Encouraging bad behaviour

While flipping TV channels last evening (an activity I seldom undertake nowadays) I came across this new advertisement for Myntra.com:

I watched this advertisement 2-3 times, and to me the clincher seemed to be the fact that you can return goods to Myntra and get your cash back the same day.

The intention of the advertisement is clear – for someone who is uncomfortable with buying clothes online (like the woman in this advertisement), the fact that you can return the stuff and get your money back immediately can be a huge incentive to try.

The problem, however, is with the overall message it conveys. One of the biggest problems with online retail in India is the high rate of returns. Returns create friction in several ways – from the logistics cost to reversing payments to possible fraud to possible damage of goods. From this perspective, returns are undesirable behaviour as far as retailers are concerned.

In this context, it’s rather bizarre that Myntra is putting out an ad that promotes the use of returns. While it might be a decent incentive to attract new customers and expand the market, the problem is that it encourages your existing customers (who are likely to transact more than new customers) to misbehave!

In other words, Myntra’s latest ad actually encourages undesirable behaviour from customers! I find it quite puzzling.

PS: On the other hand, Myntra’s competitor Amazon is actually making returns less friendly. If you return an electronic product now, you can only get a replacement, and not your money back.

The problem with premium ad-free television

I watched snippets of the just-concluded ICC WorldT20 final using an illegal streaming service, which streamed content drawn from SkySports2.  The horrible quality of the streaming aside (the server seemed to have terrible bandwidth issues), the interesting thing to note was that it was completely devoid of advertisements.

With the quality of cricket coverage in India currently being abysmal due to the frequent cutting for advertisements (I remember getting thoroughly pissed off with the cuts for advertisements before the replay of a wicket was shown during the India-Australia series earlier this year), it made me think about the economics of a separate premium service that is ad-free.

The infrastructure for delivery is in place, given that internet-based legal streaming services are fairly common now (the likes of HotStar). Internet-based delivery also makes it easy to charge pay per view, so payment is also not a problem. This raises the question of whether it is a good idea for channels to monetise the demand for ad-free cricket by providing the service through online streaming, leaving the mainstream broadcast to be monetised via advertisements.

While in theory this appears like a good idea, the problem is with the kind of people who will migrate to the new service – they will be people who have the ability and willingness to pay for a higher quality broadcast. Such people are likely to belong to two overlapping categories – loyal fans of the game and people who can afford to pay a premium.

It is unlikely that the union of these two sets will comprise of too high a proportion of the overall viewership of the game, but the point is that these are the two groups who are likely to be most lucrative to advertisers – the loyal fans watch regularly and the people who are able to pay have more disposable income.

Moving such customers to an ad-free online channel might reduce the supply of advertisements which can be used to reach them, and this might not make advertisers happy. And given that television channels have cosy relationships with advertisers (or at least media buyers), they are unlikely to piss them off by moving the most lucrative customers to a premium platform.

Of course if this segmentation (between ad-free and free broadcasts) is implemented, it will also impact the price of advertisements in the free broadcast. That will need to be taken as an input while setting prices for the ad-free service. In other words, pricing is going to be a challenge!

If some television channel wants to work on this, I’m available for hire as a consultant. I’ve done a fair amount of prior work on pricing and dynamic pricing, am pretty good at quantitative methods and am in the course of writing a popular economics book.

Nokia Lumia: Phone or Camera?

If you look at all the Nokia Lumia 920 advertisements you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a camera and not a phone. Ads talk about “optical image stabilization”, low light imaging and stuff that might make sense to a geeky photographer but not to someone who wants a nice phone with such apps.

Nokia Lumia 920 ad

The communication suggests that Nokia’s perception of the problem with its phones is the lack of camera power. What it absolutely fails to address is that the primary reason people don’t buy Nokia phones any more is the perceived lack of apps on the Nokia-Windows8 ecosystem.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the company continues to not do well in India.

Bangalore Book Festival

So today I made my way to Gayatri Vihar in the Palace Grounds to visit the Bangalore Book Festival, on its last day. It was interesting, though a bit crowded (what would you expect on the last day of an exhibition? and that too, when it’s a Sunday?). I didn’t buy much (just picked up two books) given the massive unread pile that lies at home. However, there was much scope for pertinent observations. Like I always do when I have a large number of unrelated pertinent observations, I’ll write this in bullet point form.

