What Is USSD, And What Can It Do For Your Business?

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is the English translation of a quote by French journalist, critic and novelist, Jean-Baptiste Karr. You’re no doubt thinking that a 150-year-old quote from a French writer is an odd way to start a South African blog that aims to answer the question: What is USSD? Keep reading, however, and you’ll discover that older things find increasing relevance in modern times. USSD is a prime example of exactly this.

So, What Is USSD, Then?

USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) is a protocol used by GSM cellphones to communicate with their service provider’s computers via text messages. We commonly use it to check mobile airtime and data balance enquiries, or to receive one-time passwords or PIN codes, among many applications.

This text-driven technology allows users to interact directly from their cellphones by making a selection from a menu. Unlike an SMS, USSD operates in real-time. This means it allows for two-way communication of information for as long as the communication line stays open. This makes queries and answers virtually instantaneous.

How Does USSD Work?

USSD most commonly involves a query generated by a cellphone user (such as a balance enquiry). Once this request is sent, the USSD gateway forwards it to your USSD application. The application then responds to the request, and the process is repeated in reverse: the response goes back to the USSD gateway, which displays the content of that response on your phone screen.

Responses are usually sent in an easily displayed format, containing a maximum of 182 alphanumeric characters. Messages sent over USSD are not defined by any universal standardisation, so each operator is free to use a format most suited to its customers.

Isn’t Text-Based Communication Out-Dated?

You’d think it would be, with the multitude of smartphone apps and online communication programmes now available. The truth is, however, that despite being basic, USSD is one of the few truly inclusive mobile technologies available. This is a key factor when it comes to cell phone communication in emerging markets, such as South Africa.

Smartphone adoption across Africa (as a percentage share of total SIM connections and not population) is about 35 percent. In some countries, it’s actually far less – averaging only 25 percent. So what does this really mean? Well, if your business only runs online through a mobile-responsive website, or an Android or iOS mobile app, the biggest percentage of the market you can ever hope to reach is 35 percent. And that’s assuming that everyone who owns a smartphone also has a data package. Which of course, not everyone does. Or perhaps they do, but it’s always used up by the middle of the month. That all translates into a vast number of people currently not on your radar.

So, what can you do? You need to look at other, more universal ways to reach your customers, such as SMS, voice and USSD. One of the key benefits of USSD over the other two platforms, however, is that it gives you far greater flexibility in terms of usage.

Other Benefits Of USSD

If you’re not already convinced that USSD is an easy and highly effective way to connect with the majority of your customers, here are a few additional little pointers:

  • USSD works on all phones – from a R200 discounted special to the most high-tech and expensive models.
  • It’s free for your clients to use, and highly cost-effective for you to implement and run.
  • Highly interactive – it’s almost like talking to a person.
  • Rapid exchange of data – up to seven times faster than SMS. Its interactive navigation allows for faster two-way communication.
  • No Internet connection or data needed.
  • USSD codes work across all your cellular networks.
  • It is not mobile software or SIM based. This means it can run without either, and just needs a connection to the GSM network.
  • Easily customised to suit your business needs.

Hopefully we’ve now answered your original question: What is USSD? If you’d like to find out more about how this versatile and cost effective messaging platform can work for your business, chat to Cellfind. We offer a wide range of high-volume, multichannel messaging solutions to business of all sizes. Our range of secure, reliable offerings means you can interact with your customers and employees in a cost-efficient, secure and timely manner.

6 thoughts on “What Is USSD, And What Can It Do For Your Business?”

  1. Pingback: Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) – Ghana Editor

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