I have been leery of getting behind web-based applications for social marketing in developing countries – designing elaborate health information systems, using information and communication technologies to improve heathcare, mobilizing social networks. Broadband connectivity for internet access is spotty at best, and the promise of the internet for billions is still a few years away (2015?) if projects like the Connect Africa Initiative, Connect the Caribbean and other projects to connect the unconnected fulfill their mission to make affordable connectivity accessible to all. Then there are the costs of adoption by large numbers of people, especially among the poor. Mobile phones using SMS have been the interim answer for technology-based, scalable health projects designed for people rather than government agencies, NGOs and research projects.
In a report in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Tom Wright pulls together a set of facts and practices that has me thinking that maybe it is time to start considering mobile web for social change in emerging markets. Mirroring, or perhaps even eclipsing, a trend among poorer people in developed countries, some analysts see mobile access as the primary way in which people in emerging markets will connect with the internet. Indonesia, Egypt and Russia are the strongest growth markets for mobile internet browser maker Opera. Southeast Asia is the largest market for mobile advertising with Indonesia alone just trailing the US.
Wright points to decreasing costs, increased bandwidths (faster connection speeds) and improvements in browser technology (easier navigation and file compression) as factors in the growth of mobile access. For many, browsing on a handheld device is a cheaper alternative to buying a PC or paying for home internet service. As a result, email and social networking sites are now in play from a tactical pov. The estimates are that high-performance browsers on cellphones will move from the current 76 million to 700 million in the next five years. Right now, you can download Opera Mini for free an even cheap handsets – as 200,000 people do right now daily.
It is not time to move away from SMS as a critical feature of social marketing efforts that want to achieve behavior change at scale. It is time, however, to start talking with early adopters about how they and their friends may be using, or contemplating, mobile internet access and exploring ways in which the new technology can be used to speed adoption of health behaviors, products and services. And your assumptions about how connected the world around you really is may need some fact-checking as well.