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8 Things to consider when building a digital strategy in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa has the fastest growing internet usage in the world
Internet growth has increased at over 2 500% between 2000 and 2011, largely driven by incredible growth in mobile phone use (695-million mobile subscriptions in Africa, according to the latest GSMA statistics). But with around 12% penetration, Sub-Saharan countries still have some of the lowest internet penetrations in the world and internet growth is likely to continue growing fast, particularly with smarter, more affordable and more intuitive phones becoming more accessible and with cheaper data costs

Africa is a youthful continent and so internet users are young
At least two out of every five people are under the age of 14 years in most Sub-Saharan countries according to the CIA factbook. This has implications on how much more mobile can realistically grow in the short term and on what the priorities for internet use should be (think education and access to knowledge). It also means a lot of new people coming online each year for the first time. One survey found that 43% of internet users in Sub-Saharan Africa are aged between 16 and 24 years, compared to a global average of 27% (the survey excluded people under 16 years). The main message for anyone looking to push anything here is that online engagement needs to be focused on a youthful audience.

The internet is increasingly mobile
Four out of five internet users in Sub-Saharan Africa access the internet via mobile phone, similarly, three quarters of people say they would be happy to do all their internet surfing via mobile phone. The internet will increasingly be dominated by mobile phone access, and marketers need to prioritise consumer interaction via this channel and optimise their internet experience for mobile phone.

The internet is social
Four out of five internet users in Sub-Saharan Africa use Facebook to connect to each other. In fact, for many, social networking is their most important online activity, with 58% saying it trumps everything else. Any communication strategy has to have social networking as a key element to connect and leverage online word of mouth and go viral.

But, internet use beyond social networking is somewhat limited
The cost of internet access is still very high for most internet users, meaning they don’t experiment or try out new things very much. While this is partially due to inexperience, with many internet users doing so for the first time, costs and download speeds limit use of the internet to its full extent, particularly video streaming, with only 13% watching online video on a weekly basis, compared to 62% globally.

Although video is forecast to be the dominant use of the internet in the future, it still has a way to go in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other comparisons include 45% of Sub-Saharan Africans using Google search versus 75% globally, 48% downloading Apps vs. 66% globally, 47% rating or “liking” something vs. 71% globally, 26% visiting an online news site vs. 75% globally. In terms of transactions, use of the internet is even lower with only 9 percent paying bills online vs. 60% globally and only 12% accessing their bank account online vs. 65% globally.

As such, brands don’t feature much, yet…
But, a third of internet users have searched online after seeing an ad on TV. While this is still low compared to Global average of 73%, it is encouraging and speaks to the need to integrate traditional media with online in the African context, making it relevant to the audience.

Brands still have a long way to go in interacting with the online audience in Sub-Saharan Africa, with only 10 percent of internet users having done pre-purchase browsing, compared to 37% globally and only two percent having done any online shopping, compared to 24% globally. In addition, 61% have never clicked on an ad banner and 66% have never clicked on a sponsored link. Part of the reason for this is that people are accessing the internet via a mobile device and the online environment is thus different, and generally not optimized for mobile. While just under a quarter of social network users have befriended brands, the encouraging news is that 70% of internet users say that social networks are a good place to learn about products and brands — so the opportunity is there, brands are just not utilizing the mobile internet effectively yet, or making it locally relevant.

So, if marketers don’t get their act together they will get left behind
The “mobile” internet will very soon overtake TV as the primary media channel in Sub-Saharan Africa and marketers can no longer wait to make “Digital” central to their brand communication strategy. While TV and radio still feature large in terms of media consumption, globally, the internet has passed them and Sub-Saharan Africa is not far behind.

But remember, Africa is diverse, and one size doesn’t fit all
While the numbers provided above are generalize to the Sub-Saharan African context and the general trends are quite similar, each country has followed its own “digital” development path and is on a slightly different journey. Marketers need to know and understand the individual markets in which they wish to operate and tailor their digital strategies to suit the needs of the local audience. Above all, making it locally relevant and providing localised content is key.

Author | Mark Molenaar

Mark Molenaar
Mark Molenaar is Director of Client Service at TNS South Africa. With over 18 years marketing research experience, Mark is focusing his energies on the opportunities that the Digital world is constantly churning out and seeing how these can be applied to marketing research. Mark has... More

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