Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Her Tears, Moved Him to Do Something Like Nothing He Had Ever Done!

It was the tears that forced Sushobhan Mukherjee's hand. Sarita Devi Laishram had fought her heart out in the semi-finals of the 57-60 Kg boxing competition at the Incheon Asian Games, against the South Korean fighter Ji Na Park. Yet, as she stood by the podium to collect her bronze, Sarita could not stem the free flow of tears. She believed, along with about 1.2 billion Indians, that she had been robbed of a possible gold due to biased refereeing.

Sushobhan, a marketing and advertising professional based in Singapore, had not seen the bout. Nor had he witnessed  Sarita's meltdown during the medal ceremony. However, when twitter lit up with an angry explosion of messages, he was moved to look. First at the match and then at the dramatic medal ceremony, where Sarita Devi accepted her bronze medal only to put it around the neck of her Korean opponent.

That moment he decided something needed to be done, "something substantial and meaningful. Because, I knew Sarita Devi's career was finished. There was no way she was going to survive that. I read up about her background and realized she came from a very poor family. Boxing is all they had. So I decided to try and raise some money for her. It seemed a much better thing to do, than simply vent my anger with a tweet or a FB post."

Timing, Sushobhan realized, was everything. Sarita's meltdown happened on October 1st, a day after her semifinal bout. October 2nd was the beginning of a long weekend in India. A big chunk of his target demographic would be away during that time. He, and his partner Sangita Sridhar, moved fast. First getting through to Sushobhan knew the founder of the crowd funding platform for social causes so the normal formalities for setting up a campaign were set aside. Milaap also waived its fees so Sarita Devi got most of whatever was raised.

When the campaign went online, Sushobhan had not even contacted Sarita Devi. But as he explained on the fund raising page, he was confident of reaching out to her through his contacts in Manipur and in sports. They eventually did manage to reach her husband who gave them the bank details to transfer the funds to.

The campaign went live on October 1st 2014. Sushobhan and Sangita promoted it via their personal social media contacts. The money came in, along with the skepticism. "Why are you raising money for Sarita," one asked, "did she ask you to?" Another felt it was an insult to raise money for Sarita Devi. Many others doubted if the money would actually reach Sarita Devi. Here Milaap's credibility helped. The organisation held the funds raised and only transferred them direct to Sarita Devi's account after verifying that it was indeed her account.

Meanwhile, things were moving fast in Incheon as well. The Asian Games federation, the Indian Olympic and Boxing associations, and the International Boxing Association all put pressure on the boxer to apologize for her behavior and accept her medal. Even her more celebrated senior partner Mary Kom, publicly criticized Sarita for her actions on the podium.

Sarita caved. She unconditionally apologized and accepted her medal. With that done, Sushobhan knew the campaign had run its course. The moment had passed. The two days of hectic fund raising and parlaying naysayers had netted a total of Rs 1,68,862. Not a small amount considering the duration of the campaign, or the low key promotion it got.

This money would eventually reach Sarita direct from Milaap. She would also be banned by the International Boxing Association for a year for her tantrum. She is still serving the ban.

Meanwhile, the two days left Sushobhan feeling positive about his ability to make real change. He has set his sights on an ambitious project that will go online in May this year. He now wants to help girls in remote areas of India have easier access to schools. He believes giving them bicycles will increase both their mobility and their upward mobility. He believes he can use social media for real change. He believes anyone with a passion can make a difference. Most importantly he believes one person can make a difference. And he is going to continue doing so.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

How Indu Became the "Viral Boobs Lady"

If Indu Harikumar had her way she should have left for London to do an expensive art course back in 2010. Instead, she got rejected because of a silly mistake in her application form. She would have to wait six months before she could reapply.
Indu with her students in Ladhak. She had volunteered at a nunnery in 2014 and part of her duties included teaching these kids art and creativity.
With time on her hands, she started teaching an art class on a construction site in Mumbai. The voluntary organisation she worked for could not provide her with much in the way of art resources. So she innovated. Indu would pick up leaves, bottle caps, match boxes, anything that could help her create beautiful art with the kids. She also began blogging about it. She says "I did not really think anyone read my blog or followed by twitter posts as I had so few followers, but Pratham books (a not-for profit publisher of children's literature) did. And they began tweeting about my classes every Thursday."

