Google’s ‘IndiaGetOnline’ initiative was in news recently when it brought one of the oldest market places in India online. Google launched an online portal for businesses in Chandni Chowk — a listing of SMBs with links to their free websites.
This was at the end of 2012 and the campaign had run for a few months. In fact, in the space of listing and providing web space, Google’s initiative is a new entrant. The drive for bringing SMBs online started in May 2011 in Kovilpatti, a small town in Tamil Nadu. Jana Senthur, MD and Founder of web services company MSITL, started a project, eTown, to get SMBs of Kovilpatti on the web and has now expanded to many small towns in Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Funded by Blu Venture Partners in early 2012, eTown provides a strikingly similar value proposition to customers and almost the same revenue model as that of Google’s project.
The objective behind eTown
Much like Google’s initiative, the value proposition of eTown is to provide SMBs a web presence. eTown charges nominal monthly subscription fees for the service which includes web space. Based on the plan chosen, other services such as an own domain name and a ready-made website can be availed.
The main revenue source for eTown is a large subscriber base making small, quarterly payments for these services. eTown does its subscription renewals in a three-month cycle and has reported healthy customer renewals. Another potential source of revenue is from its large databases. eTown India boasts over 1,00,000 businesses across 224 cities in South India.
Marketing and Education
It seems that eTown’s customer acquisition model depends heavily on live selling. With a large foot-on-soil team working across 224 cities in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, sales are predominantly done in person by visiting business owners, and educating them about the benefits of a web presence.
The website is a pictorial listing of businesses in towns, categorised by the towns in various states. The lists are hosted under separate domains and the businesses are provided a listing on the domain of the town they belong to. The site doesn’t have any options for businesses to register their own website as a majority of the businesses on eTown’s portfolio do not have web access and that retaining sales personnel is a largest challenge eTown face’s as of now.
Who is it for?
Urban businesses will find the websites offered by eTown very limiting. It is safe to say that this service is for first-time web users who only want a web presence. The websites provided by eTown only provide content about the businesses and their contact details. While eTown’s portfolio of companies has some from the remotest towns in India which makes for great data, the value of a website might not be fully capitalised by the business owners.
On speaking to some customers of eTown, we realised that most consumers are using this service as a novelty and there aren’t many who can speak of a definite ROI. eTown’s average customer doesn’t know how to measure returns from a website to quantify its worth. eTown’s customers have further shared that the cost for a website is affordable, which could be one of the reasons for its high renewal rates. Furthermore, eTown does not provide analytics for the websites provided by them.
So for eTown users, other than occasional customers, there aren’t many short-term benefits for SMBs. A web presence would provide them with a head start on online visibility if they were to scale.
Scope for the Future
For SMBs, most of their customers come only from surrounding areas. The web is a perfect tool to expand their customer base. With a web presence and with hyper local search engines will make businesses more searchable on the internet.
There are many things that are coming together for SMBs. This space of providing web space for SMBs is in a nascent stage and it has come at a time when India is reporting very high internet adoption. It will be interesting to watch how this sector unfolds in the coming years.