The Million project; a Marketer's dream come true

by Vikki Chowney on 15th August 2009

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 Million Project portal

The Million Project portal

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.

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