The Million project; a Marketer’s dream come true

I don’t usually cross-post from The Really Mobile Project, but I’m really interested in the influence on social behaviour that the Million project will have, so have decided to put it live on as well.

I read a piece yesterday about the Million project in New York (named as such to reference the city’s 1.1 million students), which is an incentive-based scheme that rewards good behaviour and grades with mobile credit. In their words, the project aims to provide ’short-term incentives to motivate students, increase classroom participation and contribute to student’s overall success in school’.

The brainchild of Roland G. Fryer (a Harvard economist who also takes the position of Chief Equality Officer for the city), it was first implemented last year as a pilot program. Throughout June 2008, nearly 3,000 middle school students aged between 11 and 14 participated, from seven public schools across the city that had been chosen by The U.S. Department of Education.

Each child received a Samsung u740 handset (now called ‘the Alias’), and despite my own personal feelings for that particular handset (the superfluous ‘double flip’ is pointless in so, so many ways), it’s built for heavy texters so I can see how it makes sense for this audience.

The phones themselves came with 130 prepaid minutes for the first month from Verizon Wireless (in ‘Million’ points, that could also be switched out for texts). After that, students were awarded additional points by doing well in classes. All of the schools took behaviour and attendance into consideration, then added their own benchmarks.

The Million project takes the view that ‘to resolve long-standing inequities in Education, we must be willing to promote bold ideas and test a wide range of innovative strategies. The goal is to create a broad cultural movement with deep roots in the community that fundamentally changes the way students internalise the link between education and success.’

Or do you mean ‘getting stuff for free’ and success? Sorry, that’s just me being cynical isn’t it? I’m loathed to throw in the ‘learning for the sake of learning’ point here, but it looks like I just have.

Anyway, translating the marketing garb above means that the people behind Million have realised that kids now live in a world where the Internet is forced down our throats at every turn and handheld mobile devices reign supreme. So therefore, it’s in this world that they are most likely to be reached and engaged. Well, I’m not sure I agree. Yes, use technology to engage and as a tool to support learning – but is this not just a bit of bribery?

I watched a TED talk a few weeks ago, which featured Dan Pink discussing the link between scientific research into how successful incentives really are and the way that businesses design their reward programmes. The good old ‘candle box’ problem demonstrates functional fixedness (only seeing an object as it has been presented to you, not its potential use). Dan talked through an example whereby those promised larger rewards performed badly when asked to complete this test, as they were so fixated on the prize that they couldn’t see the woods for the trees.

Time after time, it’s been suggested that anything even remotely cognitive requires a certain amount of flexibility. I’m reminded of a story in which children in Sweden (or Amsterdam possibly, it’s a shame I can’t remember) were given the opportunity to plan their own curriculums. The increase in performance, discipline and behaviour was astounding. And we’re all familiar with Google’s 20% free-time allocation to developers so that they can work on whatever they feel most passionate about. Google Suggest, Orkut and Gmail are among the many products that have been created as a result of this perk.

Let’s get back to the Million project though. As the project evolves, exclusive content will be developed and made available to students on the phones (wake-up calls from celebrities, gift certificates for shops, free tickets to events for instance). Plus, the hope is that teachers will be able to engage students as well, sending homework reminders or answering questions whenever needs be. I’m not entirely sure that the teachers will be wholly happy with the extension of their duties in this respect, and it strikes me that should one of them forget to remind a class about a test, it’s a bit of an easy route out of taking responsibility for their own actions for the kids.

The estimation is that students should be able to earn the necessary points to allow for ‘normal use’ of a mobile phone, and Million suggested that parents may want to consider putting existing contracts ‘on hold’ for the pilot period to save money. Now, you certainly can’t do that in the UK and I wasn’t aware that you could in the States? I suspect that it’s a more likely to be a badly worded section within the official FAQ, as they go on to point out that parents will still be responsible for any termination cost for canceling or suspending existing phone contracts. It’s still nice and confusing to anyone that doesn’t really understand the specifics of what canceling a contract can actually equate to.

In fact, when you read a little deeper into the aforementioned FAQ, you see that New York’s mobile policy will remain in effect and schools will treat Million phones the same way that they do any mobile: they are not allowed in schools. Is that not a big ask though? To expect a child of 11 to engage with the free phone they are being given, to associate a sense of ‘reward’ to it, but then not use it at school itself?

In what could be one of the most ridiculous rebuttals to this criticism (as I’ve discovered that many others share my concerns), New York’s Schools Chancellor – Joel Klein – actually uses the fact that you can ‘remove the battery’ as proof that it can be ‘tailored to not be used during school hours’. The fact is, if they think that a) kids don’t just put their phones on silent during lessons or b) would ever purposefully remove the battery before coming to school, they’re kidding themselves. And that’s not even considering the fact that most children with phones have been given them by their parents in case of emergency on the way to or from school, so rendering the phone useless before they’ve even left the house is just ridiculous.

