Hitting it home: Soap opera campaigns encourage financial literacy in the Philippines

  • Emma Schwartz
  • May 6, 2015
Hitting it home: Soap opera campaigns en
Photo: Mercy Corps. Mercy Corps beneficiaries received a series of text messages that tell the story of Ben & Joy, a young couple faced with challenges that need critical decision-making on money matters. When asked why he saves money, Mang Rogelio, pictured above, said, “because Ben and Joy said so.”

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, Mercy Corps and its partners implemented a cash transfer and financial literacy program called TabangKO (“My Help”) to help survivors rebuild their lives and strengthen their financial resistance to future disasters in the Philippines. Using a simple but powerful tool called engageSPARK, Mercy Corps sent interactive Voice and SMS soap opera stories to over 20,000 beneficiaries, which really helped people see how saving could fit into their everyday lives.

The TabangKO program had three goals: first, Mercy Corps Philippines opened new bank accounts for 25,000 survivors and supplied them with unconditional cash transfers – allowing relief funds to be withdrawn by account holders but also the option for individuals to make deposits into the account going forward. Second, the team provided beneficiaries with concrete financial tools to build financial security after the program ended, working with banking partners and to design a loan product specifically for rural remote communities. Mercy Corps knew the provision of bank accounts and financial tools would only go so far without knowledge of good financial practices; the program’s third objective was to encourage people to save. Mercy Corps needed an effective way to interact with beneficiaries and deliver financial literacy messages, and used engageSPARK” to send and receive over 844,000 SMS texts and voice calls to more than 20,000 beneficiaries over a twelve-week period.

In a recent Solutions Center webinar, Mercy Corps Program Manager Vaidehi Krishnan shared the experience and impacts of using engageSPARK for the TabangKO Program, and engageSPARK Chief Executive Officer and co-Founder Ravi Agarwal led a live demo of the solution.

“engageSPARK’s unique and interactive technology helped us to really maximize the impact of the program by delivering crucial savings encouragement messages to beneficiaries,” said Vaidehi.

In fact, the program was so successful that it was awarded GSMA’s 2015 Global Mobile Award for “Best Use of Mobile in Emergency or Humanitarian Situations.”

“The savings encouragement messages were what really distinguished us from the other applicants,” said Vaidehi.

These messages were delivered in a soap opera format, centered on the fictional stories of two Filipino couples, Ben and Joy and Ana and Juan, and their common household financial problems. The stories created showed how these couples used their savings or planned to overcome various financial crises. (Click here to view soap script samples.)

“We didn’t want our financial literacy messages to be drab or boring. We wanted people to remember them, to interact with them, and to apply them,” said Vaidehi.

At the end of each of the 12 episode-series, recipients were prompted with a quiz or poll question to reinforce the lesson and to measure comprehension.

“This was extremely crucial for us because it allowed us to measure not only if beneficiaries were responding better to SMS or to voice, but also if they were understanding or applying the concepts that we were introducing through these stories,” she said.

One of the biggest learnings from the three-month period, however, was how receptive people were to voice calls. Voice calls had ten times the response rate of SMS (48.2% to 4.5%), proving their effectiveness in reaching and engaging recipients and bypassing lower literacy levels.

While Vaidehi and team were originally concerned the two-and-half-minute messages might be too long, feedback was “overwhelmingly positive” and it turned out that recipients actually wanted the calls to be longer.

Ben, Joy, Ana and Juan were relatable and entertaining characters who had created reputations for themselves within the targeted communities. When one of the elder beneficiaries, Manon Rogelio, was asked why he saved money, his answer was, “because Ben and Joy said so.” Rogelio used his cash assistance as capital for his mobile credit reloading business, one of the services available from the mobile banking program.

“I like the moral of the story - it teaches the value of thriftiness,” Rogelio cheerfully explained. “I remember when Joy had a relative who was sick and needed to borrow cash. If Ben & Joy didn't have any money ready, they could not have helped pay the hospital bills. That's why it is important to save for the future, not only to secure yourself but to be able to help others too.”  

Vaidehi also shared an anecdote of a beneficiary who used part of his cash transfer to start a pig farm, and loved the Ben and Joy story so much that he named two of his pigs after them.

While stories like these are telling of the audience’s receptiveness, the Mercy Corps team also conducted a randomized control trial in one of the program locations to see if these financial literacy messages actually had a measurable impact on beneficiaries’ savings. Just over 17% of those who participated in the evaluation reported receiving voice messages, and within that group there was a 106% increase in use of savings products (both formal and informal).

Although Mercy Corps only piloted the voice messages with a small segment of the TabangKO beneficiaries, these numbers were encouraging enough to warrant further experimentation on messaging with a larger subset of the population. 

Mercy Corps also looked at bank transaction data to validate the beneficiaries’ self-reported results (specifically, cash-in numbers), and found a spike in voluntary deposits that coincided with the “airtime” of the two series. 

“To be frank, the partnership with engageSPARK was one of the smallest components of this program, but it had a huge impact on encouraging people to save,” said Vaidehi. “It was the turning point of this program.”

NetHope Payment Innovations Sr. Program Manager Marcella Willis is one of many enthusiastic supporters who see the value in the program’s objective and the way in which it was approached:

“I think financial education is most valuable when content is relevant and it’s delivered in regular, bite-size, morsels,” she commented. “TabangKO not only did this, but the [engageSPARK] platform used also demonstrated my top two favorite design features – it’s a simple interface that anyone could use, and it’s consumer oriented.”

engageSPARK is a not-for-profit business with a mission to empower NGOs to maximize impact. The solution is a 100% self-service web application designed so organizations like Mercy Corps Philippines can easily create and launch SMS text and voice call campaigns with the potential to engage populations around behavior change communication (BCC). Campaigns include blasts, alerts, polls, curriculums, reminders and SMS auto replies. No technical skills are required to use engageSPARK’s easy three-step wizards, so those with basic Internet skills can build and launch an engagement in minutes. After launch, users have access to robust reports and analytics on audience responses (call lengths, key presses, etc.) –insights that influence actionable intelligence and next steps.

“When we started engageSPARK and asked NGOs about their needs, they kept telling us how existing tools were built for techies, by techies,” shared Ravi. “Our number one focus has been to bring the power of interactive SMS and voice campaigns to every NGO worker, not just the techies like us.”

Ravi demonstrated ease of use and range of functionality during the presentation by creating and launching three different engagements over the course of ten minutes: a voice poll, an SMS text poll, and an SMS auto reply campaign. He also walked through reporting and analytics and the dynamic, detailed nature of the contacts database.

engageSPARK follows a pay per use model; no subscriptions, no monthly fees, no minimum fees. View prices by country & telco here:

For a full recap of the engageSPARK platform, watch Ravi’s demonstration in the webinar recording.

Click here to view webinar collateral, including sample scripts >>

Have questions? For more information, contact

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