As mobile devices and borderless technology networks like Facebook, Google, and Tencent increasingly connect billions of people around the world, everything about the pace, profile, and application of modern media is changing. The new mobile customer has arrived, and she is forcing companies to rethink the tools and systems they use to reach consumers and drive purchasing.
But with all the options available to today’s digital marketer it’s important not to lose sight of one important limiting factor, especially in emerging markets: the cost of mobile data.
Today, low-end Android smartphones retail for around $30 in many parts of the developing world, making them widely affordable to many consumer segments. However, “mobile” isn’t just the device — it’s the whole ecosystem attached to it. It’s the operating system, applications, and, of course, the access to data. The cost of this data limits what marketers can do, especially in emerging markets. Although 118 million new mobile phones are predicted to sell in India in 2015, roughly half of Indian smartphone owners don’t access the internet with them because of prohibitive data costs. In relation to income, a 500MB data plan costs more than two full days of minimum-wage work each month in India. In Nigeria and Mexico, it takes three to four full days’ wages to afford a similar plan.
For brands, advertising to the data-constrained presents both creative and distribution challenges. And in recent years, a small group of established technology companies and new problem-solvers are delivering increasingly better platforms to enable data-efficient mobile marketing.
One of the most visible and active companies in this space to date is Facebook, which sees mobile user growth — and advertising revenue — as its core engine for continued growth. Facebook’s efforts include its Internet.org project and a 451KB “Facebook light” Android app that uses less data when mobile bandwidth is scarce and ad platform optimizations to deliver users more relevant offline shopping offers (since due to bandwidth issues, shopping online is not yet a worldwide phenomenon). Because many of Facebook’s users in this audience segment don’t own a credit card, the platform is also working with customers to give mobile shoppers the option of ordering or reserving a product online, then picking it up by paying cash in store.
Other companies are trying different approaches. Jana — the brainchild of MIT Professor Nathan Eagle and now the second-largest advertising platform in India — works with brands like Amazon and Twitter to deliver mobile app installs in exchange for providing downloaders mobile data. E-commerce leader Alibaba, through its UCWeb subsidiary, is offering a lightweight, mobile web browser designed to consume less data.
Making their sites lighter and quicker to load is an opportunity for all brands. In 2012, Amazon reported that one second of latency in page loading cost the company an average of $1.6 billion; three years later, much of the world is far from sub-one-second latency. This challenge directly impacts e-commerce effectiveness, and is increasingly becoming marketing’s problem to partner with IT to solve. Bandwidth optimization is no longer just an opportunity for technical optimization — it’s an obstacle for building brand.
Increasingly, marketers — and a burgeoning technology ecosystem supporting them — have the tools to reach more people, faster, and with greater relevance than ever before. But we need to remember that those connections are happening on mobile devices that often don’t have the data capacity so many of us take for granted.
This essay originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.