In some countries, women’s access to mobile media is quite literally a lifeline, because mobile health services fill a revolutionary gap by providing crucial medical and financial information.
But the developing world far outpaces the U.S. in creating a system where mobile phones – marketed specifically to women – are truly essential tools. So I asked leaders in the mobile health space what they’ve learned from developing world direct-to-consumer mobile programs that could inform American mobile marketing programs.
Kirsten Gagnaire is the global director of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), launched in May 2011 by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A mom of a 10- and a 14-year-old, she contrasts American moms’ access to online health information, to the services provided, often by single feature phones, in the developing world. The information we take for granted is not accessible to women in poverty in the developing world. There, women may rely on others in the community to provide information that may turn out to be inaccurate or even harmful. Mobile phones can help fill that information vacuum.
Gagnaire notes, ‘’The way they get vital health information is through their mobile phones. Our program addresses local myths, stresses the foods they should eat, and helps provide vital health information. For example, in Ghana one of the major causes of infant death was the infection of the umbilical cord. There is a myth you shouldn’t take the baby outside for six weeks after birth because of evil eye. Now we can send moms a message on the signs of infections and when to take the baby to the clinic.’’
MAMA’s text messages, which meet WHO and UNICEF standards, are timed to a woman’s stage of pregnancy and her baby’s age. And these messages use strong market segmentation. For example, Gagnaire notes, ‘’How are we going to deliver the messages? How do women in that market get information? In Bangladesh it’s SMS and voice, but most of the mothers using our messages are illiterate: so we use voice messages. In South Africa, women are more literate but SMS is expensive, so we use the mobile Web. Our messages are accessible though askmama.mobi.’’
Cathryn Stickel, operations manager of Frontline SMS, notes that while in the United States, 97 percent of mobile subscribers will read an SMS within 15 minutes of receiving it, in the developing world text messages have become like email: a deluge to be managed when you have time. It’s a cautionary tale as marketers in the West rush to cash in on the mobile gold rush. ‘’I was just in Mumbai, where Internet penetration is low, mobile penetration is high. Spam SMS is a fact of life there.’’
This impacts FrontlineSMS’ work. In India, organizations have to communicate with the government and get an exception before working with local groups to create programs that use their open source technology to solve problems ranging from providing services to pregnant women, rape or sexual violence survivors. In Haiti, FrontlineSMS powers KOFAVIV, which connects women who’ve been raped to medical and legal services via SMS. I asked Stickel how she builds depth without a relationship or visuals. She answers, ‘’SMS is not step one. You’re going to have a hard time engaging with someone with SMS alone. The relationship needs to be personally established and then reinforced using SMS.’’
Still, while emerging markets are the frontier of mobile marketing, there are some barriers that marketers in established economies don’t have to worry about. As Stickel points out, in many emerging market countries, female phone ownership is an emotionally charged issue. Due to cultural barriers, women are less likely to have a mobile at all. Despite challenges like this, mobile marketing in the developing world empowers those with extremely limited resources and offers powerful lessons for U.S. marketers learning to build customer relationships through a phone. Let’s learn from this and make sure the next ‘’killer app’’ in the U.S. mobile market helps us lead better lives, not just pass the time while waiting for the bus.
(Morra Aarons-Mele is the founder of Women Online and The Mission List. She is an Internet marketer who has been working with women online since 1999. She helped Hillary Clinton log on for her first Internet chat, and launched Wal-Mart’s first blog.)