When Circles.Life launched in 2016, it was hailed as the newest telecommunications company and the first mobile virtual network operator in Singapore. This was a big deal for many reasons. They were the first new player in the Singapore market in nearly two decades. Before that, Singaporeans were accustomed to purchasing their mobile plans from the three incumbent telcos, Singtel, Starhub and M1, queueing up in brick-and-mortar retail stores.
Furthermore, instead of vying for a license to become Singapore’s fourth telco, Circles.Life chose instead to lease data packages in bulk from an existing telco and present Singaporean consumers with a fully-digital telco experience without a storefront. This was an entirely new proposition for subscribers.
Circles.Life faced many significant challenges. Firstly, consumers did not understand the benefits of a virtual network operator. Furthermore, they needed to be top of mind when a consumer’s mobile subscription ended. This meant that they had to overcome decades-old consumer habits.
To tackle these problems, the Circles.Life marketing team decided to take on an innovative approach to generate buzz and get people talking. We sat down with the Senior Marketing Manager at Circles.Life, Carrie Sim, to get an exclusive look into the thought-process and strategies behind their successful campaigns.
“When we brainstorm about our campaign, we always think of the headline first. Will this have a good enough hook for local media? How do we toe the line and still remain tongue-in-cheek?”
Sure enough, Circles.Life has delivered numerous out-of-home advertising campaigns that caught the attention of consumers and media outlets. From their infamous Data Deprivation campaign to the most recent money-generating vending machine, the telco never fails to generate headlines and attract crowds. When asked about their progress in the past two years, Sim mentions that Circles.Life is on track to meet its 3 to 5% market share goal — no small feat for a startup in the telco industry.
Without having a storefront or customer service centres, Circles.Life has had to put in concerted effort to engage prospective customers through offline methods as well. From roadshows to referral programs, Circles.Life has been able to streamline the customer experience through the CirclesCare app and active social media engagement.
Circles.Life holds regular roadshows, to build brand awareness and encourage new signups. Circles.Life salespersons can provide customers with personalised service and engagement, as one would expect from a brick-and-mortar shop. Despite the offline setting, however, all sign-ups and transactions are still conducted online. With their tablets in hand, salespersons can help customers sign up and make the purchase on the spot.
To replicate this personalised touch for customer service and engagement, they have carefully designed online channels for existing customers to reach them. Customers who need help with various issues can reach Circles.Life’s customer service personnel (or customer success officers) via the CirclesCare app’s live chat function, web chat, Facebook messenger, email or even voice callback.
One of the most effective channels for customer acquisition has been their referral program — over 40% of Circles.Life transactions come from referrals. Bringing word-of-mouth to the twenty-first century, each customer has a referral code that they can share with friends and family.
Many satisfied customers have taken to social media to voice their praise for the new telco and the significant monthly savings that they bring while sharing their referral codes with friends to get them to sign up. With a fully digital presence, the marketing team is easily able to monitor and keep track of their reach and conversion rates at every touch point.
Both existing customers and referees enjoy perks like bill credit and free data. The loyalty program proves to be a compelling motivation for many of their current customers as top referrers have earned over 100gb of free data. Customers can also keep track of the bonus data and number of referred friends via the mobile app.
With the lack of a physical storefront, Circles.Life leverages on online channels to acquire, engage and convert customers. Beyond using social media platforms to push out and support new viral campaigns, the marketing team also relies on it for social listening and customer engagement. Reviews, feedback and product requests make up most of the conversations that take place on the platform, giving sales personnel an open channel to interact with prospective customers, driving conversions and sales.
As customers are turning to online research before making a purchase, Facebook provides the perfect platform for existing customers to share real feedback and prospective customers to ask questions. As seen above, Facebook users often exchange reviews and queries via the platform. While Circles.Life’s customer service experts are usually on Facebook tending to urgent replies, the platform also allows for organic conversations to take place between users. When interested customers are ready to take the plunge, they can easily hop over to the sign-up page to complete the purchase process.
Despite being limited by their digital-only presence, Circles.Life has fully utilised the right channels to effectively reach and engage customers, from the research and awareness phase to the advocacy stage.
One of the key strategies behind their attention-grabbing guerrilla campaigns is what Sim calls, the “PR-first approach”. At the beginning of every campaign, the marketing team sits down to brainstorm intended media headlines, asking questions like: will this get people talking? How do we generate buzz without crossing the line? This is evident in their campaigns, with widespread media coverage that sparks conversations about the brand and the respective product.
In their most recent campaign known as the 3DollarBaller, Circles.Life promoted their latest offering — unlimited data on demand for just S$3. Sim and her team wanted consumers to think about what S$3 could buy them.
Without revealing the brand name, they created a life-sized vending machine that dispensed S$50-notes in exchange for S$3, outside the shopping mall, Somerset@313. Along with the S$50-note, participants also received a flyer that teased information that would be released over the next few days. The team had also engaged micro-influencers to spread the word about the vending machine, inviting people to try their luck.
