ZMESSENGER
CO – FOUNDER & CHIEF EXECUTIVE

Jayomi
Lokuliyana

Jayomi
Lokuliyana

ZMESSENGER
CO – FOUNDER & CHIEF EXECUTIVE

zMessenger’s first mobile marketing campaign was for a restaurant named Deli Market at the World Trade Centre. The restaurant was keen to innovate, and it partnered zMessenger for a mobile promotion – a personalised offer which gave customers a discount when they presented an SMS to the restaurant. Decades later, the promotion sounds like the ubiquitous offers which prevail today. But this was at a point when mobile phones were still a novelty. At the time, it caused ripples. Co-founder and chief executive Jayomi Lokuliyana launched zMessenger with her husband and a friend to explore new frontiers of marketing.

The trio encountered people dissuading them at every corner, arguing Sri Lanka was not ready for their business idea. When zMessenger began, many people were dubious about mobile phones, squashing the business’ sales pitch about mobiles and its reach for direct marketing. Marketing through a small, expensive device with a monochrome screen (with text as an extraneous paid option), owned by a niche, urban market was a tough sell. Mobile penetration in Sri Lanka was growing, but at a slow pace.

The entrepreneurs’ first challenge was to convince clients to see the future potential for mobile phones and marketing. “Don’t look at the screen, look at the ability of one-to-one communication and the chance for direct, targeted marketing in a sea of mass communication,” they’d urge. The company used their seed capital to acquire subscribers, incentivising people to sign up for offers and through promotions in malls. They soon began launching innovative campaigns and growing their database.

“We didn’t want to stick to messaging – we felt like we might become a direct mailing company. We were constantly looking at how to introduce mobile to other sectors. The next thing that came was media and radio stations,” reflects Lokuliyana. zMessenger worked as a network fulcrum enabling multiple mobile operators to provide connectivity to one number, allowing Sri Lankans to engage with a TV and radio station in real-time. Previously, viewers would send in postcards to request or dedicate a song. They piloted this feature with Sirasa TV’s Autovision programme.

“We didn’t want to stick to messaging – we felt like we might become a direct mailing company. “

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The programme received an average of 50 – 100 postcards and the team expected 2,000 text messages. They received 10,000 SMSs, and the systems crashed with the text torrent. zMessenger’s crucial learning moment on scalability and growth came on the day they saw the messages pouring in – they always knew they were on to something. The torrent of texts was a validation of their business instinct.

The programme received an average of 50 – 100 postcards and the team expected 2,000 text messages. They received 10,000 SMSs, and the systems crashed with the text torrent. zMessenger’s crucial learning moment on scalability and growth came on the day they saw the messages pouring in – they always knew they were on to something. The torrent of texts was a validation of their business instinct.

zMessenger started out with mobile marketing, but the core thread running through its operations was one-to-one communication. The business has since pivoted to different channels and expanded its scope, but its communication core remains the same. Earlier, the company would gather data about customers old-school style, armed with a clipboard, approaching strangers in a mall.

Fast-forward a few years, and innovations in the adtech industry have resulted in the availability of richer data which can be used to form far more sophisticated customer profiles – sans clipboard and mall runs. “What we call mobile marketing is something we don’t do right now. What we still do and what we did in the past is to facilitate one-to-one communication. Only the channel has changed.

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It’s not through text messaging anymore but through data-driven advertising. So now, instead of directly asking the customer, we can get this data studying their online behaviour,” explains Lokuliyana. While the data-driven possibilities and dynamism within programmatic advertising enable companies to craft highly targeted campaigns and reach audiences at scale, concerns about privacy are currently at the fore. Lokuliyana iterates the importance of policies evolving to create a balance between data effectiveness, privacy, and letting consumers be the decisionmakers of the information they share.

She notes that it is a population’s adaptation to digital that drives the industry in Sri Lanka and will shape its future. With large amounts of data comes a glut of information. A current challenge is the lack of skillsets required to develop specific technology and incisively read data insights, creating a need for knowledge transfer and upskilling. Moreover, in Sri Lanka and other countries, a lack of regulation on data and privacy remains an issue as the industry has outstripped the pace of legislation.

Sri Lanka’s digital divide and the gender gap in digital adoption is also an area which warrants more work. Concerns about privacy, online harassment and a lack of relevant content are linked to the gender gap in digital. Currently leading the newly inaugurated Women’s Chamber for Digital Sri Lanka, Lokuliyana also emphasises the need for structures to drive women’s participation. “We need a gender-focused policy to improve women’s participation in the IT sector.

IT is a sector that gives great flexibility, and so many things can be done in a digital economy.” It is an industry replete with potential, and Jayomi remains hopeful. She says, “The only way Sri Lanka—in my field —can go to the world, is through driving digital innovation. We are not short of talent and intellect. There are brilliant people here. The task for the future is to mould them to think innovatively.”

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