SMS is Still King of Mobile Marketing in Africa, But the Picture is Rapidly Changing

Marketers who want to use mobile devices to interact with consumers in Africa will find that SMS and USSD still offer them the ability to reach the widest swathe of customers at the lowest costs. However, the rapid growth in smartphone penetration means that the picture will look markedly different by 2020.

That’s according to Jacques Swanepoel, COO of Cellfind, who says that the fact that so many African customers are still using basic cellphones and feature phones means that many organisations will find that SMS marketing and communication still offers them the best return on investment. But they will also benefit from using apps, the web and even video to interact with top-tier clients as they prepare for a continent with more mobile Internet users.

Swanepoel notes that high data costs, relatively low penetration of smartphones, and slow rollout of 4G by operators mean that many customers are still not using their mobile devices to access the Internet. According to a 2015 report from the GSM Association (GSMA), 4G accounted for only 1% of Africa’s connection base last year. Smartphones accounted for 20% of connections, with penetration expected to reach a third by 2017 and more than half by 2020, says the GSMA. Smartphone growth is being driven by falling prices, with sub-$100 and even sub$-50 devices hit the market.

“The numbers show us that an app-only or web-only strategy risks leaving a significant portion of the customer base behind, whereas SMS and USSD can be used to communicate with anyone with a GSM handset,” says Swanepoel.

“However, the business case for apps varies between different countries and different organisations’ customer bases.”

Swanepoel notes that middle-class and richer African consumers have higher expectations of the mobile brand experience because they use apps from Twitter, Facebook and others every day. Companies that target this demographic may benefit from offering a good mobile app or a rich, responsive website tailored for mobile screens and connections.

This approach can achieve good engagement rates and return on investment since many countries in Africa are mobile-first or mobile-only. African customers with smartphones may engage more heavily with mobile sites or download more apps because the device is their only computer.

However, Swanepoel says that companies that embrace apps need to research their markets carefully to understand what platforms their customers are using. The market is heavily fragmented and there are still many customers with old versions of Android or with BlackBerry 7 phones in the market.

It can be difficult to provide a consistent experience across legacy platforms and newer smartphone operating systems, and it is expensive to try and support everything. Hard decisions need to be made – as WhatsApp has discovered from the criticism it has received for deciding to abandon support for all BlackBerry operating systems as well as older Symbian, Android and Windows devices from end 2016.

“Smartphones introduce many complexities for African marketers, which is why we advise them to start experimenting with them now in order to prepare for the future,” says Swanepoel. “At the same time, they should keep leveraging SMS to make sure they are covering every user with a GSM phone.”

Swanepoel offers the following tips for engaging with African consumers on their smartphones:

Know your customer: Factors such as smartphone penetration, disposable income, and data costs vary widely between African countries. Savvy marketers should research what devices their customers have (cellphone, feature phone, smartphones and platforms) and then segment them according to how they might interact with the company.

Do some ROI calculations: Developing apps and responsive websites can be expensive – ensure that the money will be well spent. If smartphone users are a small part of your customer base, you could leverage social media platforms to interact with them.

Be respectful and personal: By segmenting the SMS marketing database, marketers can personalise messages to clients’ needs and interest. As such, SMSes can be leveraged as effectively for one-to-one marketing as it can for bulk messaging. Apps and the web offer even richer options for personalisation, leveraging contextual and location data.

Remember that SMS is still powerful and cost-effective: A simple text message remains one of the most efficient, effective and affordable ways to interact with your customers. It is reliable and immediate. It can be accessed on any cellphone and allows for two-way communication between your business and the customer. Don’t neglect it in the marketing mix.


About Cellfind
Cellfind is Africa’s largest enabler of mobile messaging, mobile financial services and value added services.

Its mobile business solutions create new revenue opportunities for telecom operators and empower enterprise customers to streamline how they connect, interact and transact with their customer bases through multi-communication channels.

Cellfind operates the following business units:
Cellfind Communication Services offers secure and reliable, high-volume multi-channel messaging solutions including SMS, USSD, Instant Messaging, Email and premium services.
Cellfind Value Added Services (VAS) provides Emergency Assist, geolocation and information solutions that help companies better engage their customers, provide added relevant value, and enable mobile operators to monetise their networks while differentiating their offerings.
Cellfind Mobile Financial Services serves financial institutions across the continent with a range of robust and intelligent mobile banking, mobile security and mobile money solutions. Cellfind also provides state-of-the-art mobile financial statement delivery solutions to the continent.

Cellfind is a member of the JSE-listed Blue Label Telecoms Group; a founding member of the Wireless Application Service Provider Association (WASPA) and an Accredited Service Provider for Vodacom, MTN and Cell C.

Email us at, and follow us on Twitter: @Cellfind

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