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Archive for September, 2011

The burgeoning belief business

I just got back to the US from India this Sunday from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-me trip that was just eight days long. Was great to spend time with family and revisit Kerala during the busiest week in the year – the Onam week. Its amazing to see an already crowded city coming to a grinding halt as vehicles try to fill up gaps between other vehicles and outrun each other to bring the traffic down to a crawl.

As part of the trip I visited some of the usual temples that I go to during my trips back home – the suddenly famous Padmanabhaswamy Temple whose treasures have now become international news, and the always famous Guruvayoor Temple and the still (thankfully) approachable Thiruvambady Temple in Thrissur. In the three decades that I’ve been visiting the former two, the crowds have increased from small gatherings to huge lines of people waiting for hours, only to pour into the narrow temple entrance as a heaving mass of chanting , pushing, sweating flesh that weaves its way through the narrow pathways or gets led away by curt “keep moving” diktats from appropriately placed temple crowd-control staff.

In a classic case of mismanagement, the “brand” being built-up by these “businesses” is being squandered away in marginal gains by just looking at volume of visitors and not the quality of the visits. Given the recent exposure to behavioral economics and pay-it-forward, one could think of several ways in which the “market” for these businesses could be segmented, leading to an overall improved satisfaction and user experience across the board.

Here are some:

1. Allocate slots daily that are “controlled” slots in terms of number of visitors. Raffle away the slots among the different visitors to remove wealth as a pre-condition for entry, and accept donations in exchange, to encourage the guilt-ridden wealthy visitors to lighten their hearts and wallets in return. People that get these raffle tickets can plan their trips accordingly.

2. Keep a large enough slot for anything-goes crowds as it exists today. People that are interested in immediate demand satisfaction can forego some quality of experience and take this route instead.

3. Encourage “pay-it-forward” experimentation and introduce some ticketed spots especially for coveted days such as festival days and early morning poojas that are typically in high demand. Given that the expected returns in terms of “favor”  from above is higher for these slots, the chances of people cheating are minimal and this in some sense is a captive audience for pay-it-forward experimentation without worries about cheating. The sharing aspect of this model makes the experience feel all the more wonderful and people leave feeling better about themselves.

4. Think about temples as businesses. Not in terms of profit maximization, but in terms of user engagement, user retention, quality of user experience, frequency, recency and other typical metrics. Faith is taken on faith, without much thought from either the visitor or the management of these temples. As a result, the experience has stagnated or gotten far worse at most of these facilities over the years. The Hindu calendar overflows with festivals, special months, weeks, days, hours of the day and even minutes. It should be easy to encourage maximal engagement along any of these axes from the user-base and improve their overall experience.

5. Think about all large market segments. The way women, children and people with special needs are disregarded at these facilities is just heart-rending. Not only is it potentially against the laws of the nation, it just is poor business practice. If the product you advertise (the Man or Woman within) is secular and all-welcoming, keep the premises the same – its as simple as that!

Overall it is amazing to see how belief as a business is growing steadily amidst a nation of extremes – a rapidly expanding “middle class” with disposable incomes steadily on the increase, and at the same time an ever-increasing class of disempowered poor, with fewer and fewer resources at their disposal, searching for that validation of their faith that will bring their lives back on track. One can only hope that these few monopolies across the nation that having taken over a large chunk of the belief business actually provide better quality of service for their visitors and not just take them for granted.

Crowdsourced fundraising

My column on the Wharton Magazine blog this month talks about crowdsourced fundraising, the different models around this and associated issues. Take a look at it at the blog website. Would love to hear any comments and feedback!