Indu's created many of these match box books. She's even trained kids to do these. She would post all of this work onto her different social media accounts, just to share her creativity with friends.

That was Indu's first experience with the power of social media. Those early tweets by Pratham led to a book cover and an invitation from Bookaroo (a festival of Children's literature) "to work with children because of my match box books. I was even invited to give a talk at the Kala Ghoda arts festival. I remember thinking at that time that these things happen to people who went to big design school, not someone sent to a "drawing class" by her parents."

It also led to her first book deal. Children's publisher Katha Books asked her to illustrate Sarojini Naidu's poem the Palanquin Bearers using cloth. This is one of the illustrations that made it to the book.

Her success spurred Indu to set up a Facebook page. But, she admitted to not being a social media maven."Sure, I put up my work and travel photos. I also share a lot of personal stuff on FB. But I don't do anything to build up membership or followers. I have never tried to build an email list. I am busy with my projects and I just use Facebook and Instagram to share what I do." 

If by now you're wondering what a children's writer has to do with viral boobs, you are about to find out. One of  Indu's projects was a book on her ancestor who resided in 18th century Kerala. He had an interesting story and she wanted to tell it. While researching the period, Indu came across a stunning fact. There was a rather unusual tax system imposed on lower caste women in the state. She had to write about it. This is what she put up on her Facebook page:

"Last night, I was drawing the family comic for the nth time when I started reading about Mulakaram or breast tax. A tax to be paid by Dalit women in Travancore in 1800s, depending on the size of their breasts. I knew that low caste women couldn't cover their bosom but didn't know about this tax or Nangeli. Since everything can't go into the comic, I decided to draw this."

The response to the post was ballistic. Indu used to get a couple of thousand views on her page and a few shares. But look what happened post the boob post.

The post went up on Jan 20th. In the four days following she got calls from two television stations and a women's magazine wanting to profile her work. She also came to be referred to as the "viral boobs" lady. Strangers calling her with requests to turn their lifelong collection of cassettes, matchboxes and sundry other items into works of art and even an art student wanting to intern with her.

She had to turn down the intern, because in a beautiful twist of fate, Indu leaves for Vienna in a couple of months for an art residency. She gets to spend time learning from and teaching other artists and story tellers in one of Europe's most beautiful cities.

I believe Indu's social media success has more to it than boobs. She followed her heart. Created beautiful things and beautiful stories. She focused her energies on doing what she does best. She does not think too much about what works or does not work on social media. She thinks about beauty, about artistry and about story telling. Social media has ensured that she herself has become a story worth telling.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Chalking Out Their Dreams

Navin and Abhishek had a dream. The two 14-year-olds wanted to get into the movies. Abhishek wanted to act and Navin, direct. The boys grew up in Bangalore savoring cinema. They would avoid the multiplexes, heading out instead to the single screen theaters. Navin wanted to experience "the real reaction of people. To see how they react to the images." It was to be an invaluable training ground. 

The boys watched, talked, dreamt cinema and stories. But, as it happens in most of their movies, their story too had a twist. Growing up in salaried middle-class families in Bangalore, the boys had to pursue education that would lead to respectable careers. So they did. Graduating as computer engineers they joined a BPO. Normally this story should end here. But it did not.

A little over four years ago Navin came across a photograph of a child sleeping with the chalked image of his mother. That was from the Iraq war and won its photographer many awards. It also moved Navin. He wanted to do something for children, especially those without a voice...the orphans.

