SMS = Social Media Strategy (in South Africa)

According to a March 2009 article in the Guardian, 5% of Africans use the internet. South Africa’s internet penetration is about double that, with 5.1 million internet users out of a population of 49 million. This is still only a small percentage of the country’s population and when considering the huge socioeconomic disparities that exist as well, this subgroup is not only unrepresentative of the greater whole but excludes the vast majority. When we talk about social media, we mean that EVERYONE HAS A VOICE. While a web-based campaign may be designed to reach a select demographic, it really goes against the whole idea of social media when 9 out of 10 people can’t participate in the conversation.

That doesn’t mean that social media in South Africa is a nonstarter. It means that web-based social media is an inappropriate approach. But there is ample opportunity with the 42.3 million mobile cellular telephone users. Most every South African can participate in a social media conversation using a cell phone. In the West, we equate social media with the web (as in Web 2.0), but they are not necessarily one and the same. To paraphrase what Clay Shirky said at TED in June, social media innovation can happen anywhere where people take for granted the technology and appreciate that we’re all in this together…it’s not about whiz bang technology [or even web technology].

Most African cell phones are built for voice and SMS. The majority have no cameras or 3G+ capability. But companies can none-the-less communicate with the South African market and the market with them via SMS. Shirky provided an example of how Nigerians used a wisdom of the crowds approach by having the public send SMS messages to monitor elections for possible voting irregularities. This successful model was used in the U.S. a short while later (an interesting example of global technology transfer originating where there is less tech capability). A corporate campaign could be based on this approach, i.e., soliciting consumer opinion by SMS to catalyze consumer involvement with a brand. No video. No social networking. Just pure participation 140 characters at a time.

There is one major challenge that comes along with this strategy, however. There are 11 official languages in South Africa:

Languages in South Africa

Languages in South Africa

I would suggest that a social media campaign, if budget limited, start with the top three languages, isiZulu at 23.8%, isiXhosa at 17.6% and Afrikaans at 13.3% for two reasons:
1. Each is used in fairly targeted geographical areas, making it easier to roll out complimentary advertising and generate offline word of mouth.
2. They are used by up approximately 50% all speakers, maximizing ROI if all languages can not be incorporated into the campaign.
-Gregg Rapaport


3 Responses to SMS = Social Media Strategy (in South Africa)

  1. Another good post this week – and what I particularly liked is how you focused on the nuances of the mobile phone adoption in South Africa. Rather than blindly assuming social media is a nonstarter, or making the point that everyone could browse the web on their mobile devices, you broke down the opportunity and equated smart social media strategy in South Africa to effectively using social media. There were only two small criticisms I could make of your post. The first is that there could very well be many brands who are mainly interested in reaching the top 10% of the audience in South Africa, and if their target were this group, then web based social media could actually work. The second more important point is that language may not be the only difference between these regions of South Africa, and there are likely many brands who don’t necessarily care equally about reaching every group, but rather may focus their efforts based on a business reason. Apart from these small points, however, its another strong post from you for this week. (3)

  2. paulfbove says:

    The language barrier is a very interesting problem for social media, and general media, use in South Africa. Companies will face a challenge trying to focus on 11 official languages, but as you point out, by focusing on a couple of the bigger ones first, an effective campaign can indeed be initiated. Also, the high usage of a simple SMS campaign, without all the other social media avenues, could indeed make for a simpler campaign, which is what is needed in a place with this many languages.

  3. maurice09 says:

    Gregg, You had one sentence in your blog, which expresses in a drastic way what I have found on South African’ social media: “it really goes against the whole idea of social media when 9 out of 10 people can’t participate in the conversation.” Yes, only a minority has got access to the Internet. However, I like the way you distinguish web-based social media. Yes, as you mentioned, the cell phone penetration is huge in Africa. It is a couple of percentages higher than the one in the US. I broke down these numbers in my blog. And you picked up Shirkys example (election tracking), which was also adopted in the US. This shows us two things: 1) We can also learn from less developed countries and 2) the Shirky example (wisdom of the crowds) is wonderful: all people together can monitor an election and their reports are more trustful to me than any reports from authorities. I am glad you brought that example up here! -Moritz

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