Published June 27-July 2, 2021
Imagining the Future
Entrepreneurs create our future. This is what I had written in one of the posts in my Proficorn series: “An entrepreneur must imagine the future and get there first. One is not building just for the next few months – one has to imagine tomorrow’s world and create that future. If you get there first, you win. This journey is what makes entrepreneurship so exciting. It is a race – where there are many competitors, known and unknown. But there is a second race – in the entrepreneur’s mind, to create and craft a future that isn’t yet unknown. The entrepreneur then also has to persuade others (employees, partners and customers) about that future. It is the ultimate reality game!”
In 1994 as I was thinking about the ideas that eventually led to the launch of IndiaWorld (India’s first Internet portals), I would think about what the Internet could do. A phrase I remember from that time is “connect Indians globally into an electronic informational marketplace.” That helped me envision what tomorrow’s world would look like and make the right business decisions to succeed in a competitive marketplace. In 2011 when I began to think about India’s political future and the 2014 elections, I started thinking about how the BJP could get a majority on its own. That led to the formation of Niti Digital and its multiple initiatives in media, data, analytics and volunteering. In both cases, I was imagining a future that didn’t exist and then working to make it happen.
Over the past few months, I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about microns. The more I have written, the more excited I have become about the possibilities. Ideating is a long and painstaking process; while the basic idea may just pop up, refining it into something practical and doable takes time. As I have thought more and spoken with people, it has become better. Transforming brand-consumer communications is a hard problem to solve, and yet, as I have thought about microns and what can be done, I have come to believe it is increasingly possible and even necessary.
It was in this context that I had written about the micron-verse a few weeks ago: “Microns can have widespread usage because of their simplicity and brevity. They take 15 minutes to create and 15 seconds to consume. They come right into the inbox – which we all check many times during a day. When we think of emails, we think long, boring, never-ending newsletters, with lots of scrolling. When we think of microns, we should think short, exciting, fun, interactive content, available on a single mobile screen (no scrolling required). This is what will take the 15% open rate of emails to 100%. Whether for customers or employees, microns can help brands and businesses open a richer world of greater engagement and interaction. Welcome to the micron-verse and the 100% opens movement!”
In this series, I will peer into the future – like a science fiction writer – and give a glimpse of how our lives will be different in the micron-verse.
The Micron-Mu World
It is 2025. I wake up and check my phone. After navigating through the messages from family and friends, I switch to my micronbox. It is the single repository for all brand communications. No spam gets through. The micronbox has two folders – one for the transactional and some broadcast marketing messages sent by brands, and another for microns. The micronbox smartly picks up all brand communications across my various inboxes – emails, SMSes and RCS messages (sent to my mobile number) and push notifications (for the apps I have installed on my phone). Microns are short messages, each with an incentive in the form of Mu (a virtual currency) to pay for my attention and actions. Microns can be read in 15-30 seconds. Each micron offers me a reward (Mu) for opening it and for acting on the message.
As I check my microns folder in the micronbox, I see a message from MakeMyTrip. In the Subject field, it shows me the Mu triad – my total Mu, the number of Mu I get for opening that message and the Mu I can get for doing the suggested actions in the message. In this case, I get 1 Mu for opening and 10 Mu for the actions. My total Mu this morning stands at 5678. The attractive Subject line “Experience Kashmir like never in 5 days” catches my attention and I decide to open the micron. There is a nice itinerary for a mini-vacation and an AMP-powered survey form which asks me a few questions about my possible travel plans. I answer the 3 questions and see my Mu go up by 11 to 5689.
There is a micron from HDFC Bank offering me 11 Mu for opening and 100 Mu for clicking through and reading about the special offer they have on the new iPhone that’s about to be launched. My Mu now stands at 5800 after I check out the offer.
Ah, my friend Akash just activated his account – thanks to my referral. So, I get 100 Mu taking my tally to 5900. And I will also now earn a small fraction of all the Mu Akash earns going forward – and it goes two levels deep (a level below Akash also). I now have my own Mu Making Machine!
I have been learning about Kabir and his dohas. The micron tests my understanding of today morning’s doha and rewards me 1 Mu for opening and 20 Mu for answering the question correctly and quickly (within the stipulated hour of the micron being sent.) My Mu has risen to 5921.
