Why African social networks kick Facebook’s mobile experience in the ass

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Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the rest of their ilk are taking over the world, right, and forming a homogenous mass of consumer data and eyeballs across the globe from which no one can escape.
Or not.

Definitely not when one considers the local and regional social networks springing up, particularly in Africa. A key differentiator of these networks is often that they better serve the mobile market — usually because this is their primary or only market — whether on smartphones or not so smart phones.

Those of us still mentally tethered to our desktops and laptops often forget what a shoddy mobile experience Facebook, for instance, offers. As a brand owner wanting to spread the word, I constantly despair that my mobile community can’t share my Facebook posts and updates — even via the new, all-singing-all-dancing iPad app. More mundanely, it frustrates me that I can’t share the gag I saw this morning about running, clowns and margaritas with a friend of mine — it’s unlikely I am going to remember or care by the time I get back to my laptop.

Facebook has been talking the talk about being a mobile company for some time, but I’d suggest it would do well to take a peek at what’s happening in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and other mobile-first countries. A perfect storm of love for social networking and a MacGyverish approach to making stuff work — especially if it involves a cellphone — is resulting in regional mobile social networks gaining traction across the continent.

Two examples presented at Mobile Entertainment Africa in Cape Town at the end of August: the grand-daddy of mobile social networking, Mxit, chatting about improving its user experience for all mobile users; and newcomer 2go, sharing some staggering adoption rates and insight into what makes mobile chat users tick.

Peter Matthaei, head of product development at Mxit, described the mobile instant messaging service as being in its adolescence and discussed his plans for shifting Mxit to a comprehensive social platform. This includes improving discovery through sharing, user recommendations and algorithmic recommendations. Users – around 50,000 per day worldwide – should expect to see a more dynamic home screen with a split between apps and content.

When it comes to smartphones, Matthaei warned that it was incorrect to assume that smartphones users are not also bandwidth sensitive and said the challenge was not to fragment their customer base.

Matthaei also said that the company – which was acquired by World of Avatar last September – is changing its focus from “how do we make money” to “helping partners make money” and points to the launch of its APIs and Mxit Money as examples. According to Matthaei, Mxit partner pages saw around 950-million page impressions in August 2012.

A slightly newer entrant to the mobile instant messaging game, 2go, has seen impressive growth across Africa since its 2008 launch: nine million monthly users in Nigeria, 1.5-million in South Africa and 300 000 in Kenya. Marc Herson, speaking at Mobile Entertainment Africa, says it has 20 million users, which is growing by 50 000 users a day, and also has a foothold in Ghana, Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho.

The service comprises a java-based mobile app that offers free mobile chat, chat rooms, a content store as well as market research, advertising and brand engagement platforms that Herson says are seeing conversion rates of up to 30%. Cleverly, the service connects to other IM platforms such as Mxit, Facebook and Gtalk.

A PC-based version of 2go is also available, and it would be interesting to know the proportion of customers who use this option, given that 2go is “built for users in Africa” — in other words a
predominantly mobile user base, and one that is 90% feature phones. Indeed, the java app doesn’t require a smartphone in order to be used, and while Android is supported, iPhone is not yet available.

With brands such as Vodacom and McDonalds already coming to the 2go party, it’s certain that to tap into the market in any African country, you need to be mobile, chatty, and smart about not being too smart.

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