This app is paying people to send messages to each other

“People like free stuff.”
“People like free stuff.”
Image: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool
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Launched in July 2014 in India, the mCent mobile app gives users free data credits for doing things like using the Flipkart e-commerce app.

Now, a messaging service within mCent is effectively paying users—in the form of credits on their bills—for sending messages to each other. The credits offset the data cost for sending the messages, and are subsidized by Jana, the Boston-based creator of mCent, an Android app with over 30 million registered users.

The new mCent messaging service is simple and text-focused, and for the moment doesn’t compete broadly with apps like Facebook’s WhatsApp. But offsetting data costs is an important move in developing markets such as India and Brazil, where mobile internet access can be prohibitively expensive for the average user. Because of the cost, over 40% of Indian smartphone owners don’t have a data plan, according to some estimates, and those who do use only a fraction of the data that users in developed countries do each month.

“People like free stuff, particularly in these markets,” says Jana co-founder and CEO Nathan Eagle, speaking on the sidelines of Quartz’s The Next Billion event in New York. “These are very cost-sensitive consumers.” Eagle says that Jana is is giving data credits for messaging in the expectation that it spurs other activities within mCent.

Jana also recently began allowing users to gift data credits to each other within mCent, which is now available in about two dozen developing countries. (Eagle says the company is deliberately staying away from developed markets.) In the first 10 weeks since gifting was rolled out, mCent users gave more than $5 million worth of mobile internet credits to each other.

Jana has the technical infrastructure in place with 311 mobile operators in 93 countries that could allow it to roll out the mCent app more widely. Twitter, Amazon, SnapDeal, Saavn, and Unilever are among the other companies that have given users of Jana’s services data credits on their mobile bills in exchange for using their services or buying their products.