Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

“This is Africa” (TIA) is an expression you’re likely to encounter a great deal on the African continent, and for good reason – it’s a truism. In general, TIA is a term showing the uniqueness of the challenges and the environment facing those who live and work in Africa. It is also an adage that brands and marketers who aim to penetrate and grow within the complex African market would do well to consider, especially as it relates to mobile.

Mobile marketing and advertising spend continues to grow globally, accounting for the lion’s share of online advertising (set to reach US$200bn by 2019, according to eMarketer), with digital spend predicted to surpass that of TV for the first time in 2017, according to IPG Mediabrands’ Magna Global.

The big take-out:

Mobile marketing efforts in Africa are more likely to be successful if they use Global System for Mobile (GSM) or Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) campaigns.

However, this growth in mobile is happening predominantly in mature markets, where smartphone penetration and ubiquitous high-speed, low-cost mobile broadband are the norms.  In Africa, on the other hand, smartphone penetration is actually slowing, not growing, at least according to the latest figures compiled by global research firm International Data Corporation (IDC).  The IDC’s figures show that as of the end of 2016 feature phones accounted for 56% of Africa’s overall handset market.

Further compounding the issue is that mobile operators with whom we work in Africa state that as few as one in four smartphones is switched on for data due to the associated costs. The combined effect is that mobile-first or mobile-only marketing and advertising campaigns in Africa that target only smartphones are effectively reaching just 1% of the market.

In an environment where mobile broadband is not yet pervasive, it is Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication technology that will provide access to the masses of mobile users – over an estimated 557m unique mobile subscribers (GMSA, 2016)

While GSM is basically 2G technology and therefore considered dated and old, it is by no means unsophisticated or ineffective. Certainly, while the scope of interactive and multimedia content over GSM is limited, there is still great potential for creative and impactful mobile campaigns when utilising Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD). With USSD, which is also GSM technology, text is sent between a mobile phone and an application program in the network. 

It is this technology that enables non-data-enabled mobile devices, which dominate the African mobile market, to engage in Internet-based services over GSM networks.   There are also a growing number of case studies to back claims that USSD is the mobile-based mass medium in Africa, which not only delivers significant reach, but is also able to drive calls to action.

What’s more, due to the low costs and text-based service, communicating in local dialect or unique characters or lettering anywhere in the world becomes possible. USSD campaigns on Digitata Insight’s MeMe Platform are a good example of this – it sends content and messages to the mobile devices of subscribers based on certain demographic, location and other criteria. These campaigns are also zero rated, which means it doesn’t cost users anything to engage.

This is unlike over-the-top content (audio, video, and other media transmitted via the Internet as a standalone product) or a value-added service (a noncore service beyond standard voice calls and fax transmissions), both of which incur costs for the user. All it takes is a bit of battery power.

With such relevance and pervasiveness in the African context, marketers who aren’t utilising the USSD platform, or at the very least considering it in their marketing mix, are missing out on the opportunity to realise the true potential mobile marketing holds.

Faced with these irrefutable facts, there can no longer be any doubt about the pride of place that USSD should hold in the traditional mix when marketing in Africa. It’s time to start asking if media planners and strategies are still making the best choices for their clients by sticking to smartphone-only mobile campaigns. If not, why are they reluctant to make the shift?

* Swanepoel is chief marketing officer at Digitata Insights.

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