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The social economy: the world of aid, philanthropy, non-profits and development programmes was worth over US$128-billion in 2012 (Official Development Assistance). The United Nations Development Programme alone had a US$5.7-billion budget for 2013, and spent over US$3.2-billion of that on 5551 projects in countries such as Afghanistan, Argentina, Brazil, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It’s a big industry, and it’s only set to grow over the next decade. At first glance ‘social impact’ doesn’t appear to be a game startups can play easily though, as big budgets and infrastructure seem to be the order of the day.
However, with the reach that mobile has, especially in the emerging economies like in sub-Saharan Africa — where penetration is reported to be 80%, and growing at an annual rate of 4.2 percent — there is now a viable tool that startups can utilise to create or add value to the business of social impact.
One such startup, forging its way to creating both social impact, while making a viable business out of it, is mobile community-builder Every1Mobile (E1M).
You probably haven’t heard of Cape Town/UK-based Every1Mobile, but you might have heard of any one of its mobile-communities (mobi-communities) aimed at serving the 15-35 age demographic:
So what exactly are these mobi-communities?
Well if you’re an individual looking to engage in conversation, or gain some information on say, sexual education, then you’d use your feature phone to log onto smartSex and post a question, or maybe even answer a quiz. You’ll be incentivised socially — by becoming a respected member of the community — and sometimes even monetarily, by taking part in market research at your discretion — you can join the community using your real name, or you could do so anonymously.
If you’re a brand, the platforms afford you a way to speak with the African youth — where the bulk of the user base comes from — and build a network with those emerging into the middle class. You can also make money through the platforms by advertising or sponsoring a thread, or perform market research for, say, a product launch. If you’re a bank or insurance house, you can get leads to your target market.
Every1Mobile’s platforms essentially function as mobile-forums, in which users can engage in conversations with other users or ‘experts’, which function as moderators and can also provide advice on specific topics.
Each community has its own flavour, for example, the two most popular mobi-sites, smartSex and beSmart revolve around relationships, sexual healthcare and education respectively, while on the other end of the spectrum, Mad4Socca (geared towards boys) and D-siders (a text-based soapie geared for girls) are light-hearted and made for entertainment.
E1M’s reach is impressive. Across the active mobile sites it gets 1.5-million monthly unique visitors clocking up to 3.8 million visits. All in all there are 38-million page impressions.
On the social side, E1M can hold its head up high, saying it is helping sectors as varied as healthcare, education, employment and sustainable living by engaging and informing people. But there is also a feasible business behind it all.
The argument is that social impact increases your market potential, and E1M allows brands and companies a myriad of ways to engage: from advertising, sponsorship, integrated marketing campaigns, market research (surveys, competitions etc.), and brand development, all through its communities.
Because of its reach, the research is quantitative, but head of Business Development, Soraiya Verjee, tells Ventureburn that it is also qualitative. For example, smartSex uses gamification elements by rewarding users that show their status within the community, ensuring a level of accuracy in the data. There are also rewards for things like tweeting and liking, and active members are rewarded by becoming ‘role models’ over time.
Users predominantly come from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, but there is a growing presence in 12 other countries such as India and Indonesia.
If you told an investor today that you could provide access to 1.5-million monthly unique users across those emerging countries, they’d likely say, “where do I sign up?” So far, since E1M’s launch in 2010, it has received angel investment to the value of US$1.75-million from American, English and Scandinavian investors, but E1M CEO, Algy Williams, tells Ventureburn that the next step is Series A, to add ‘rocket fuel.’
Specifically, Williams would like to find a strategic partner to help with expansion into other continents and countries, with his sights on India first.
However, Every1Mobile’s mix of social impact combined with commercialism poses an interesting ethical conundrum, one that the startup seems to be addressing with the refreshing outlook of transparency.
I opt-in therefore I am
Right now, Every1Mobile is going through a transitory phase, adding a market-research specific community called uSay to its catalogue. uSay will run externally to the other Every1Mobile communities, and will be a complete-permission community that users will have to opt-into to take part in the goings on on that site.
This is interesting, because up until now E1M has had to use a full-transparency policy, overtly stating its goals and approach, even providing briefs to the community on market research initiatives. For example phrases like ‘would you like to participate in our research?’ and ‘would you like to share your input’ preclude any market research, and users mostly have the option to participate in research anonymously.
In the cases where anonymity has not been possible — such as focus groups, interviews and face-to-face research — an explicit explanation of the research has had to be given.
uSay is an elegant solution to this challenge, and simplifies what has probably been a headache thus far for E1M. Users will no doubt still be incentivised with social and monetary rewards on uSay, but the smart aspect is that the other communities can remain untainted, but the user base still accessible. It’s quite likely that users will be contacted on the other platforms, and invited to join research over on uSay.
This steamlines the red tape for E1M, and will also theoretically make the data more accurate as users on uSay will likely have to give more information — say a name, exact age, and email — for market-research purposes.
The social economy is a fascinating industry, and one worth tapping into if you go by the figures.
E1M proves that Social Impact can be business, cleverly using mobile penetration in Africa and other emerging markets to its advantage, covering most sectors and interests, to appeal to a broad user base within the 15-35 age demographic. This reach is hugely powerful, and attractive to brands interested in the next billion people to be connected to the internet.
The company seems to have its heart in the right place too, by being completely transparent with its market research to the point that it is creating an entire platform dedicated to that aspect of the business.
Williams does state that one of the challenges for the future is to build robust measurement systems — perhaps uSay is the first step in that direction — and this will be needed with more communities, and countries, in E1M’s future.