their customers, and consumers would need better control over their inboxes and the communications they receive. At the intersection of this is the opportunity for Numbers@MyMobile, with its unique proposition of linking mobile numbers with email addresses. It needs to bridge the gaps in brand-customer interaction by learning from the success of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snap, Pinterest, and Threads. The market opportunity is huge – up for grabs is a big chunk of the $200 billion AdWaste.
I asked ChatGPT to write a story set in the future about Arun, a consumer, and Jeni, a marketing manager at A1 Books, and how their lives have changed thanks to Number@MyMobile.
In 2025, Arun woke up to another day in bustling Mumbai. As he reached for his smartphone, he wasn’t concerned about clearing out heaps of promotional emails or sorting through spam. His email ID, firstname.lastname@example.org, provided him with a seamless, clutter-free experience.
As he opened his inbox, he saw several messages from his favourite brands – all simple, clean, and easy to manage. The days of mindlessly sifting through an overflowing email inbox were behind him. Each email was a dynamic AMP message, a step above the static text and images of the traditional emails he was used to. Now, his favourite clothing retailer’s message included a carousel of the latest designs and Atomic Rewards – enticing incentives that rewarded him for engaging with the brand’s content. His eyes lit up as he opened a message from A1 Books, his go-to online bookstore. The email contained personalised book recommendations and Atomic Rewards attached to each selection.
A notification caught his eye – an offer for the latest science fiction novel he had been waiting for, right in his email. Without having to switch apps or even leaving his inbox, he made the purchase in a few taps. The transaction process was smooth and straightforward, integrated seamlessly into the email itself.
The convenience extended to his offline experiences too. At his local grocery store, Arun gave his mobile number at the checkout counter. Moments later, his purchase summary and an exclusive offer for his next visit appeared in his inbox, along with Atomic Rewards.
Best of all, he had complete control over his incoming messages. A feature within his inbox allowed him to categorise, prioritise, and even block incoming brand messages as he wished. His life had become spam-free, and he never missed out on updates from the brands he loved.
On the other side of the country, Jeni, a marketing manager at A1 Books, started her day. Her job had been revolutionised since Arun and many others like him began using their Number@MyMobile as their primary contact.
She knew her messages would not only be read but also interacted with. AMP messages enabled her to create dynamic, engaging content, driving higher click-through rates and conversions. Supported by ads, her messages were free to send, significantly reducing the marketing costs for A1 Books.
But the true beauty lay in the Atomic Rewards. She could incentivise actions, thus boosting customer engagement and loyalty. In a world where customer data was gold, this was a game-changer.
Jeni was mindful of her communication frequency, aware that too many messages could lead to Arun unsubscribing. This new system facilitated a balance between maintaining customer engagement and respecting their digital space, creating a more positive brand-customer relationship.
Indeed, Number@MyMobile had revolutionised the way Arun lived his digital life and how Jeni performed her job. It was a testament to the potential of innovation, transforming the way brands and consumers interacted, one message at a time.