Published November 26-December 1, 2020
Imagine getting very short emails from brands you like and trust that inform, educate and delight. These “micro newsletters” (microns, as I term them) can be read in 15-30 seconds unlike the regular emails that we typically get from brands which are full of images, text and links. Think of them like SMSes – you want to see them right away rather than later. The microns are not ad-driven, but content-rich. They could have breaking news, market updates, thoughtful quotes, recipes, health tips, travel recommendations, an excerpt from a poem, a brief on a new topic. The point is that you, as an email subscriber, see them almost as soon as they come. And in that fleeting moment, you are also exposed to the brand. Microns come daily and automatically – at the same time. Their goal? Become a habit in your life.
For a brand, microns are easy to create because they are much shorter. They daily connect with the recipient (customers or prospects) helps foster a closer bond. Emails tend to have a low open rate – which is where microns come in. Because they can be instantly consumed, there is no reason to leave them for later. It is almost like SMSes – we tend to see them as soon as we get them because we know it will only take a few seconds. Email still remains the most inexpensive communication channel – costing a fraction of the cost of sending SMS or WhatsApp. While app notifications have a zero cost to send, they do not have a 100% delivery rate – since many users simply turn off notifications. Useful microns can be shared on WhatsApp or other social media thus creating a potential viral effect and bringing in future customers to the brand.
Now imagine if microns can be made free for brands and with a double opt-in for subscribers – it’s a win-win on both sides. Recipients do not get any spam, while brands can scale the base without worries of cost implications (especially since messages are sent daily). Sounds too good to be true? This is exactly what MyToday aims to do – offer free daily email newsletter subscriptions that are valuable to both consumers and brands. It is the first-of-its-kind 2-sided platform – free for both sides (publishers and subscribers).
There are many questions that can be asked: In a world awash with content on websites, apps and social media, why is a new format – or even more content – needed? Our inboxes (Email, SMS, Whatsapp) are anyways crowded – why fill them up even more? Do we really need to get these microns daily? If everyone starts doing them, won’t that defeat the purpose? How many sources of news, recos and tips do we really need? All good questions that I will address. But before that, we will take a trip down memory lane.
In late 2006, I had started a service very similar to the idea I just described over SMS – it was called MyToday Dailies (and later MyToday SMS). It was a free subscription service – all one had to do was to SMS – START <channel_name> to subscribe and STOP <channel_name> to unsubscribe. The service grew rapidly – person-to-person, one subscription at a time. At its peak, it had over 4 million subscribers with an average of 2.5 subscriptions per person, and we were sending 12 million SMSes daily. Each subscriber had opted in and could opt-out any time they wanted. It was a true daily delight for people!
I had presented about MyToday at a conference in September 2008 and here is how I summarised it:
To subscribe to any of our 50+ SMS channels – ranging from News to Cricket, from Health Tips to Beauty Tips, from Jokes to the best movies to watch on TV tonight -people just have to send a single SMS. It could not be easier.
Here are some figures that will speak to how HUGE the potential is.
- Our free SMS subscription service, MyToday Dailies, has grown to 3.7 million subscribers in less than 2 years – all via word-of-mouth. We continue to add thousands of new subscribers daily.
- We send 12 million SMS everyday – accounting for 4% of India’s SMS traffic.
The daily SMS we send has become a habit for MILLIONS of people. The right-of-way we have because of that habit we created can now be monetised in various ways: from ads to leads, from paid channels to transactions.
We recently had Nielsen survey over 2,000 subscribers of MyToday. Here are some amazing statistics. The average age of the subscriber base is 25 years. 75% of the 3.7 million subscriber base is less than 30 years. Nearly 80% belong to SEC A and B.
75% of the subscribers read every SMS that they receive. For the vast majority, MyToday has become the primary source of receiving news and information.
Some other posts from that period:
- September 2008 (reflecting on the launch of the service): Doing SMS services was actually going a step backward. But I put my ego aside and decided to give that approach a try. It did come down to a decision I had to make — Go or No Go. Luckily, I chose Go despite some misgivings. And that was how MyToday Dailies was born.
