South Africa holds huge potential for expanding the functionality of mobile phones as platforms for consumers to obtain useful information and businesses to build new links with customers and employees.

 However, more needs to be done to educate consumers on the ease of use, low costs (less than R2.00 per megabyte downloaded) and benefits of receiving useful information such as product photos/videos or Mobizines (magazines sent to a cell phone). While entertainment downloads like ring tones are already very popular, consumers need to be informed more explicitly why they should also to sign up for information downloads.
This is according to new research conducted at the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB). The findings were presented in a research thesis by Barbara Grantham (neé Kühler), as part of her MBA degree in 2007, on "The Feasibility of Mobile Technology as an Information Medium". This research was guided by Dr Hamieda Parker, a Senior Lecturer at the UCT GSB.
The study set out to determine the extent to which multimedia mobile applications can offer a suitable alternative or complement to existing information and communication media – both within the consumer setting and corporate environment.
The two mobile applications that were tested were video-to-mobile downloads and Mobizines – mini magazines that can be downloaded onto personal handsets (which since the research have been developed into WAP site applications and no longer require software to be downloaded onto a phone). Mobile applications are already common in the entertainment industry, with thousands of videos, pictures and ring tones being downloaded in South Africa everyday.
However, the potential of these applications as mediums for conveying useful and relevant information to consumers has not yet been fully exploited. The study suggests that this is because consumers rarely understand the value or benefit of information downloads until they experience such applications for themselves and are thus hesitant to give them a try.
Cell phones offer many advantages over traditional information mediums – they can be taken anywhere, they demand attention more successfully than mass media, they are personal and they can now feature the entire range of multimedia capability – sound, text, picture and video, making them highly entertaining and appealing.
In response to these benefits, the arena of mobile marketing – or marketing to consumers via their cell phones – is rapidly growing in South Africa. But it is one thing to have an sms advertisement sent to you without requesting it, and entirely another to convince consumers to actually request – or 'pull' – information which can then be downloaded onto their phones. This is much harder to do.
Grantham's quantitative study used two testing methods – traditional concept testing, where consumers were presented with a verbal description of the attributes and benefits of mobile applications; and prototype testing, where consumers received the verbal description in addition to experiencing the application firsthand.
The results show that those who were presented with the video-to-mobile and Mobizine prototypes had far more positive responses than those who were presented with the concept only. The study also shows strong evidence that experiencing the application appears to significantly increase user buy-in.
On the other hand, those who were presented with the concept only were far more sceptical. The concept-test respondents were also more concerned about issues of privacy, cost and phone compatibility. These issues were less of a concern to those who saw the technology work firsthand.
These results have important implications for the marketing industry. If there is to be any major uptake of information downloads in the consumer market, businesses will have to invest in new ways to engage consumers and overcome misconceptions. Until then, downloads are likely to remain solely within the realm of entertainment – where the benefits to consumers are more obvious.
According to Grantham, this would be a missed opportunity because the advantages of information downloads to both businesses and consumers are numerous.
Grantham says that in particular, information downloads can save consumers money and time when making a purchasing decision – especially an important one like buying a house or a car.
"Imagine you are scanning the papers looking to buy a property and next to each advertisement there is a number you can sms to "pull" extra information about that house. By simply smsing a word (example 'house') to a number you could get sent a link that would enable you to download a video tour of the property which can be viewed directly off your cell phone. This would save people a lot of time as they could eliminate several options without having to physically view each house.
"The same principle applies in other contexts – for example when trying to decide what film to watch, you could request extra information or download a movie trailer directly onto your phone," adds Grantham.
The benefits to business are also exciting to contemplate. Mobizines are already being used by many publications – for example Shape magazine – to create interest in their latest issue by sending consumers a condensed version of the real thing. This gives consumers something interesting to read on their phones while hopefully enticing them to buy the full version.
In addition, Car magazine features video-to-mobile applications where readers can sms a number to request extra information about a car that might interest them. Users then download a multimedia video onto their phone, which may end up influencing their purchasing decision, thus benefiting the car companies while simultaneously helping the consumer to make an informed and speedy decision.
As a note of caution, however, the study points out that the trend must be fuelled by consumers requesting information and not by advertisers who "push" or force their applications onto people. This was perceived as an invasion of privacy by most of the respondents in the survey.