If Your Mobile Strategy Can Win Here, It Can Win Anywhere

(By Morra Aarons-Mele)

If you’re marketing to women through social media, imagine your conversations mediated by a smartphone screen. According to a 2013 survey by Nielsen, “Nearly 60% of women use Facebook/access Facebook multiple times a day on their device/computer compared to approximately 45% of men.” Women, already social media power users, are increasingly exercising that influence via their phones.

As a marketer, I work to engage women online with brands and causes. Ultimately, however, we hope for more than merely sales or action: we want to build a relationship with our audience. Ideally, a brand and a woman of influence interact directly, one to one. But there’s something that’s increasingly coloring our relationship. It’s her phone. The phone is more than our hardware. It’s our lifeline.

A stunning 64.7% of emails to my all-female marketing database are opened on iPhones, likely because many on my mailing list are busy moms who often aren’t in front of a computer. Whitney Broadwell of Women for Women International notices the same trend: “This time last year, 12% of our email opens were through mobile, now it’s 33% and climbing every month.”

If you’re marketing to women through social media, imagine your conversations mediated by a smartphone screen. According to a 2013 survey by Nielsen, “Nearly 60% of women use Facebook/access Facebook multiple times a day on their device/computer compared to approximately 45% of men.” Women, already social media power users, are increasingly exercising that influence via their phones.

In some countries, women’s access to mobile media is quite literally a lifeline, because mobile health services fill a revolutionary gap by providing crucial medical and financial information.

But, possibly because it has such great potential for improving welfare, the developing world far outpaces the US in creating a system where mobile phones — marketed specifically to women — are truly essential tools. So I asked several leaders in the mobile health space what they’ve learned from developing world direct-to-consumer mobile programs that could inform American mobile marketing programs.

Utility, customization, and segmentation are key to the success of mobile marketing to women in the developing world. Choice, too, is crucial: all mobile programs are opt-in and easy to opt out of.

Kirsten Gagnaire is the Global Director of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), launched in May 2011 by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A mom of a 10- and a 14-year-old, she contrasts American moms’ access to online health information, to the services provided, often by single feature phones, in the developing world.

The information we take for granted — think of a quick search on Babycenter.com or watching a video on a hospital website — is not accessible to women in poverty in the developing world. There, women may rely on others in the community to provide information that may turn out to be inaccurate or even harmful. Mobile phones can help fill that information vacuum.

Gagnaire notes, “The way they get vital health information is through their mobile phones. Our program addresses local myths, stresses the foods they should eat, and helps provide vital health information. For example, in Ghana one of the major causes of infant death was the infection of the umbilical cord. There is a myth you shouldn’t take the baby outside for six weeks after birth because of evil eye. Now we can send moms a message on the signs of infections and when to take the baby to the clinic.”

She continues, “mobiles are prolific…even if she doesn’t have a phone, someone does. She’d be able to access a handset capable of making calls and basic SMS. So we’ve developed a suite of messages based on the BabyCenter model that are sent two or three times a week, covering pregnancy and up to baby’s first year of life.”

MAMA’s text messages, which meet WHO and UNICEF standards, are timed to a woman’s stage of pregnancy and her baby’s age. And these messages use strong market segmentation. For example, Gagnaire notes, “How are we going to deliver the messages? How do women in that market get information? In Bangladesh it’s SMS and voice, but most of the mothers using our messages are illiterate: so we use voice messages. In South Africa, women are more literate but SMS is expensive, so we use the mobile web. Our messages are accessible though askmama.mobi.”

More curious to me, however, was this question: A big part of successful marketing to women is relationship-building. A big part of relationship-building, in established markets, relies on visual cues. So how do we build a relationship when all you have is a non-visual basic phone?

mHealth (mobile health) providers have learned that it’s all in the messenger. Some programs use simple game characters to put a face to the advice provided via phone — after all, pregnancy through the first year of a baby’s life is a long time for mothers to text or call a stranger. Gagnaire notes, “How do we build a relationship? In Bangladesh, we’ve created Dr. Apa, a character who delivers jingles, vignettes, and skits. Women begin to recognize Dr. Apa, and recognize her voice and trust what she says.”

“We take user testing and rapid iteration very seriously. We went where women are under a tree, in their homes, and at clinics and listen to what they want. We play messages and ask what voices they like, what they don’t. We find the accents that work, the music they like and the terms they understand. Putting our work into their context is so important to building relations and trust.”

Cathryn Stickel, Operations Manager of Frontline SMS, notes that while in the United States, 97% of mobile subscribers will read an SMS within 15 minutes of receiving it, in the developing world text messages have become like email: a deluge to be managed when you have time. It’s a cautionary tale as marketers in the West rush to cash in on the mobile gold rush.

“I was just in Mumbai, where internet penetration is low, mobile penetration is high. Spam SMS is a fact of life there. In the rest of the world people are more dubious of mobile marketing. But in the US we think our SMS is so important we have it sent to the front of our phone and user experience! 97% of mobile subscribers will read an SMS within 15 minutes of getting it.”

“I wouldn’t want to see us go to where I have seen the situation in India go where people don’t trust their SMS. It’s a delicate push.”

This impacts FrontlineSMS’ work. In India, organizations have to communicate with the government and get an exception before working with local groups to create programs that use their open source technology to solve problems ranging from providing services to pregnant women, rape or sexual violence survivors. In Haiti, FrontlineSMS powers KOFAVIV, which connects women who’ve been raped to medical and legal services via SMS.

I asked Cathryn how she builds depth without a relationship or visuals. She answers, “SMS is not step one. You’re going to have a hard time engaging with someone with SMS alone. The relationship needs to be personally established and then reinforced using SMS.”

Still, while emerging markets are the frontier of mobile marketing, there are some barriers that marketers in established economies don’t have to worry about. As Stickel points out, in many emerging market countries, female phone ownership is an emotionally charged issue. Due to cultural barriers, women are less likely to have a mobile at all. In some villages, FrontlineSMS learned, a woman with a phone may even be perceived as promiscuous.

“A lot of big organizations will say we need to get every woman a phone. But it’s not that simple. It gets under my skin a bit to say ‘we need to get all women a phone’ and women need to use that phone to cast off their oppression. Women can get in trouble for having a phone — what we’re trying to do at FrontlineSMS is to make phones such useful tools that it becomes a financial liability for the family to not let the woman have a phone.” Options go beyond maternal and child health and allow the phone software system to help in paying for school costs, to analyzing the right fees to charge for agriculture at market.

Despite challenges like this, mobile marketing in the developing world empowers those with extremely limited resources and offers powerful lessons for US marketers learning to build customer relationships through a phone. Let’s learn from this and make sure the next “killer app” in the US mobile market helps us lead better lives, not just pass the time while waiting for the bus.

(Source: Harvard Business Review)

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

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