Build and they will come?

Build and they will come?

Africa is changing fast in many different ways. But no revolution has been so remarkable than that driven by digital communications. As any visitor to the continent notices almost immediately, Africans have made their mobile phone their own. It has allowed them to leapfrog existing technology and connect with each other in ways which would not have seemed possible a decade ago.

The continent has seen the success of a multitude of digital solutions from M-Pesa, M-Farm, African Digital Art to Youth Village Africa. Each created to meet unique challenges such as transferring payments, getting farm products to market, providing a platform for artists and for young people to have a dialogue about development.

They are having a massive impact on lives, prosperity and the economy. A decade ago, for example, a farmer in Kisumu in Kenya growing avocado – a highly perishable fruit – would have to throw away her harvest if she produced more than the local market required. Today she can use technology to find the latest prices and to access a wider market via platforms like M-Farm.

The speed of this revolution will only accelerate. Africa already has the world’s youngest population and it is getting younger every year. Millions more are signing up to social networks. Portland’s ‘How Africa Tweets’ illustrates that wide-ranging audiences on the continent are utilising digital platforms to engage.

This background of a young and connected population is essential to understand for any organisation which wants to communicate within Africa. Yet despite this huge and growing on-line audience, we continue to see social media profiles and pages created by brands, governments and campaigning organisations which no one reads.

These ‘ghost’ pages or profiles tell a story of organisations that have embarked on digital communications and then abandoned them due to a lack of proper planning and commitment. That age-old adage ‘build and they will come’ is an oversimplification for a world that sees thousands of new URLs and social media profiles created every day.

Successful online campaigns require a critical mass from which they can begin to grow organically and gain a more established foothold. So how can organisations successfully begin to build online communities in Africa?

First, embrace a collaborative and consultative approach. Too many organisations are still locked on broadcast mode and creating websites, Facebook pages and Twitter profiles without understanding the types of content that will allow audiences to gain value from the relationship. A more consultative approach would lead to a deeper level of engagement. We can learn from Nigeria’s online retailers Jumia and Konga, which have active Facebook profiles with a combined total of over 500,000 likes. Their audience is engaged, active and participating.

Second, don’t cut yourself off from your audience. There are over 2,000 languages spoken on the African continent. Yet content is often created and managed solely in English. No space is provided for multilingual conversations, and little or no consideration is given to incorporating other languages in online content or to simplifying complex terms.

Those who do mix content can see some success. Ethiopia’s DireTube is a media hub that successfully mixes Amharic and English content for its audience.

Third, have a clear idea of what you want to do. Too many online profiles are created without a long-term strategy for content. Facebook is indeed, at times, like a graveyard of abandoned pages, faltering groups and underdeveloped ideas. Inactive facebook profiles are symptomatic of organisations who think short-term.

Fourth, think about how your different channels of communication fit together. Take for instance radio, the primary channel of communication across the continent. Radio is accessible to rural and urban populations alike but too few organisations make use of it. This is not a mistake that Nigerian  President Goodluck Jonathan makes. He has almost one million likes on his Facebook page, having used radio jingles to reinforce his brand and drive traffic to his page. Such a large community can create a self-sustaining stream of content.

Finally, without executive support and senior management making the case for digital success it is unlikely that any organisation will reap benefits. This is true whether you are in Kampala or Paris.

Digital platforms have the potential to dramatically close the gap between leaders and their audiences. Leaving online channels to be solely managed by technical teams is squandered opportunity, and potentially a recipe for failure.

Digital technology continues to play a central role in the changes taking place across Africa. The agricultural revolution, economic growth, political governance, aid policy — all are influenced by digital communications. The organisations that successfully grow their online communities will be consultative in approach, create long term value, integrate channels and have senior sponsors.

Mary Mzumara is a Digital Specialist at Portland. She was previously the Managing Director of a South African digital marketing agency.