- September 2008: “We grew slowly for the first couple of months. We had started with CRICKET, but then launched some more SMS channels. I remember a picnic we had gone on New Year’s Eve and us celebrating the 10K unique subscriber figure. All growth was happening word-of-mouth. We had done some initial promotion on radio and through flyers, but nothing after that…It was the New Year of 2007 which brought a tremendous surge in growth. And the channel which powered that for us was BIBLE. The word-of-mouth growth for that had to be seen to be believed — every day saw a few thousand subscribers signing up. This was complemented by NEWS and CRICKET (perennial favourites). We also had a few ads in Mumbai local trains up that month. Suddenly, the positive spiral of growth was at work and it was like going back to the early days of some of the websites that I had launched. People loved the fact that the SMSes just came to them — they were casually interested in News or Cricket, and this was a good way to stay updated with what was happening.”
- August 2008: Netcore has succeeded in creating a unique new model of VAS through its award-winning product portfolio ‘MyToday’ (GSMA Mobile Innovation Global awards 2008, Runner-up, ‘True Mobile Startup’ Category). It has created a phenomenally successful direct-to-consumer service, MyToday SMS dailies, building up a subscriber base of over 3.5 million users in less than 2 years. This new ‘digital mass media’ service is currently ad-supported & free to user, demonstrating for the first time that VAS services need not always be paid for by subscribers. Businesses can contribute to generating revenue as well. This new model needs to evolve to a broader definition of VAS wherein a Right of Way is created to a subscriber & businesses pay for that right of way. We believe that subscriptions will be key driver in this ‘VAS 2.0’ paradigm.
The service came to an abrupt halt in 2009 when TRAI increased SMS pricing overnight to combat spam. What was a sub-1 paisa SMS became almost an order of magnitude more expensive. We were sending over 1 crore SMSes daily at that time. We obviously could not spend 10 times more and survive. Our efforts to persuade TRAI that ours was an opt-in service and should not be clubbed with other messages did not work. (On a separate note: this was yet another example of how hard it is to do business in India – regulatory action killed a promising, award-winning service overnight.)
The viral growth of MyToday Dailies (SMS) at that time stayed with me. And in recent times, I wondered if such a service could work in today’s times over email.
Email is what Netcore has excelled at over the past 20 years. We had started by setting up Linux-based email servers for corporate customers (as an alternative to the very expensive Microsoft Exchange). A decade later, around 2007-8, we launched an email marketing platform for companies who needed to do mass mailing to their subscribers. A few years later, we added an email API service. Through the years, email has powered Netcore’s growth. Today, Netcore is amongst the top 5 global email platforms, delivering over 10 billion emails a month for its enterprise customers.
Even with the rise of alternate communication and interaction channels (SMS, WhatsApp, push notifications on mobile apps), email’s charm has stayed. For many, their email address is their identity. With the mobile number, the email address is the only other universal option which allows a business to communicate to its customers. The ability to ‘push’ messages direct to an inbox is what makes email so attractive. Of course, this ease has also come with abuse – as spam has risen through the years. Consumer email service providers like Gmail have also risen to the challenge to ensure as clean an inbox as possible.
The alternatives – SMS and WhatsApp – don’t have the same advantages that email has. SMS in India costs almost 10 times that of email. (The SMS inbox is now filled with spam that is very hard to control.) WhatsApp has many constraints for businesses seeking to engage with their customers and is nearly 30 times more expensive than email. The humble email still wins hands down – in terms of cost and convenience.
Email-based communications from businesses is what fills our inbox. Most are long with many different clickable options. At times, we read and act. But many times, we just ignore. This is where I began to wonder – could the ideas that made MyToday SMS a success be applied to email? Short emails that can be read in just a few seconds and which subscribers actually looked forward to. The religious quote (“voice of God”) in the morning, the joke in the evening, the news and market updates during the day, a bedtime story or poem, the health tip, the factoid I did not know – all curated and delivered to my inbox. Without me having to wade through zillions of Twitter noise or website pop-up ads. Simple, clean messages readable in a few seconds that inform and educate.
While we could create a number of such content channels, the brand opportunities were also significant. I would love to get nutritional messages from Amul, health tips from Cipla, gadget updates and usage tips from Samsung, book excerpts from Penguin, OTT recos from Netflix, short news explainers from Indian Express, and more – and I would willingly give my email ID to brands to communicate with me. “Keep them short – and I will give you each 15 seconds of my attention daily.”
