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Not so long ago, Mxit appeared to be caught in something of a malaise. Alan Knott Craig Jr, the man who promised to change the company from the ground up had parted ways with it, the board appeared reluctant to appoint a new CEO and its product was stuck in pretty much the same place it had been in for years. No one can accuse it of that now.
In the space of a few months and under new CEO Francois Swart, it has launched brand new smartphone and feature phone versions, launched in India and rolled out a host of new features aimed at making it more competitive.
The latest additions to the South African-based instant messaging service include Chat Cards and a Newsfeed.
The latter, which allow users to post moments in time, and to keep track of friends’ posts, is interesting in that it suggests social networking aspirations at a time when most of the big social players are looking to make their mark in the instant messaging space (think Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Tencent’s efforts in pushing WeChat to new markets).
Chat Cards, meanwhile, is a new way to share videos, photos, and other web content in conversations on Mxit. Rather than limiting you to words and emoticons, you can now, for instance, supplement the conversation with Gifs and Videos, as well as joke cards and pick-up-lines.
Mxit Product Chief Vincent Maher reckons that this is the company’s “most exciting product release to date” because it makes “chat more fun, exciting and meaningful”.
That’s all well and good, and it seems likely that the new features will be welcomed by the service’s existing user base, which is still fairly substantial (in South Africa, it’s still used by more people than Twitter), but they’re not the only ones it has to convince.
In South Africa, the company has to try and bring back the people who abandoned it as they graduated to smartphones. As we’ve already pointed out, that’s no easy task. It was beaten to the punch by other services such as WhatsApp that don’t require a unique user ID and, interestingly, aren’t crammed to the brim with features.
As part of that effort, Mxit will also roll out a marketing campaign fronted by recently appointed brand ambassador and South African ‘King of Dance Music’, Zakes Bantwini. That’s a start but, as we’ve seen before, much more high-profile brand ambassadors haven’t been able to help out the brands that appointed them (hands up if you bought a BlackBerry because of Alicia Keys).
Once it’s got those users, it also has to keep them, which is another battle entirely, especially when the likes of WeChat are aggressively targeting the South African market.
In other markets, such as India, it has to convince to join the platform in the first place in the face of competition from other instant messaging services hungry to get their hands on the growing number of high-end feature phone and smartphone users in those countries.
From Asia alone there’s Line, KakaoTalk, Nimbuzz and, of course WeChat. All of them have registered user numbers in the hundreds of millions.
Yes the discrepancy between registered and active user numbers might be quite large in some instances, but there’s no doubt that they are substantially larger than the numbers being put out by Mxit.
In short, the hill Mxit has to climb is so steep that even last year’s King of the Mountains winner in the Tour de France Nairo Quintana would have to get off his bike and walk it.
That said, there can be no doubt that the Mxit team has done some seriously hard, and good, work over the past few months up to and including the release of the new features. To stick with the metaphor, it’s laid the groundwork for a serious attempt at climbing that hill. As with any big climb though, Mxit will need the elements to be in its favour.