  • There were some 200 stalls. Actually, there might have been more. I didn’t keep count, despite the stalls having been numbered. Yeah, you can say that I wasn’t very observant.
  • All the major bookshops in Bangalore barring the multicity ones had set up shop there. I don’t really know what they were doing there. Or were they just trying to capture the market that only buys in fairs? Or did they set up stall there just to advertise themselves?
  • It seems like a lot of shops were trying to use the fair to get rid of inventory they wanted to discard. All they had to do was to stack all of this on one table and put a common price tag (say Rs. 50) on every book in that collection, and it was enough to draw insane crowds
  • One interesting stall at the fair had been set up by pothi.com an online self-publishing company. I’ll probably check them out sometime next year when I might want to publish a blook. Seems like an interesting business model they’ve got. Print on demand!
  • I also met the flipkart.com guys at the fair. Once again, they were there for advertising themselves. Need to check them out sometime. Given the kind of books I buy, I think online is the best place to get long tail stuff.
  • There was an incredibly large number of islamic publishing houses at the fair! And have you guys seen the “want qur an? call 98xxxxxxxx for free copy” hoardings all over the city? Wonder why the Bajrang Dal doesn’t target those
  • There was large vernacular presence at the fair. I remember reading in the papers that there was a quota for Kannada publishers, but there was reasonable presence for other languages also, like Gult, Tam, Mellu, Hindi
  • A large number of stalls were ideology driven. Publishing houses attached to cults had set up stalls, probably to further the cause of their own cult. So there was an ISKCON stall, a Ramakrishna Mutt stall, a Ramana Maharshi stall, etc.
  • Attendance at most of these niche stalls was quite thin, as people mostly crowded the stalls being run by bookstores in order to hunt for bargains. Attendance was also mostly thin at publisher-run stalls, making me wonder why most of these people had bothered to come to the fair at all.
  • I saw one awesomely funny banner at the place. It was by “Dr Partha Bagchi, the world leader in stammering for last 20 years” or some such thing. Was too lazy to pull out my phone and click pic. But it was a masterpiece of a banner
  • Another interesting ideological publisher there was “Leftword books”. Their two sales reps were in kurtas and carrying jholas (ok I made the latter part up). And they were sellling all sorts of left-wing books. Wonder who funds them! And they were also selling posters of Che for 10 bucks each
  • I wonder what impact this fair will have on bookstores in Bangalore in the next few days. Or probably it was mostly the non-regular book buyers who did business at the fair and so the regulars will be back at their favourite shops tomorrow.

I bought two books. Vedam Jaishankar’s Casting A Spell: A history of Karnataka cricket (I got it at Rs. 200, as opposed to a list price of Rs 500) and Ravi Vasudevan’s “Making Meaning in Indian Cinema”.

Randomizing advertisements

This 7.5 minute break in the middle of an IPL innings is a bad idea. The biggest problem is that everyone knows the exact length of the break, and can use it to do stuff – like cook, or clean, or crap, or fag, or maybe watch the Everton-Man U shootout. 7.5 minutes is a lot of ad time, but the problem is that absolutely no one will be watching them. So if you were a smart advertiser, you wouldn’t want to put your ad in that slot – you are better off taking an over break slot.

Now what I propose here is not applicable to cricket – at least I hope it’s not since conventionally you can’t slot ads whenever you want to (Lalit Modi thinks he can change that, though). I don’t know if this concept has already been implemented, and I’d be rather surprised if it hasn’t been. The basic idea is to randomize the length of advertising slots.

So you are watching your favourite soap and there’s a commercial break. And you go off into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. But you don’t really want to miss even a minute of the action, so you’ll go only if you know that the advertisements will go on for two minutes. Historical data tells you that the ads will last for two and a half minutes, and off you go. Now what if suddenly tomorrow there is only twenty seconds of advertisements and you end up missing a bit of the action? You curse yourself, and the soap, and the TV channel, and the TV, and Tata Sky, but you make a mental note not to go make tea during this break the next day.

Now, by randomizing the length of advertising breaks, channels can ensure that people actually watch the ads. If you don’t know if the break will last twenty seconds or two minutes, you are likely to sit glued to the TV, watching the same channel dishing out the ads. You are unlikely to go off to make tea, or to crap, or to channel surf, if you don’t know when programming might start next. You occasionally get pained – when the breaks are too long – but on the whole you end up watching most of the ads.

Yes, there is the chance that the viewer gets pained when the random length for ads that gets picked turns out to be really large. Also, if we shorten a few ad breaks, we should also lengthen a few others? Or increase the number of ad slots? Not really – is my argument.

The clincher here is that by randomizing length of ad breaks, you are increasing the TRPs for the ads! Yes your program may have high TRP but does that normally translate to ads? With this randomization procedure it does. And when this gets established, you can start charging higher for these slots. And if on an average you can charge a higher rate per second of advertisement, you can sure continue to run the program with a smaller number of ads?

It’s win all around. Customer wins because he gets more programming time than ad time. Advertiser wins because he gets more eyeballs for his ad. TV channel doesn’t lose since the loss of revenue from lesser number of ads is more than made up by the higher rate charged on the ads. In fact, by “holding” the customer, the channel ensures he continues watching this program rather than go off on a tangent while channel surfing.

Normally, I try to show situations where everyone can win by reducing the randomness in the system. This case is opposite. By introducing randomness in the system, everyone wins! I wonder if there is a fallacy here. Or maybe what I’ve written here is so obvious that everyone is implementing it and I’ve failed to notice since the only TV I see is sport (not american sport) which has fixed ad breaks.