Does the future of instant messaging apps lie in bulk?


The instant messaging space is a tough nut to crack. Add a couple feature and it becomes cluttered and the users become uncomfortable. Remove a feature and the product risks falling behind the pack.

Just ask Mxit, which has gone from being Africa’s largest mobile social network with 27-million registered users in 2010 to dwindling numbers suspected of being less than 1 million. Instant messaging phenomena WhatsApp, on the other side of the spectrum, has achieved international success in just six years after after which it boasted 800 million active users around the globe and got bought out by Facebook for around a total of US$22-billion.

With more alternatives like WeChat, BBM, Facebook Messenger and oh so many more, it’s a crowded space to say the least. Yet if recent trends are anything to go by there’s still a lot of opportunity. Especially in South Africa’s long-time mobile attuned market.

Bold startups like Bambisa are taking on the smartphone communication market by getting in on the bulk messaging space. They are tapping into South Africa’s smartphone market from top-to-bottom: business to customer. It’s an angle that’s offering service providers alternative solutions, eliminating woefully outdated and expensive SMS systems with smart, scalable platforms.

It’s all about smart scale

Douglas Hoernle, who’s behind content distribution platform Rethink Education, explains that the inspiration for Bambisa comes from Mxit which has been a distribution partner for the edtech startup, enabling it to reach tens of thousands of students using both smart and feature phones.

As Memeburn pointed out though, Mxit’s user numbers have over the past few years have become less and less attractive for brands to hook into. For instance, digital research firm Pondering Panda has popularly been using Mxit as a survey channel, but recently started to implement alternative mobile channels like WeChat.

As the users migrate so too will the brands.

“We found that what was happening in our schools were that teachers were downloading WhatsApp and setting up groups with the students and the parents,” Hoernle says in an interview.

But WhatsApp has its limits. For starters, its groups are capped to 50 users and personal numbers are on display. Chatting to alternative distribution partner and founder of bulk text message service SMSWeb Salah Elbaba, Hoernle saw a golden gap in the local messaging market: bulk communication, but smart.

Today, Bambisa enables schools and teachers to cheaply send push notifications to parents, students or both. Use cases include everything from reminding a specific group of students about their math homework to informing parents about teacher-parent meetings or an upcoming school concert.

We have seen the impact that a simple SMS system has in a school and realised by taking away the cost concern by replacing that SMS with an app we can enable schools and teachers to communicate more with their learners and parents.

Backed by Liberty Life Insurance for an undisclosed sum of green, Bambisa stands as a free offering. There are 50 schools implementing the technology to cut down on their costs while upping student-teacher relationships.

Within two weeks after launching, over 15 000 parents have been active on the Bambisa app. The startup’s biggest client group will be with the Department of Education which currently has 420 000 teachers under its umbrella. Having over 15 000 within the first two weeks is disco for any startup. Having the ability to measure and extract data from those numbers is golden.

Beyond education

Seeing that local banks, marketing firms and telecommunications for instance still largely rely on text messages to, well, get their messages across, Hoernle then realised that the markets beyond education are also up for grabs.

“Building an app that feels like it’s been built in Silicon Valley is relatively tricky. Obviously, because we were building a messaging app, our competitor is WhatsApp. So we have to make it feel really, really good,” the co-founder says.

For instance, he explains that if you’re a corporate client and you want to speak to 10 000 sales staff or 100 000 customers, Bambisa’s technology would allow you to do that. “It’s scalability is huge.”

The company has therefor decided to white-label Bambisa. “The other markets that we can open up are going to be much bigger. This would also allow us to continue giving the service to schools for free,” says Hoernle.

The markets beyond education are very attractive but not necessarily easy to get into.

South Africa’s WhatsApp for business startup Notafy, for instance, has been responsible for processing 8 million messages a month with big clients like UNISA, private security firms and other niche groups under its belt.

The Johannesburg-based company has recently been named one of Africa’s finalists in SWIFT’s Innotribe Startup Challenge and is looking to expand into Southeast Asia. It’s already “working with strategic partners in Malaysia,” which the technical director says has a very similar environment to South Africa where most banks rely on SMS communication.

Notafy is an app that’s replacing A2P SMS messaging (that’s Application-to-Person in contrast to WhatsApp being Person-to-Person). It estimates the market to be worth US$70-billion. Similar to Bambisa’s, the tech enables a company to push messages to their consumers’ mobile phones via instant messages. Again, this means clients’ reach can have mass scale for little cost.

Founded in 2013, the company was born out of marketing research outfit Smoke Customer Care Solutions which relied on SMS technology as a channel to conduct surveys. Technical director Andrew Burns says that text messages has always been a great tool for doing surveys in South Africa.

“It’s a technology that South Africans have grown to accept and learn to trust,” he suggests. “If we think of things like Please Call Me’s, that was a South African thing and people trusted and used it.”

The problem is that the bulk of the country’s mobile phone users have moved on to instant messaging services, whether that’s BBM or WeChat. “We started looking at alternative solutions to SMS, like can’t we do surveys over something like WhatsApp? Then we started understanding the width and breadth of the problem.”

Why the bulk messaging space is so powerful

Bambisa is built to become the primary communication tool between the country’s 420 000 teachers and up to 12 million parents and students. That’s a lot of data which Hoernle hopes to sell content to.

The app’s next update will include a payments feature, which is where things get all so more exciting yet again. The co-founder paints us a picture of the current out-dated school system:

My girlfriend is a high school geography teacher. The other day she wanted to do a geography tour. She typed out a letter that said ‘Dear parents, this is for a Geography tour. Please put a R150 in an envelope with my name on it.’ This she gives to the kids, who gives it to the parents who have to scrap around for R150 cash, put it in the envelope, which goes back to the student, then the teacher, and then has to get deposited in the school bank account.

Instead of going through that whole process, Bambisa’s payments feature enables the sender to push bulk messages accompanied by a Pay Now button. Parents tap the pay now button, which then transacts the amount off their credit cards and gets deposited into the school’s bank account.

Churches are a fantastic example where you have a central person who doesn’t want to share his phone number with thousands of congregation members but does want to message, remind them of events and receive payments. Banks, retailers and even telecoms should find this useful.

All of the sudden you’ve got analytics on hundreds of thousands of people with mobile wallets at their fingertips. Nice.

Image by Blake Patterson via Flickr

Jacques Coetzee: Staff Reporter


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