Additionally, as ad agencies Droga5 and Poke have a fairly big part to play in this, the phones are being pitched to potential sponsors as a way to market their products to every single student in New York in the near future. David Droga, head of Droga5, said in a presentation at Advertising Age’s Idea Conference recently;

“There’ll be some room for advertising on the phone. After all, the phones – while provided for free to the students – won’t be completely without cost. As such, marketers will be able to infiltrate the students’ world through responsible sponsorships. There are lots of brands out there that have a place in students’ lives.”

As mentioned previously, there will also be opportunities to provide discounts or send out special offers to students, which is just another good way to sell more products. Looking online at parent’s reaction to this, they seem to less than happy about a continuation to deny mobiles to students who need to communicate with their parents if they get into trouble, but will freely give them away as a way to sell them products.

Whichever way you look at it – good or bad idea – the period of your life where getting access to phone credit is top priority is short-lived. How will those kids that have worked hard throughout this period to get something for free find the motivation to do so in college, or in their working life?

I’d love to see some more quantifiable results from this project, but right now it seems like a smart way to use a technology that younger people relate to on paper, but in reality, a great opportunity for marketers to plug directly into the minds of the younger generation.

6 responses to “The Million project; a Marketer’s dream come true”

  1. WinMo

    A very interesting post Vikki. I work for a UK network provider and attracting “Youth” has been a longstanding cornerstone of our proposition development process alongside a variety of ongoing community-based projects.

    One of the issues we face is that following the Stewart Report, it’s been difficult to ‘overtly’ target under 16s even if the underlying message is well-intentioned (such as personal safety). The cynical might say that a scheme such as the Million Project is merely a PR tool for vendors and MNOs to drive their brands into the palms of kids to foster a profitable commercial relationship, and I’m sure this view has some merit. But this sort of thing has been happening for years (e.g. the BBC Micro, Tesco Computers for Schools) so I don’t regard it as being particularly contentious.

    On the ‘bribery’ issue, I’m sure we can all recall someone who got a car for passing their A-Levels and I see the Million Project as one way of democratising the incentive to perform well at school. If it ultimately means kids perform closer to their true potential then I don’t think it’s an issue. I’ll be following this with interest to see how it pans out.

  2. WinMo

    I think there’ll always be a thin dividing line between commercialism and altruism. The company I work for has recently been involved in something called RockCorp which I guess ticks all the cyncal boxes (youth, music, community etc). Naturally, a business case will have been prepared, but without one you could argue no quoted company would be fulfilling its mandate to shareholders. The trick is ensuring nobody gets taken for a ride and I think consumers are savvy enough these days to spot genuine acts of duplicity. As brands try to differentiate themselves from just offering “minutes and texts”, I believe this sort of activity will become increasingly common. It is very hard to get the tone right though.

    Oh, you may have noticed I work for Orange, but these views are entirely my own opinion etc etc etc

  3. Vikki

    I’m obviously one of the cynical ones then, but I don’t think its a PR-driven initiative, I think it’s a combination of political ambition and dollar-signs popping up in Marketer’s eyes. The thing about BBC Micro and Tesco’s initatives were that they were produced for the benefit of the school, not the individual. This is directly focused at the student’s themselves, so it’s very different.

    And your point about being promised a car for an A-level result is valid, but thats also something that comes from a parent. It’s a personal incentive, not one linked to a brand, a marketer – or even the school itself. Usually, being promised such a thing is supported by personal encouragement while the child is at home, and linked to a series of other ‘lessons’ that are taught by the parent. It’s almost a bonding exercise.

    By the way, which UK network provider do you work with?

  4. Alexander Ainslie

    Thanks for surfacing this post. Their model validates a product being developed for one of our cause related ventures.

    BTW, just discovered your blog. Love the design. You should seriously consider using ‘s new ECHO commenting system. You will see your ROE (Return On Engagement) metric take off exponentially. To get hooked up, ping – tell him @AAinslie sent you – Disclosure: I have no direct interest in JS-Kit. Just feel that they have the best “realtime” commenting platform on the market today and Kris is a super nice guy to boot. 😉

    Good luck with the new job.

  5. Victoria

    Vikki, I’m right behind you here. I teach at Cambridge University and currently work with students who are encountering difficulties in their learning. Motivation is always at the heart of the problem. Up until now, good work has given them nebulous but significant things – praise, acclaim, parental love, top grades. When they come to university, they are expected to work out of intellectual curiosity, which is the only element of learning that is pure, that seeks to know the truth with no particular personal reward in view. I shudder to think how students will react if they have been brought up to require material goods in exchange for learning. They may forever be stuck in the selfish part of themselves that requires recognition and reward to do anything at all.

    It’s no good saying the ends justify the means – all learning puts patterns and structures in place which affect the way students respond to educational issues, and also to more profound developmental expectations of what effort can bring, of why one might learn at all. We teach in the (vain it sometimes seems) hope that they might grow up to question and reflect upon their society, in order to understand it better and implement useful, altruistic change. If the ‘right’ answers produce prizes, what is the point in considering whether these answers are ultimately the ‘right’ ones or not? It’s just another way to ensure we turn docile, biddable adults out of school, ready to jump through hoops for the right price.

    And yes, it’s all about selling stuff to a valuable commercial market.

  6. Vikki

    @ Victoria, thank you so much for commenting. Your insight as an Educator means an awful lot.

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