Digital - a wealth of untapped opportunity

The release of the 2012 Internet Access in South Africa report by World Wide Worx has made it clear that the local online population has moved past the point of viewing the Internet as a distraction. Rather online users form a distinct market requiring strategic business focus. With this in mind business leaders should be questioning how this online market differs from the already existing offline market and what unique growth opportunities this presents.
Digital - a wealth of untapped opportunity
The report reveals that 8.5 million South Africans currently access online platforms with a growth forecast of 25% to 11 million predicted by the end of 2012. This growth is primarily driven by mobile access and despite the prediction of phenomenal market growth online industry statistics tend to be met with either enthusiasm or apathy within the local industry. Although the industry is enjoying phenomenal growth, locally we are very far off the 100% penetration rates that some advanced economies enjoy, and which we tend to often unfairly benchmark ourselves against.

This lacklustre industry response is compounded by the response of the wider business community who incorrectly assume that that Internet penetration reflects only an elite segment and that usage is restricted to a very particular pattern. However this can be debated by the simple reality that the figures show that the total number of local online users is larger than the registered taxpayer base which covers a large cross segment of the LSM groupings.1 In terms of restricted patterns it can also be argued, that while there are commonalities in usage patterns between demographic groups, ultimately online behaviour is radically different. This is reinforced when considering data around user brand interaction, social media behaviour and product research patterns.

Recent research investigating digital penetration amongst the lowest LSM's reveals fascinating behavioural insight into how a single online connection is shared by an entire low income community via a single human intermediary2. Here growth in connectivity is being driven in part by the lowered cost of broadband, although it is primarily through mobile connectivity that individuals are becoming connected.

Important to note is that this particular market and its behaviour shifts incredibly quickly due to the rapid advances in handset capabilities and the cell phone upgrade cycle. Amongst the websites tracked by Native, mobile access to the main websites (not separate mobile websites) has trebled year on year since 2009. We estimate that by the end of 2012 around 13% of access to websites will be via a mobile device. The implication is that mobile sites are rapidly becoming redundant as users look for the full web experience on their more capable handsets. The move to mobile apps for more specific information or services is also increasingly evident.

There is no question that the local online population is growing across all demographic groups, and its potential value is self-evident. As an obvious target audience businesses should be questioning what kind of products or experiences need to be created in order to capture the attention or build relationships with this rapidly growing market sector.

In Rob Gifford's China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power he points out that in advanced economies the Internet in many ways has just made what was already available more convenient. However, in developing economies the Internet is introducing these products and services to people for the first time.

This has massive implications for both businesses and marketers. Essentially it means that opportunities are constantly opening up to provide new business services to people in a totally uncompetitive space. From a marketing point of view the opportunity is for companies to build relationships with new or existing customer bases by bringing them previously unavailable services. These will unlock value in the lives of their customers as part of the greater brand experience.

Access to services or products that are currently too complex or expensive in their immediate offline environment will also serve to attract users. Online travel aggregators, government services, and medical and healthcare information services are great examples of how communication platforms linking people to services enable a smoother conversation within these service sectors.

Users will also be drawn to platforms that make access to pre-existing data less complex and generally more fun, such as the Khan Academy, Mint and 22Seven. The Economist's "World Figures" app and its success in attracting users is an example of the current big data hype. Part of the debate surrounding big data relates to allowing structured and intuitive access to open databases across many parts of the Internet. In essence access to big data equals increased users. Experiences available to a paid elite, but that can be partially or completely redeployed online, are another big user draw card. Games are an obvious one, but products like Google Doc's could also fall into this space.

So while the scope of business opportunity is obvious, there are also opportunities for existing brands to forge deeper relationships with their customers. Brands have a clear opportunity to sway opinion by providing or facilitating services that are not necessarily the core focus of their business, but are realisations of their brand promise to customers. Nike has embraced this thinking in its app strategy3. A great example of this kind of thinking with a more Corporate Social Investment slant is AT&T's participation in the creation of National Hub for Learning through Video Games4.

We are now in the era where our businesses have an internet presence whether they like it or not. There's enough content being posted to the internet about us, the products we sell, and the services we provide for people to form an opinion about these things without us actively participating in the creation of this content. Fighting this by dealing with posted content on an individual basis, as companies tend to do with social media, is really not the way forward. Building a strong, transparent foundation of what your brand stands for which customers can relate to and connect with is a far more intelligent approach. This approach has the advantage of potentially creating brand champions out of customers who will help sell your product, but arguably more importantly help defend the brand in times of hardship.

12 Jul 2012 09:41


About the author

Antonio Petra is chief strategist at Native.