At Last! A mobile marketing channel with no cost to the consumer.

A new USSD number that works across all South African cellular networks could make things a little easier in the future.

Whilst international marketing campaigns can implement a wide range of media-rich, multi-faceted programmes, it’s not always the case in the developing world. Of course, it’s not news that mobile handsets are a primary means of communication and information transfer in African countries. And when it comes to marketing, engagement and interacting with consumers, it’s an all-out essential.

In particular, South African advertising campaigns have created interesting opportunities for mobile-only programmes, and seen some success through implementation. It must be remembered though, that, in terms of smartphone penetration, the typical South African customer does not, as yet, own an app-driven handset.

That’s where menu-driven or relatively simple mobile campaigns are gaining ground. Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, more commonly known as USSD, is a popular mechanism for consumer engagement and running promotional campaigns in South Africa. Moreover, menu-driven USSD sessions have created interesting opportunities for organisations to enable public access to important information. As an example, a short yet simple USSD campaign run by popular KwaZulu-Natal newspaper, Isolezwe, during March 2014 elicited a 98% opt-in response from over 240 000 sessions initiated by participants.

One stumbling block has, however, prevented USSD from truly exploding as a marketing tool. Because campaigns run on a USSD number have been restricted to a range that start with * 120 *, when a customer dials it, the cost of participating in USSD-driven surveys, competitions and campaigns has most often fallen to the customer themselves.

The introduction of a *134 * USSD string, that functions across all South African cellular networks has changed this. Previously, the *134 * number range was only available for Vodacom and Telkom Mobile subscribers, but is now open on all networks. The *134 * string enables companies to set up campaigns, surveys or competitions and bear the cost of entry for clients themselves.

This means that even when entrants have no airtime loaded on their mobile phones, they will still be able to participate.

Beyond marketing campaigns though, another exciting prospect lies ahead for implementing reverse billed USSD programmes. A number of charities and non-profit organisations make use of USSD campaigns or systems to drive donations or enable users to access information on their programmes. With the cost of entry barrier now falling away for interested donors or participants, these USSD campaigns can undoubtedly begin to enjoy higher levels of access and participation.

In terms of mobile consumer engagement in South Africa, the USSD medium has proven to be an essential tool for mobile campaigns. Looking back at campaigns run so far in the country, removing the cost of entry barrier for participants is excellent news for consumers and brands alike.

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