The App Store has sent me a notification about the launch of a new productivity app. It promises me 60 Mu for watching a 30-second video. I decide to do it – am always open to see what I can do to become better. My Mu is now at 5982, including the 1 Mu for opening it.
There is another micron from the author of the book I have just finished reading. The offer is 3 Mu for opening, and 5 Mu for each of the 5 questions about the book. I think it’s a cool idea – I had really liked the book, and decide to take up the challenge. I get 4 right, and my Mu total is up 23 to 6005.
There is also a nice fun element to opening the micronbox with a ‘delight’ rather than ‘delete’ mindset. There are only as many messages as the brands whose messages I have subscribed to – so I never feel overwhelmed with 3000+ unread messages! My few minutes of attention and actions early in the morning have been duly rewarded. I learn and earn. The Mu may be small but it is good to see brands valuing my attention and willing to pay for me to be attentive to their message – a far cry from a few years when brand messages constantly bombarded my inbox and it was always a cat-and-mouse game with the spam filters.
The rest of the day also needs my attention. A pity there is no Mu waiting to be earned for getting out of bed! Before I do that, I decide to quickly check the MuShop for redeeming my Mu. The offer I like is for the latest issue Bloomberg Business Week magazine with a cover story on “The Hydrogen Economy.” I encash 6000 Mu to buy it. My Mu tally is now down to 5, but there are still 12 more unread messages – each with more Mu waiting to be earned.
There are many components that come together to make the micron-verse of 2025 a reality: messages, microns, micronbox, mu and MyToday. Let’s discuss each of them and how they all fit together.
Messages are what brands send to us, their customers, to inform us of all that’s new and their special offers. While they can wait for us to visit their website or open their app, pushing messages to us is a way to inform and nudge us to action. In today’s world, it has become intrusion and nags. We have no control on the inflow of messages – it just seems like a never-ending stream of communications that we cannot control. Sending push notifications costs nothing and emails cost just a few paise. The balance of power is firmly with brands as they flood our inboxes with ever increasing numbers of messages to rise above every other brand trying to do the same. The net result is that brands have taught us to ignore their messages as is evident in the low open and click rates on the messages we get.
Microns help solve the problem. Microns are short and identified with a µ thus ensuring we know before opening that the message will not take us more than 15-30 seconds to consume. They are also linked to a clear opt-in enforced by the micronbox, thus ensuring a zero-spam world. Microns also come with incentives for our attention and action – and these are clearly stated in the Subject line.
Micronbox is where the messages are aggregated together. The micronbox can, with our permission, collect all the messages from our Gmail inbox, our SMS inbox and the app push notifications that come to the mobile. It looks and feels like any other inbox but with some interesting server-side properties that make it feel magical. AI at the backend watches which microns we open and when, and thus offers us those at the top of the list. Brands we ignore or whose microns we open less frequently are relegated to the bottom of the list. At any point of time, only the latest brand micron is visible – older unread microns from the brand are hidden until we choose to see them.
Mu (me+you) is the virtual currency for attention and action. Mu is created by us – when we act on microns, akin to how bitcoin is created through the computation and mining process. Mu is paid for by brands and transferred to us when we absorb their messages; brands do not spend Mu on messages that are ignored. (Given that Mu is backed by a brand payment, I wonder if that makes it a ‘stablecoin’!) Brands can offer differential Mu to different customer cohorts because each micron can be customised. Mu is the world’s first currency for the funnel prior to transactions. It works across brands and thus is easy for us to track. Every micron has the Mu triad in the subject: the total Mu for each of us (and thus is impossible for a bad actor to spoof since this number is only known to the platform and us), Mu to be earned for opening, and Mu to be earned for all the actions performed for the tasks mentioned in the micron. Once earned, Mu can be traded, gifted and bartered.
MyToday is the platform that makes it all happen. Brands publish microns via MyToday to be delivered to the micronbox. MyToday ensures that only brands with our permission are allowed to engage with us. It also manages the Mu and enables redemption at the Mushop.
