Vodacom, best known as a cellphone service provider, is set to become one of the country’s most influential media players, trumping many big, traditional media players.

The numbers are certainly impressive. Some would say Vodacom is already an influential media player, with a claimed monthly audience of 1,4-million unique users and 16-million page impressions that consume its content on the small screen. These numbers put the company in the same league as some of the country’s biggest, established newspapers and radio stations.

It’s also not particularly bad going for a company where media is still a very small part of its business and not necessarily core to its activities… yet.

The impressive figures don’t end there and the potential is simply astounding. Vodacom South Africa has more than 20-million customers it can still tap into as a potential audience for its future mobile media plans.

Users don’t need the fanciest, most expensive phone to access the web. Screens are getting bigger and better. It’s getting easier and cheaper to surf via cellphones. Given the way things are going, it’s not hard to see that cellphone service providers like Vodacom are easily — and obviously — poised to be influential media players of the future.

Here’s the other thing: Online media is often criticised for being an elite medium, unaffordable and out of reach for the masses. It’s why the Daily Sun tabloid newspaper has rapidly risen to be the country’s top paper in an environment where print readership should be going the other way, under pressure from the digital media revolution.

But with cellphone penetration of around 90% in this country, the unique thing about mobile media is that it cuts across the income gap, with the ability to appeal to both high and low income earners. It means cellphone service providers such as Vodacom are set to dominate the media landscape of the future in all aspects.

Signalling their intent to become a media player, Vodacom’s mobile division recently joined the Online Publisher’s Association, an organisation generally made up of publishers. Their 1,4-million purported users on their Vodafone Live! portal easily places them in the top two, behind media behemoth Media24, for local online audience – and indisputably the number one for mobile audience. That’s not bad for a company that is relatively new to the media business.

Dot Field, the oft-quoted spokesperson for the company, acknowledges that the company’s entry into the media space “is in line with its strategy to diversify into a multimedia company and grow horizontally in the market”.

The company is also becoming a presence in the mobile advertising space too. The tables have also turned because now Vodacom, which is one of the biggest advertisers in the country, are now themselves accepting advertising on their mobile sites like media.

Graunt Kruger who works at Vodacom’s relatively new mobile media division, quoted figures from eMarketer.com last year which estimates that global mobile advertising will be US$13-billion by 2011. In South Africa, Kruger estimates, using a few deductions from the eMarketer figure, that mobile media will be worth around R1,5-billion in South Africa by 2011, and about 4% of total local advertising pie.

He said that according to eMarketer, 89% brands plan to use mobile marketing in 2008 and nearly 1/3 plan to spend in excess of 10% of their marketing budget. Interestingly, Kruger says that Vodacom isn’t really focused on grabbing advertising spend from the internet. It’s “too small”, he says. Vodacom have their sights set on gaining market share from the traditional players: TV, radio and print.

At the moment, Vodacom is mainly an aggregator and distributor of other media’s content. But increasingly it is producing its own content, such as its 7de Laan mobisode which is locally produced for mobile. They are also investing in the trendy social media scene, currently beta testing a mobile location-based social networking play called “The Grid”.

So in the future, people won’t just be referring to the news they heard on 702 or the story they read in The Star. South Africa will be talking about the news they just read or watched on their cellphone.

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