The publicity stunt drew throngs of eager participants to the vending machine, with onlookers sharing photos of the crowd on social media. The campaign came to a close after two days, when they had run out of S$50-notes. What followed was widespread media coverage and netizens guessing the brand behind the campaign. Their PR-first approach had indeed paid off. By choosing not to reveal the brand name until a day later, the campaign generated anticipation and buzz even after the event.
When asked about the success of this publicity stunt, Sim shared that 10% of subscribers tried out the new product within the same month.
To be better informed on the performance of their out-of-home advertising and viral publicity stunts, Circles.Life addresses this by tracking direct sign-ups. Case in point — the vending machine didn’t just dispense S$50-notes to participants, but also included a flyer with a QR code on it, prompting recipients to find out more online. They can then measure organic spikes in web traffic on campaign launch days. Through their omni-channel approach, they can accurately monitor the customer’s journey from initial awareness to purchase.
Another important measurement of success to Circles.Life’s campaigns are traditional media coverage and social media interest. Trending hashtags on Instagram and Facebook and widespread coverage by local publications spell success for their campaigns. The ultimate goal of all the buzz generated is to get people talking about the brand and their products.
Despite how new the telco is, Circles.Life has always managed to bring across the brand’s vision of giving power back to customers. Through all the viral campaigns, trending hashtags and jaw-dropping product launches, Circles.Life strived to convey the same brand story over and over again.
When it came to out-of-home guerrilla campaigns, the marketing team would craft a campaign story in-house that articulated the brand’s mission to ensure consistency. Likewise, with actual products and features, they actively listened out for customers’ feedback and launched products based on that input, exemplifying their mission of empowering customers.
Earlier in March 2017, Circles.Life launched yet another unbranded publicity stunt. This time, to promote their new data add-on, it created a sham competitor, 'SGMobile', complete with a Facebook page, television spots, a microsite and out-of-home assets. The message that Circles.Life conveyed was that the telco plans available in Singapore were inadequate and overpriced.
To help deliver the message in a relatable and authentic way, Circles.Life engaged influencer duo, YouTiao666 to 'vandalise' SGMobile’s ads in public. Equipped with sharpies and their signature offbeat humour, the girls behind YouTiao666 brought the campaign to life by expressing consumers’ pain points and needs by scribbling over the billboard. “We chose to work with them because their personalities and brand were completely in line with the crazy idea we had to vandalise our MRT ad of a bogus competitor,” says Sim.
Balancing the brand’s overarching narrative and working with individual influencers can prove to be challenging. Their influencer strategy starts with conceptualising the story of the campaign in-house. The team also consciously chooses not to impose their way of doing things on the influencers that they partner. With that in mind, they then work on narrowing down the list of influencers whom they feel will accurately portray the style, tone and story of the campaign. Taking the SGMobile campaign as an example, Sim explains that it would be out-of-character for YouTiao666 to merely tell their followers about Circles.Life and point out all their good points in comparison to SGMobile.
Another way that Circles.Life carries out their mission of giving power back to consumers is by consistently introducing products and features that customers have requested for. Unlike traditional telcos, Circles.Life has the flexibility to create new products and features by simply updating the interface of their customer-facing app, CirclesCare.
Over a short span of two years, the product team was able to launch several new products and features based on customer feedback and requests. For example, when Circles.Life first launched, customers were asking for more data, smaller SMS bundles and unlimited calls.
Circles.Life, in turn, responded by introducing new plans and add-ons, including the '20 GB for $20 Data Add-on' plan, smaller customisable bundles for SMSes, unlimited incoming calls add-on and more, in subsequent months.
Their efforts to deliver on customers’ feedback underscores their focus on customer experience, or what they call “customer obsession”.
“We are obsessed with our customers. Everyone has a telco, but not everyone has a telco that is obsessed with them. We listen to them and we focus on their pain points and what they want.”
With the success of the local launch, Circles.Life is gearing up for regional expansion, first in Indonesia, followed by Hong Kong. When asked about their marketing plan for Indonesia, Sim shares that their strategy for growth will borrow from lessons they’ve learnt in Singapore, but will definitely be adapted to suit the nuances of the Indonesian market. As Circles.Life prepares to bring its fully-digital platform to the rest of the region, we keep our eyes peeled for more exciting campaigns in the coming months.
Test and experiment with the different channels when you’re starting out, but don’t stretch yourself too thin by utilising every platform at your disposal. Choose channels that will most effectively reach your target customers.
“We don’t always know all the answers, but we test the heck out of it, and we don’t stop learning,” says Sim.
“If we’re not sure which channels will work, we decide on taking calculated risks. If it doesn’t work, we learn something new and that helps us create an even better campaign next time.”
It’s pretty standard advice to plan campaigns around certain KPIs and goals. Circles.Life took it one step further by thinking about what headlines they would like to see in the papers. With every campaign, set aside time to brainstorm specific intended outcomes, whether or not it’s in the form of a headline.
Take a leaf out of Circles.Life’s playbook by remaining true to your brand’s narrative from the get-go. It’s tempting to get carried away when working with influencers who have a large following but don’t get distracted by mere numbers and metrics. Work out clear a campaign story with your team first and be highly selective about who to collaborate with.