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Although It feels like I have been working in the mobile marketing space forever it is only four years ago (July 2006, in fact) that I started thinking about the potential for mobile as a medium in my role as the head of a product strategy team at Vodacom; it only took a few months for me to decide to drop everything else I was doing at the time and to focus exclusively on the development of the Vodacom mobile media business.

By December 2006 we had launched our first commercial trials and in October 2007 Vodacom launched its Mobile Media business, and for all intents and purposes the mobile media industry in SA was born.*

Although it is still in its infancy the industry has come a long way in a very short time.

  1. Mobile phone usage

With over 71% of adults and 82% of the economically active population (AMPS 2009 B) the cellphone has become the most deeply penetrated medium in SA households and certainly the most ubiquitous consumer technology. All (est. 38 million) of these consumers can be actively engaged by marketers using voice, SMS and USSD. Based on figures provided by the mobile network operators, I have previously estimated the monthly unique usage of mobile Internet services (including sites specifically made for mobile) at 11 million, which is double the size of the PC Web. Research company World Wide Worx (WWW) has recently reported some interesting findings related to the use of mobile Internet services among urban cellphone users: according to Arthur Goldstuck from WWW, over 3.3 million urban cellphone users regularly access Web content on their cellphones and over 4.5 million regularly use connected mobile applications (mainly instant messaging).

      2.  The media owners

The dominant media owners in the mobile space in SA are still not SA publishers or media companies; in the past few years I have been quite critical of the large incumbent SA media companies for not moving faster to invest in the mobile publishing opportunity. To their credit many of them have recently radically upscaled their investment and focus in this area although still mainly with a mobile ‘replication’ paradigm ie building mobile sites and re-publishing existing content from other media into mobile; although that is a great starting point there are a range of other opportunities available to media owners that exploit the unique capabilities of the mobile medium.

I have no doubt that the local publishers will keep growing their presence in the mobile channel but for now the dominant ‘media owners’ are still the foreign giants like Google and Facebook, and other offshore social media and content communities as well as the foreign ad networks like Admob, BuzzCity, InMobi and others. Interestingly, based on their own reported numbers, there are now over one billion SA ad impressions per month available from the WAP-based ad networks alone. The dominant local players remain Vodacom (which itself has almost one billion impressions per month available via propositions like Please Call Me (PCM) tags, Vodafone live! and The Grid) and MXit with its powerful youth marketing proposition; Cell C also recently started making some of its media available, initially only its PCM tags. When will MTN SA enter the mobile media space?

         3. The marketers

For a long time mobile media was considered by some marketing managers to be relevant only to youth executions – that may have been because it was mainly the cool youth-focused beverage and sports apparel brands that were taking the ‘risk’ of moving significant budgets into mobile media at an early stage of the development of the medium. Ironically, today it is the far from cool insurance, banking and retail industries that have really embraced mobile, and with the exception of the mobile entertainment industry, are the leading spenders in mobile media. It is exciting to see the classical marketers in the FMCG brand management community waking up to mobile as both a medium in its own right, a powerful CRM and engagement channel as well as an interactive support channel to many other marketing and advertising interventions.

Outside of the private sector the NGO community has largely understood the power of mobile as a marketing and information delivery platform and yet government (all levels) is yet to embrace the mobile medium. Surely, the potential of mobile for citizen engagement cannot go unrecognised by government for much longer?

The direct marketing (DM) community has for some time acknowledged the importance of mobile as a channel in the DM mix (largest DM channel by volume and value by far) with automated direct dialling and SMS ‘push’ still the dominant channels although MMS is beginning to emerge as an important DM, service delivery and notification channel.

        4. The agencies

It is acknowledged that conventional advertising and media agencies have struggled to come to grips with new media generally speaking and mobile in particular has not been very well understood and, in some cases, even totally ignored. In the past 18 months, however, there has been a dramatic shift in attitude among the top management of a number of large full-service and media agencies. They have been investing in education and digital specialisation, and mobile has solidified its position on the media tick sheet. Even when agencies are still not prepared to seriously consider a role for mobile as a media buy most agencies have now understood the role of mobile as a support channel (some basic examples: SMS short-code response to above-the-line ads, USSD call to action on pack or mobile site as a destination ‘for more information’) for all the stuff they really want to do ie make great ads.

*It should be pointed out that MXit was experimenting with its  mobile advertising offering at that time but did not yet have any significant traction and AdMob was generating millions of ad impressions in SA (although no one in SA had yet heard of them). In fact, I have fond memories of a London meeting in early 2007 with Russell Buckley, one of the founders of AdMob, where he took me through the AdMob global network – at that stage SA was the second largest country in the global AdMob network (after the US)!

** the above is a re-published article which I wrote for the the Mobile Marketing Guide (Published by Marketing Mix Magazine);  Coinciding with the publication this past week of the guide I also did a presentation at the Mobile Marketing Summit (both Jo’Burg and Cape Town) – available here