Taken together, these 5 elements help us construct the new world of brand-customer communications and engagement – the micron-verse.
The Brand View
One of the biggest challenges brands have is communication with their existing customers. While some customers are very receptive to the incoming messages, with the passage of time many start ignoring and become dormant. For a brand, this is an expensive loss since there was a significant cost paid to acquire them. While brands can wait for these customers to ‘wake up’ and re-engage, more often than not they will end up as lost or churned customers and the enthusiastic acquisition teams will, unknowingly, re-acquire these customers! And thus starts the viral waste loop – acquisition, dormancy, re-acquisition, and so on.
If only brands could keep the communications channel to their less active customer base, if only their messages get good through to these customers, if only brands could engage better with the Rest customers – then the actual media spends on acquisition could be cut sharply and reinvested for the larger existing customer base. There hasn’t been an easy way to make this happen – until now.
This is where one of the most fundamental ideas of economics (and our world) comes into play: Incentives. Writes Art Carden: “Why are you reading this instead of doing something else? You’re reading this in response to an incentive, which is a reward or punishment that motivates your behavior. An incentive encourages you to do one thing and not another, and when the incentives change, people’s actions change. Economics has a lot of big ideas, but “incentives matter” is the biggest.”
Ipovi John Gitonga adds: “An incentive is a motivation that encourages someone to do something enthusiastically. As we all know, a motivation is a desire to do something — the willingness or the drive. The desire can be internal (intrinsic motivation) or external (extrinsic motivation) but their main purpose is to encourage people to achieve a goal or an objective.”
Russ Roberts writes: “When an economist says that incentives matter, the non-economist sometimes hears only that people respond to prices. But what the economist really means is that holding everything else constant—the amount of fame or shame, glory or humiliation—and increase the monetary reward, and people will do more of it. Lower the monetary reward while holding those non-monetary factors constant and people will do less of it. Economists often focus on monetary incentives because they are observable and usually easier to change than non-monetary incentives.”
Let’s apply the idea of incentives to brand communications with their existing customers. Many brands do offer incentives for transactions – points one can earn as part of a loyalty program, discounts, cashback, freebies. But no brand offers incentives for attention and pre-transaction actions. Brands can offer their existing customers incentives for opening their messages, clicking through to the website or app to know more about specific products, filling in surveys, and for preferences that can be a win-win for both sides.
How will brands fund it? Easy. From the huge ad budgets that are spent on the acquisition and re-acquisition continuum. By knowing and retaining customers, brands can pay their existing customers for their attention rather than intermediaries to re-acquire them. This is where Mu comes in. Mu wrapped in a messaging micron lets brands offer incentives to their customers to take the actions the brand desires.
Of course, there are many questions. Will this lead to an arms race in terms of incentives being paid to customers? (There already is – in the ad spends, and especially on Google and Facebook via auctions. So, this is nothing new. Here, at least, the payment is being made to the brand’s customers and not the intermediaries.) Will it really lead to sticky behaviour? Or will it only lead to a specific type of bottom-fishing customer? (We will like rewards – small or big. Gamification brings some degree of fun into our lives. Brands can differentiate the Mu they offer thus rewarding specific types of customers and behaviours – the choice is theirs.)
And finally, the big question — will it work? I believe so. We all respond to incentives. It is just that brands have not been able to do this so far at a micro scale (in terms of the quantum of incentives offered to make it financially affordable) and a macro scale (to their large customer base) simultaneously. It is time for brands to think outside the box – literally –and open up their messages to the world of microns, micronbox, mu and MyToday.
Bringing it to Life
Is it possible to bring the micron-verse to life? Is it desirable? Is this a better future?
Let me start with a snippet from my life. About 8 years ago, Abhishek, my son, who was then 8 years old, started playing Clash of Clans on my iPad. It was the rage in his class. Here is how its creator, Supercell, describes it: “Customize your village, build an army and crush your opponents. Like using friendship to strike fear into your enemies? Join a Clan, or establish a Clashing legacy by creating your own. The choice is yours in this millions-strong community of Barbarians.” Abhishek would play it for a few minutes each evening – collecting the gold and elixir, doing a few attacking, strengthening the defences, earning gems, and improving the village metrics. I had thought then that it was a fad that would fade away as he grew older. And it did. But by then, he had trained me to play the game for a few minutes each day. He had built a nice, strong village and didn’t want to give it up. And so, a generational shift occurred – perhaps very different from what the creators had envisaged! 9 years later, Clash of Clans continues to be an app that’s opened by me each day to do the needful. Abhishek checks in on me providing expert advice periodically on the next upgrades. It is the only game I ‘play’.
