Mxit’s plan to rock India? Focus on feature phones and social change

Mxit 7

More and more people in developing nations are turning to mobile messaging apps instead of SMS. As they do so, they’ll find that there’s a huge variety of social messaging apps to choose from.

WhatsApp goes for cool simplicity; Line and WeChat try to throw as many features at people as possible; Viber and Nimbuzz have the option of phone-calls. There’s something for everyone. The African messaging app Mxit is trying another angle – placing an emphasis on feature phone users, group gatherings, and discussing social change.

Mxit already has over 10-million registered users across Africa. To be as accessible as possible, it comes with apps for Nokia, BlackBerry, and various Java-based phones, as well as for more modern platforms like iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.

The company’s first venture outside of its home nation of South Africa happened earlier this year when it rolled out in India. There’s an now an Indian office, headed by Mxit India CEO Sam Rufus, who wants to see the messaging app grow in what he calls a “previously excluded segment” in India – among feature phone users.

Over half a billion feature phones

The latests figures from IDC show that 78% of new phones shipped in India last year were feature phones. That means 212.3-million new sub-$100 basic phones versus a mere 44-million smartphones. Rufus says that, in grand total, India has about half a billion 2G-equipped features phones in use – most of which are Nokias. That’s the area Mxit is aiming at.

Mxit is placing an emphasis on public group chats – called Chat Zones in the app – as it battles rival apps for new users. As a country that’s embracing mobile web usage over desktops or laptops, it could be the first destination for new internet users in India, just as BBS and forums are in many nations. Rufus adds that the social network isn’t troubled by growing uptake of smartphones: “We’re not threatened by it. We can graduate with users as they upgrade.”

Those chat zones within Mxit can bridge the gap to smartphones, he adds, so that public group discussions can take place between people on iPhones and feature phones. Groups can be about anything, as they’re created by users.

Social change

Mxit 7 Nokia 5120

In addition to those groups, Mxit is setting itself apart from rival messaging apps with Mxit Citizens forums, which are being used by a number of NGOs to discuss social issues with ordinary people. These other forums are created and moderated by Mxit. These forums can also be used for other purposes, such as for e-learning or counseling sessions with certified experts. The Indian crew is now talking to UNICEF about starting online classes inside the app – something that has already been done in Africa on Mxit.

All those extra features, including profile pages, make Mxit into a broader social network – a bit like a mobile-only Facebook. That’s something apps like Line and WeChat are trying to do as well. Mxit also has brand and celebrity pages.

But Rufus sees Mxit co-existing with Facebook in India, and says that the app-within-the-app feature – that’s also how things like the NGOs are accessed – allows people to login to a sort of Facebook mobile site from within Mxit. So the experience is complementary.

Aiming at over 10-million Indian users next year

But Mxit faces more direct competition from other messaging apps. WhatsApp already has over 30-million monthly active users in India. Line, a much more recent entrant to the country, has over 10 million registered users. With both of those apparently growing at the rate of a few million new users per month (WhatsApp’s growth is more impressive, as it counts active users, not merely those who sign up) it’s hard to fight that kind of momentum – especially as a messaging app is only as good as the number of friends who are also on it.

Rufus says that Mxit is aiming at 10 to 12-million registered users in India by midway through 2015. It got off to a solid start with 350 000 new sign-ups in just the first two and a half weeks after its high-profile launch in India, with cricketer and former team India coach Gary Kirsten brought in as brand ambassador. To be more inclusive, the company hopes to have the app running with a choice of 11 Indian languages in the coming months.

While a new messaging app is a tough sell to India’s mobile users, the company has plenty of plans to make money from the service while keeping it free for regular people. Aside from making money from brands and NGOs that use the app-within-the-app feature, there are plans to sell banner ads and splashscreens as well as offering market surveys. That last idea is intriguing. Rufus says the messaging app could help brands get feedback, or help political parties to get some idea of their level of support. The app, with enough traction, could be uniquely placed to connect brands and politicians with people in India’s rural areas.

This article by Steven Millward originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.



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