How to raise an online profile in Africa

- Marketing - Mar 07, 2011

You would expect the main challenges when running a search engine marketing (SEM) campaign in Africa to be fairly tactical things, such as communicating with small, fragmented markets; a variety of languages and cultures; poverty; bandwidth and infrastructure constraints; and the propensity for governments under threat to simply switch off the internet.

But according to a couple of Cape Town, South Africa-based SEM experts the education of businesses is still the number one challenge in the field; the result being that companies who do “get it” have an opportunity to get ahead of the established, traditional players.

Here we take a look at the local search engine optimisation (SEO) and paid search or pay-per-click (PPC) markets, and also consider the impact of that newer kid on the block, social media.

Have to have

According to Christine da Silva, head of search at Neo@Ogilvy South Africa, although implementing SEO in Africa is pretty similar to anywhere else in the world, the local market still does not fully understand the role and impact of the practice.

It has been a long process convincing companies to take a tiny fraction of the huge sums they are spending on traditional advertising and invest it in improving their organic search rankings, she said. “It is a have to have,” da Silva said, “but the good news is the costs are far less than other channels.”

There is however huge opportunity for the local companies who do get it. According to da Silva, “Other industries are not even on the map,” compared to the property, financial services and travel sectors in South Africa, which are very competitive.

And even in the more competitive sectors, you do not have to go head to head with the big guys. “It is marketing 101,” said da Silva, “determine your unique selling proposition and build a niche market.”

Do the maths

Jonathan Gluckman, CEO of paid search company Clicks2Customers, concurs that education is the main challenge when offering PPC services in South Africa.

The bulk of his clients are based in the US, UK and Australia and when Clicks2Customers launched services in the SA market around two and a half years ago, Jonathan realised the extent to which local companies needed to be brought up to speed on why and how to use paid search.

“While PPC is essentially a commodity, companies do not understand the difference between good and bad PPC, or the metrics used to measure them,” Gluckman said.

This lack of understanding has the potential to seriously harm the nascent industry. Customers need to do the maths and understand the business model, said Gluckman. Your PPC cost is going straight to Google. An agency charging a flat 15 percent commission is more than likely setting up your campaigns and not doing any ongoing management, which is not going to deliver the best results. A far better option is remuneration based on a percentage of gross profit because then you know your campaigns are being well maintained.

“If you do not do search properly,” said Gluckman, “budgets will not grow.”

He expects South Africa to follow the same market path as Australia, which he puts around two years ahead. Initially new entrants and smart entrepreneurs will grab e-commerce market share from the traditional companies who will doggedly stick to off-line marketing campaigns and perhaps a brochure site, he said.

Travelstart and Wantitall are great examples of new entrants in the busy travel and retail space. They have literally appeared from nowhere and leapfrogged the established players.

This opportunity will be short-lived though, predicts Gluckman, because inevitably the established players will add online as part of a multi-channel strategy and will have the financial resources to play the game properly.

SEM gets social

“While search has taken off in the last two years,” said Gluckman, “it has recently lost some market share to social media, because of the hype surrounding it, and the lack of understanding around the roles of the channel.”

While Gluckman is frustrated by companies thinking social media can play the same role as PPC – and deliver actual conversions – Da Silva sees social media as an exciting extension to search.

When Google launched its instant search service last year and started serving social media platforms in its search results, social media became an organic search marketer’s secret weapon. With Google results changing on the fly with instant search, and added new content such as video, maps and so on to the search results, you may only see one or two actual organic search results. Without a managed social media presence, and the chance to appear high up on the results page with multiple listings, your brand risks being lost, she said, especially if you are in one of the more competitive sectors.

Search on the move

Both Da Silva and Gluckman see huge opportunities for mobile search in 2011. With mobile phones being the primary internet device for a lot of Africa, there are huge opportunities to reach customers via the mobile internet. Add social media on mobile platforms into the mix, and “hopefully mobile will live up to its promise in 2011,” said da Silva.

Although still relatively in its infancy on the continent, SEM is going to give smart companies the edge for the time being.

Email Vanessa Clark at

For related articles, click on the links below:

SEO is not the only way

Leveraging your Web marketing through virtual catalogues


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