SMS is still the best way to reach South Africans

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It’s a commonly accepted truth that South Africa is a mobile-first country. The numbers bear that out too. As of 2019, there are an estimated 90-million mobile connections, with smartphone penetration at over 80%. It makes sense then that any business wanting to communicate with South Africans should target their mobile phones.

Even as smartphones become increasingly ubiquitous, however, a variety of factors (including the prohibitive cost of data) mean that the most effective way of reaching them is still SMS. But any business that wants to go beyond just reaching their customers and really engage with them needs to think a step beyond SMS. Combine SMS with the power of the web and you have an opportunity to supercharge your customer communication efforts.

Doing so, however, means fully understanding the South African context and how to approach it from a mobile perspective.

Most smartphones are ‘dumb’

While tens of millions of South Africans now have smartphones, the truth is that many of them do not use these devices to their full capability. A combination of high data costs and the country’s economic realities means that a lot of smartphones are effectively offline most of the time.

For any organisation looking to reach its customers, strictly online communication isn’t really an option. Sure, they might see your communication when they get to a WiFi hotspot, but by then it might be too late. You’ll potentially have missed the “moment of truth” that’s so critical to sales.

The solution? Still SMS

SMS doesn’t require the customer to be online and, importantly, doesn’t cost them anything to receive. Moreover, it’s incredibly effective. Research shows that 98% of all SMSes are opened and that, on average, it takes someone 90 seconds to respond to an SMS versus 20% and 90 minutes for email. That’s hardly surprising. People look at their phones dozens of times a day and SMSes are generally more convenient to receive, read, and act on.

Beyond the limits of SMS

As effective as SMS is, however, it does have limits. There is, after all, only so much you can say in 160 characters. That’s where the web comes in. Using the right technology, you can deliver personalised, relevant messaging that your customers want to see.

Think about it: how likely is someone to click on a link if they know it’s going to take them to a page detailing your generic winter specials? Now, how much more likely are they to click on that link if they know it’ll take them to a page with discounts on that special item they’ve been eyeing for ages, or vouchers for airtime and data?

It’s also vital that organisations pay serious attention to the details. Even something as simple as a branded link can improve click-through-rates. Ultimately, if you’re going to convince people to click through to that web-based messaging, it has to get all of those things right. But, doing so means nothing if your customers don’t have the data to access your content. Organisations have a major role to play here too.

Taking on the data cost

Anyone looking to expose their customers to their online content and drive sales has a much better chance of doing so if they take on the cost of data themselves, or work with the mobile networks to zero rate their web-based communication. If you’re going to target people who have to think carefully about every megabyte of data they use, they’re going to feel a lot more affable if you don’t ask them to spend data to see your promotions.

Thriving in a competitive market

Ultimately, any South African company that hopes to thrive in an economy where people are increasingly careful with their budgets has to take this approach. Failing to do so means missing out on a chance to speak to the majority of South Africans on a medium that is always accessible, and to communicate with them as individuals rather than market groups or segments.

New technologies don’t always have to replace older ones. Sometimes, and especially in a context like South Africa’s, they can complement and strengthen each other. Get the balance right and you can thrive in even the toughest conditions.


Greg Chen is the CEO and co–founder of Mobiz. He has a long history in the South African mobile space and is passionate about the role technology can play in engaging the country’s people across the spectrum.