Marketers have traditionally worked on the assumption that digital reaches a small audience of high-income earners while television serves the mass market. That picture has changed dramatically over the past five years, and the time has come for brands to rethink how and where they allocate their media budgets.

Let’s start with a quick look at recent statistics. Though different researchers come up with slightly different figures, the more conservative sources estimate that internet penetration in SA is around 54%. This is driven in part by the mobile revolution, with falling smartphone and data prices making the internet more accessible to a mass market.

The “State of IT” report for 2019 by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) shows that smartphone penetration has doubled in the past two years and now sits at close to 82%. Icasa recorded around 65-million data subscriptions in 2018 – an impressive number for a country of 57-million, even when allowing for people with multiple subscriptions.

What’s more, Wi-Fi networks are starting to blanket previously excluded communities, with private sector players rolling out hotspots at taxi ranks, schools, malls and spaza shops, and on buses. Most South Africans today can access the internet from a mobile device, at their workplace or somewhere in their community.

SA is spending more time online

The result is that people from all walks of life are spending more and more time online – more than half of the population spend a significant portion of the day on digital devices.  According to Hootsuite, South Africans spend more time online than people in the US, Germany, the UK, Singapore and China. 

What makes this even more compelling is that digital is no longer as fragmented as it was 10 years ago. People are clustering together on a handful of platforms – 90% of internet users use WhatsApp, 84% use YouTube and 82% are on Facebook. Many of the most popular channels share an owner – Facebook owns WhatsApp and Instagram, and Google owns YouTube.

This is not to say that other digital media outlets are not effective for a range of campaigns and audiences, but rather to point out that marketers can reach most of the population with one or two platforms.

The high level of concentration resembles the old days of TV where marketers could reach the entire audience on three channels – but with the important distinction that a brand can tailor its message to each person using a particular platform or service rather than broadcasting the same ad to everyone. 

Using the behavioural data and algorithms that the digital platforms offer, brands can target people based on their interests at a moment in time. The brand can, for example, present the right message to a person shopping for a new car or a child-friendly hotel in Mauritius at the moment they will be receptive to it.

TV sells, but so does digital

Over time, a brand can create custom audiences based on their interactions with its content. It can define a clear funnel within a handful of channels, and then constantly target, measure and optimise to get the best results from its ad spend. TV can offer gross rating point data, but brands are not sure which people watched the ad or how to continue to engage with them as they move through the sales funnel.

Nonetheless, many SA marketers still allocate far more budget to TV campaigns than to online channels. Ask them why and they will say that they sell products when they run ads on television. Yet few of them have experimented to see what might happen if they equalise TV and digital budgets.

The big take-out

Brands need to rethink how and where they allocate their media budgets given that South Africans are spending more time online.

According to Nielsen, SA brands spend R45bn a year on advertising and sponsorships, with TV getting close to 57% of the share of spend. Nielsen campaign data from campaigns tracked across 17 top brands over three years found that digital advertising return on investment was R2,30 compared to TV at R1,30.

This is not to say that digital can replace television, but rather that it should play a bigger role in some marketing and advertising campaigns. There is no argument that TV is a great option for fast-moving consumer goods brands seeking reach and frequency for a mass market. But when it comes to products where the sales cycle is longer, digital and TV can work well together.

Scale and intimacy

In the instance of purchasing a car, for example, a consumer will do a lot of research between deciding to buy a new vehicle and concluding the purchase. Throughout the sales cycle – from purchase intent to brand awareness to researching car options to booking the test drive to ensuring post-purchase loyalty – digital is a powerful way of engaging the customer.

The ability to track a sale to its original media source is a huge advantage, especially when budgets are tight and there is a greater demand for accountability. Through digital channels, marketers can eliminate wastage on underperforming media channels, audiences and ad messages, though it’s important that the full attribution path is properly tracked and understood.

Digital channels offer the ability to target, measure, personalise and optimise spending – and they make it possible to reach nearly every customer segment from the same set of platforms. This blend of intimacy and scale is unique to digital, and is a great reason for brands to look at upping their spending on digital channels. 

Grant Lapping is MD of DataCore Media