And thus was born the idea for the new MyToday – via email
I had tried multiple variants around MyToday after the SMS service had to shut down a decade ago because of the increase in SMS pricing. There was MyToday Mobs (SMS groups), MyToday mobile portal and MyToday Store (paid SMS subscriptions). All of them failed. For some reason, the “MyToday” word stayed with me – it evokes something that is personal and current. I kept imagining different kinds of consumer services with that name. And that is how the current MyToday idea came to life – merging the microcontent subscriptions idea with email as a delivery channel.
MyToday in its latest avatar is a 2-sided platform – publishers and subscribers. And it is free for both. What binds them together is permission – subscribers voluntarily opting in to content from publishers. Publishers can be media companies, FMCG brands, pharma companies, consumer electronics manufacturers or even political parties – anyone with a message that can be made into small capsules that would be of interest to recipients.
The “free” part for brands is an innovation – no one offers communications free for enterprises. Netcore is perhaps the only email service provider globally who can do this – because of its email experience combined with the lowest operating costs. This is a way to make email more inviting and exciting for businesses and their present and future customers. My hope is that this will open up new vistas for Netcore globally – and help us connect with businesses for their regular email communications also.
MyToday is an experiment – let’s see if it works. It has to spread virally for it to succeed. I will need to build both sides – the publishers and the subscribers. I have started with a small team that publishes content on 20+ channels to begin with. Hopefully, this can interest enough subscribers to get the flywheel going.
For me, the four alluring elements of MyToday are:
- Push: content is delivered to the inbox – there is no need to visit multiple sites to consume it
- Microcontent: each message is short and to the point, and thus can be consumed is just a few seconds
- Curation: each micron is chosen and crafted by a person, rather than aggregation with little regard to what may be important or interesting
- Variety: multiple options available in a single place, rather than having to go to different sites to discover interesting content
What I like is that I can now stay updated without having to worry about the low signal-to-noise ratio on other sites and channels. I know the most important news at a glance twice a day. I like the thoughtfulness of the daily quote. I am discovering my love for poetry, and learning to like Hindi kavitas. My hope is that each of us will discover something we like – and over time, it becomes a habit. Like MyToday SMS once was.
MyToday can be a very powerful vehicle for brands to build deeper engagement with their customers. Here is the story for enterprises through a series of slides.
I hope that MyToday can become a new category of communications – to delight both brands and their customers.
Looking ahead, there are many directions this can go. The first goal is to expand the breadth of the content channels – especially, creating some more “serial feeds” where new subscribers start with the first in the series rather than the latest. These serial feeds could be used to create an educational series on different topics – spread over 30 days (microns). Additionally, channels could also move beyond text to have rich content – images, animations, audio or embedded video.
The second idea is to “platformise” MyToday – making it possible for publishers to create a channel on their own and start their own service. Since there is a double opt-in for subscribers, there is no worry that publishers can spam their subscriber lists. This will help us scale it out and offer a breadth of choices to subscribers.
The third possibility is to build in the option of payment for creators – on the lines of what Substack and ScrollStack are doing.
There are more ideas: use a combination of an app and WhatsApp for subscription management, allow subscribers to set the time they want to receive the content, automate the content for some channels, bring in AMP and dynamic content in the emails to showcase the power of the medium by enabling greater interactivity (can be especially useful for puzzles and real-time updates), and maybe even create our own email inbox service just for MyToday. The possibilities are many.
Of course, first MyToday has to work. My operating belief with all new projects is that they are failures until they succeed. So, a lot has to be done to create a service that people like and spreads virally. Three key metrics that are important for me are: R (reproduction number) for MyToday needs to become 2 (so that each person brings in two new subscribers), S (average subscriptions per person) needs to be 3, and the T (the time between an email arriving in the inbox and it being read) needs to be less than an hour.
MyToday is both a B2C and B2B initiative. I am trying my hands again at B2C after a long time. A lot has changed in the world in the past decade. Mine is an idea from the past. Will it work? Let’s see!