The script was relatively easy. It was ready three years ago. But execution took a long time. First they got an orphanage in Bangalore, Sishu Mandir, to agree to their proposal. Navin says "I don't think the orphanage people expected anything would happen." Then they got hold of a theater actor and a three-year-old child. They had a day to shoot the film. Everything was impromptu, and decided on the spot. The kid was allowed to roam free across Sishu Mandir and the camera followed.

The only scene they struggled with was when the kid was to lie down on the ground. He found it dirty, but Navin coaxed him to give a perfect shot. Editing and music took a further six months. Finally, they had their two minute film. It cost Navin and Abhishek about Rs 20,000. This they managed between themselves. The video went on youtube on Nov 14, 2013...Children's Day. It was an instant hit.

In a year, it garnered over five million views. Then Ashton Kutcher happened. Around November 1 last year Kutcher watched then tweeted and shared the Chalk link on Facebook.

Kutcher's endorsement pushed up the views further. The video has now crossed nine million views and has won all round praise from netizens. 

What did this do to Navin and Abhishek? For one thing their parents now believe in their dream. Navin says "they know we can become something. They know we are serious." They got publicity and with it recognition. "People come up to us on the street and ask if we directed Chalk. I don't how they know, but they do. We like that. We are embarrassed sometimes, but we like it. We get calls and emails from all over the world. Many want to help kids. We have fulfilled our objective," says Navin.

They have won awards. Their movie has been widely distributed in India and overseas. They will get some money too. They don't know how much yet. Their distributor will cut their first check in about seven months. This will include monetization on youtube as well as distribution through traditional channels. While Navin is not sure how much Chalk has earned, I did the math and the numbers are interesting. Youtubers can expect to be paid anything from $2-3 for 1000 views. At nine million views the video would have earned anything from $20,000 to 25,000. That's Rs 12 to 15 lakhs. And that's just from youtube alone. Not bad for a video that cost just Rs 20,000 to shoot!

Navin and Abhishek are moving on, with a lot of confidence. Navin says "our next film is going to be about women. It will be something unimaginable." Navin is also a lot more savvy about funding his projects. He knows they don't have to worry about money. "We are thinking of crowd funding our next film. We have a reputation, so maybe that will work," he says.

I loved the story of Chalk. But I also love the story of the two boys behind Chalk. Two boys with a dream and an idea. They poured their heart and soul into it. They were not afraid of the unknown. Not daunted by what they did not know. Neither is a trained film maker. Their knowledge of social media rudimentary. But that did not stop them. Ten years and one film later the two 24-year-olds are well on their way to living their dream!

PS: Navin would love that I mention his entire cast and crew so here goes all the people behind Chalk

Associate Director: Abhishek A L
Music director: Nirmal
Assistant Directors: Karthik R, Sendhil Kumar
Screenplay, Cinematography, Editor: Bhupinder Singh Raina

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Skiplagged is David against Goliaths United & Ortiz

Aktarer Zaman, is the 22-year-old techie behind His site does one simple thing. Finds out the cheapest ticket between two destinations via the so called "hidden city" route. Basically, the hidden city is the layover city between two destination. So if you are flying from City A to City C, you might find yourself on a flight that stops at City B, en-route your final destination. Sometimes the ticket cost between City A and City C can be cheaper than between City A and B.

So if you follow Zaman's method and want to travel to City B. You actually book a ticket from City A to C. Then when the flight stops over at City B, you simply do not board for the onward journey. This of course only works if you do not have check in luggage. But the savings can be substantial and it seems not what the airlines want travellers to do. So United Airlines and Ortiz that they have filed a civil law suite again Zaman to shut down his site.

Zaman says he never really intended his site to be a business proposition. Just something he set up to help travelers find cheaper tickets. But the attention of United and Ortiz has turned this obscure little site into the latest battle of consumer vs Big Business.

The site used to receive thousands of visitors a month, but since news of the case got out, traffic has exploded.

Traffic on has jumped since news of the case went viral

Emboldened by the response, Zaman has decided to crowfund the defence of the lawsuite via His campaign went live on November 26th and is already close to meeting its target of $60,000. Though Zaman says he does not know how much a civil suite is going to cost him, the amount he's raised is right bang in the middle of what a study by estimates to be the cost of a civil suite. The site pegs maximum costs at around $120,000.