Micron-verse, over time, can be like a good game that is played on and on by millions daily. It offers us useful information packaged with exciting rewards for the one resource we cannot increase – our time. We live in a world of brands and messages – that’s never going away. If anything, the volume of ‘ads’ we see has increased exponentially. So why not invite the ads in our life – invertising, if you will. Let brands bid for our time – they are anyways vying for our attention on platforms like Google and Facebook. Why not let them do it in our inbox and make the payments directly to us? It may sound creepy but that is only because no one has done it yet. Fast forward to the future, and perhaps, one day, that will indeed be the new normal. Our attention is in our control and all the micron-verse is doing is offering choices as to whom we offer it to in return for rewards. We are still in control – unlike today where our inboxes are flooded with messages from brands we don’t know for products we don’t want. A world with less waste – our attention, brand spends – should be a better place.
I am going to start to build the micron-verse – one element at a time. The odds, like any new venture, are that it will fail. If that happens, hopefully, someone else can build a better version at some later point in time. But there is also a finite possibility that it could work. I began my IndiaWorld and Niti Digital journeys in the same spirit. The micron-verse is a future waiting to happen. Let’s get there first!
A game Abhishek and I played a lot some years ago was “Settlers of Catan.” As the Catan website explains: “Picture yourself in the era of discoveries: after a long voyage of great deprivation, your ships have finally reached the coast of an uncharted island. Its name shall be Catan! But you are not the only discoverer. Other fearless seafarers have also landed on the shores of Catan: the race to settle the island has begun! The women and men of your expedition build the first two settlements. Fortunately, the yet uninhabited land is rich in natural resources. You build roads and new settlements that eventually become cities. Will you succeed in gaining supremacy on Catan? Barter trade dominates the scene. Some resources you have in abundance, other resources are scarce. Ore for wool, brick for lumber – you trade according to what is needed for your current building projects. Proceed strategically! If you found your settlements in the right places and skilfully trade your resources, then the odds will be in your favor. But your opponents are smart too.” The game was wildly popular when it launched – and still is. So what did the creators do for an encore? They added expansion packs and variants, creating an entire Catan ecosystem.
Think of micron-verse in a similar way. If – and of course there is a big if – it all works, I can imagine many different extensions. Here are some ideas:
- Each of the ads targeted at us could offer an incentive in the form of Mu. Ad platforms anyway know our credentials. They could show us the same Mu triad with an offer to earn Mu for clicking and doing the actions. This would ensure we pay a lot more attention to the ads we have trained ourselves so well to ignore.
- App makers could also offer us an incentive to complete the ‘core loop’. As Sailthru explains: “The core loop is the single most important part of a mobile game. A set of actions that determine how the game flows, it’s the beating heart of what makes a game fun. The point of a core loop is to keep a user engaged while showing progress. Too many apps don’t give users a reason to return after one or two sessions. All core loops peak with a pleasurable experience. We take a specific action and earn a reward. The rush of dopamine brings us joy and inspires us to start again. If the reward isn’t good enough, or comes too infrequently, we’ll quickly tire of the app, and not return.”
- In B2B SaaS, a lot of good money is spent on SDRs (sales development activities) trying to reach us with personalised emails and 1:1 ABM (account-based marketing) campaigns to get – you guessed it – attention! Instead, what if brands made a direct offer: “Rajesh: will you give me 30 minutes of your time to listen to my pitch of a product that can work wonders for your business? I will offer you 1000 Mu for your attention.” This would surely make me take notice!
I am just scratching the surface. The purpose is to show the possibilities – which are only limited by our imagination. Segmenting our attention and paying for it – is it an idea whose time has come? The only way to find out is to create it. As Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” So, let’s work to bring alive the micron-verse!