Aishwarya Ramesh

"We're not competing with WhatsApp": Truecaller's Manan Shah

Truecaller has had a busy year. The app has teamed with a feature film — the Ayushman Khurrana starrer 'Dream Girl' — for an awareness campaign.

Roughly six months ago, a TVC with the theme 'Do more with Truecaller' was released to let users know that the app has now diversified and offers three new features — chat, UPI payment, and video calling.

Truecaller made its debut in 2009 as virtual directory — matching numbers to identities and helping detect and curb spam and fraudulent calls. What this recent diversification mean for an app like Truecaller? It's not the only app-based company to diversify. When Flipkart was founded, it specialised in selling books. Flipkart has now diversified into every category, including electronics, home decor, musical instruments, groceries, and more.

To understand the diversification move better, we spoke to Manan Shah, director, marketing India at Truecaller. Shah has been with Truecaller for the past three years, prior to which he was a part of the Indian ad fraternity, working with Contract India, Cheil India, Havas Worldwide, Leo Burnett among others.

He estimates that the average Truecaller user is aged between 20-40 and told us the ratio of the audiences from metro and non-metro (Tier II and III) cities – 65:35. Shah also mentions that most of the registrations that they got for Truecaller payments were from people who didn’t even have UPI IDs.

Truecaller doesn’t just stop at identifying calls. Truecaller had two sister apps – Truedialler and Truemessenger. Truedialler was an alternate to a phone's default dialler that identified whether a person was on a call or available to speak. TrueSMS was a spam detection service for SMSes. During the course of the conversation, Shah mentioned that in 2017, they merged all three apps into one for an improved user experience. He also told us that payments and communications are inherently connected and hence, they decided to go ahead and add the UPI feature subsequently. He tells us that the recent diversification move is a mix of a customer acquisition and customer retention strategy.

We asked him who Truecaller is competing with for the end user's attention. "It's not just WhatsApp but other instant messaging and video calling apps. There will be competition, but we already have the user base in place so it'll help us scale operations. While WhatsApp has a similar audience base in India, some of the issues they've faced are the same as ours, in terms of using more features within the same app," Shah told us.

Shah also emphasized on the fact that it's not about competing with a player, it's about growing an ecosystem. "We're not trying to compete with WhatsApp, we're ultimately trying to create a bigger ecosystem. If a brand is trying to compete for the same set of consumers, it's going to be a waste of money. India as a market is underserved in terms of financial services. We aim to serve the larger market rather than compete for an evolved user who may live in a metro," he tells us.

Business consultant, Samar Singh Sheikhawat feels this sort of diversification is an obvious step for an app such as Truecaller. “I'm sure founders and investors want participation in a bigger business footprint. Whether it's payments, chats or video calls. Truecaller has a large database. But that database is a useless asset to have unless it's monetised. Since they already have this asset on hand, it makes sense for them to take this step," he says.

Samar Singh Sheikhawat
Samar Singh Sheikhawat

Sheikhawat concurs with Shah about this industry being part of a larger ecosystem. “It’s a complex ecosystem where everyone is trying to do everything. Think it's more of a ‘me too’ thing. You have to either be better, faster or cheaper. It has to have a real or a perceived benefit over the existing competition,” he says.

However, he thinks that the brand might have trouble cracking and gaining trust with the payment gateway. “Mobile payments are encrypted and frankly, you're participating with mobile banking, online credit cards, BHIM UPI and so on... Perhaps there is space for one more player in the long run but it's not immediately going to be a smashing success..." Sheikhawat explains. Chat and messenger are low risk consumer features and there might be some adoption for that, but not many takers for their cash transfer feature, Sheikhawat opines.

Further, he questions why any user would use Truecaller to make a video call... “There are issues relating to prominence, quality control and customer reassurance from an ownership perspective. Today, with connectivity improving everywhere it's possible to have a seamless video call experience with WhatsApp. ‘So why would I use Truecaller to make a video call then’? Everyone I know has WhatsApp but everyone I know doesn't necessarily have Truecaller,” he points out.

Another possible hurdle he points out is phone memory issues. “Most companies are aware of this limitation and therefore, release lighter versions of their apps,” he says. “You won't delete Facebook, LinkedIn, or apps that actually offer a feature or a utility that's useful to you. There needs to be a real utility for the app to live on a consumer's smartphone,” he cautions.

Sharing his opinion on the TVC, Sheikhawat admitted that he found it very confusing and felt it could've been done better with dialogue and a product plug. “While showing the icon on a phone, why not articulate that? You're assuming a certain level of audience intellect that may not exist. They could've been simpler, more direct,” he suggests.

To understand the space better, we spoke to Tejas Mehta, chief strategy officer at What’s Your Problem. “It all comes down to monetising and creating some sort of revenue stream,” he tells us. Both reviewers echoed the sentiment that Truecaller’s diversification move seems like a ‘me-too’ offering.

Tejas Mehta
Tejas Mehta

“There’s no need for me to access the app beyond the Truecaller notification popping up every time I receive a call,” he tells us. “That rules out any app-based marketing that someone can do — whether its banner ads or whatever else, it’s not going to work as I am a non-captive user of the brand,” he says. “A consumer regularly coming to my destination is an asset that I have. This seems to be a plausible enough reason to diversify… ‘We’ll offer you a variety of services, as long as you spend more time on my app’,” muses Mehta.

He also notes that while WhatsApp has diverse offerings, the primary subconscious reason a person uses it is for its chat feature. “On an average, users interact with 8-14 apps on a daily basis and the rest of the apps are back burners." Mehta informs us.

He cites the example of Flipkart and Amazon as brands with stories similar to Truecaller when they started out in India. “The difference is, they were aggregators. They were very clear on that, I don’t see that kind of clarity with Truecaller.” he signs off.