Mobile operators have the potential to become the biggest publishers in SA & Africa. Part 1

Mobile operators have a massive potential to become our biggest publishers here on the African continent. In this series of blogs we will discuss this potential and how they can capitalise on the emerging audience.

The thesis is that – particularly in Africa and other emerging markets –  mobile operators have the opportunity to establish themselves as the biggest digital media businesses across the territory, given their massive audience reach and popularity. Many other media companies are using the mobile operators’ channels to distribute their content to the network users, when in fact in many ways it is the operator who ‘owns’ the relationship with the customer. If mobile operators do not seize the opportunity to publish their own content and build audience loyalty to their own content services, there is the danger that they could just become the ‘dumb pipe’ through which other publishers distribute their content.

The networks manage the billing relationship: this affords them the opportunity to monetise the content that is delivered via their services. They also own the ‘discovery channels’ which allow users to explore and use the content, such as, for example, VLive on Vodacom. VLive is – almost by default – one of the biggest digital media portals in SA, as this is the first spot that Vodacom users visit when they switch on their phones. Viewing the mobile operators’ access to audience in this light, they clearly have the opportunity to monetise their audience and media services through paid for content as well as advertising. The question is now: how?

A great example of this is Verizon in the UK’s recent acquisition of AOL for over USD 4 billion. They took a conscious decision to become media owners, recognising the inherent earning potential therein. A particular consideration in this instance was also no doubt the acquisition of the programmatic ad technology which sits behind AOL, since programmatic* ad buying is the other big trend in the  world of digital advertising.(*more on this topic in later blogs in this series)

An excellent example of how a mobile network operator in Africa took advantage of its audience’s hunger for information and accessibility through the most prevalent device format, namely the feature phone, is the Vodacom Soccer portal. As digital partner to Vodacom, MobiMedia built the soccer portal from the ground up, meeting the content requirements through our sister-company, TEAMtalk media (one of SA’s premier sports editorial and content hubs). Using USSD as the discovery channel, subscribers to the soccer portal could sign up to receive breaking football news, goal alerts, team lineups and more, and also to participate in various value-added competitions.  In setting our KPIs for measuring the success of the Vodacom Soccer Portal, we took as our benchmark Soccer Laduma, which at the time was the biggest soccer portal in the country with about 1.2mil feature phone users and a couple of hundred thousand users on the internet and mobile web. We were hoping to achieve a subscriber base of 1 million users during the FIFA World Cup. Beyond our expectations, we smashed every record , achieving no less than 3,8 million subscribers in a 7 week period. Targeting feature phone users through marketing channels like VLive and USSD, in 2014 the Vodacom Soccer Portal effectively became the largest football portal in South Africa.

This real life case study demonstrates the pent-up and largely untapped demand for content,  information and services that people want to access via their phones. In Africa less than 40% of mobile phone users are on smartphones; so technology that works on feature phones is still an extremely viable route to market on the continent. Mobile operators who make their own (branded) content available to their users will by default become the largest digital and mobile publishers within the region.

In our next blog, we will focus on the content and information requirements of mobile media consumers in Africa and how to reach them through the most effective channels.