The point of this post is rather simple. Zaman has demonstrated the power of one. Of a simple techie with a smart idea getting overwhelming support from thousands of netizens riled by what they perceived to be "big business bullying." It does not take a marketing department with a billion dollar budget to get across your idea anymore. It does not take social media smarts or an SEO black belt to win over fans online. 

All you need is a simple powerful idea that resonates with your target audience. So if you feel you have it, use it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Creating Birthday Buzz With QR Codes

Aadi, my son, turned nine on the 27th of December. Born right bang in the middle of the Christmas/New Year break has some advantages--like being sure you don't have to go to school on your birthday. Or having all the time in the world to plan a great party. But, as we discovered over the last eight years, it also has one big disadvantage. The school break is also the time when many of his friends go out of town.

So after a number of years of disappointing party attendance, we decided to up our game. Our target was to ensure his friends stay back for his birthday. To do that we knew we had to create a buzz way before the day. The key to creating the buzz would have to be a good theme and we choose Mystery/Detectives. This fit in nicely with his obsession for the spy mouse Geronimo Stilton and Enid Blyton's Secret Seven. 

Invitations to the party were sent out a week before and had a element of mystery...courtesy a QR Code. Anyone wanting to get admission to the party would have to find the password hidden in the code. While a seemingly simple element for adults this created tremendous excitement among our target demographic (Aadi's friends), as many of them had not heard of the QR Code or even scanned one before. This age group generally does not own a smart phone but have played games on their parents' phones. They simply loved the idea of finding the password using the phone. 

Our phones started ringing half an hour after the first invitations went out. The first kid cracked the password less than an hour later. Two days later a couple of parents called to confirm they were cancelling their trips as their kids wanted to attend the mystery party. Another came back earlier than planned make it to the event. Some of our friends called to ask if they could bring over kids who had heard of the mystery party and wanted to attend...even though they had not met Aadi. 

Kids and their parents would come up to Aadi, Anjali (my wife) and I either to whisper the password or ask us how to get it. The original list of 15 had already ballooned to 24 and still the requests for invites kept coming. I had to go back for more party props as the list would keep growing. 

On the 27th, we stuck an invitation to the door, for the few that might have not figured out the password....and there were a few adults who actually had to be helped with downloading a QR Code scanner. The kids mostly figured it out and so there was no problem. 

By now, happy with the interest our little code had generated, we decided to generate another one for those who could not attend. This was stuck on the cake and would lead to a simple puzzle. To know the answer or to check if you had the right one, you had to call up the birthday boy. The story of the birthday went up on Facebook a day later and the phones started ringing within half an hour of the post. Many of the calls were to wish Aadi, yet others to compliment Anjali and I for the innovative theme. But the majority simply wanted to know the answer to the puzzle.

This little post birthday puzzle extended the birthday buzz into the new year greetings as well. Many of our family and friends calling up to wish for the New Year also wanted to know the answer to the puzzle.
The core team of play buddies now call themselves the secret six! Last heard they're in search of their first mission.

All in all the party did not cost us anything more than the previous editions. But the buzz it generated before, during and after ensured this became Aadi's most memorable birthday ever.

As an advocate of technology there were a number of important learning's from this simple birthday exercise:

a) It is not enough to simply bung in a QR Code in an ad or on product packaging. There has to be a clear call to action to create engagement.

b) Knowledge of QR Codes is abysmal even among adults. I had to help many of them download scanners before they got the password.

c) In a country where mobile internet connectivity can range from spotty to non-existent it helps if the QR Code engagement can be enabled via phone call or SMS. None of our codes led to a URL. Doing this ensured we got a tremendous response to both the codes via phone calls and SMS.

d) QR codes are a brilliant marketing tool. But a little more thought needs to go into creating the campaigns. Using them simply to point to a URL can be an exercise in futility.