Adventures in social media – What we’ve discovered over 12 months

Top Story

The growth in Africa’s Facebook numbers show that it has touched a chord with users at a near mass level. Social media played a part in the Arab Spring and they’ve been arguing about what part ever since. Here at Balancing Act we decided to engage with social media about 12 months ago and this article looks at what we’ve discovered since then.

Balancing Act’s universe of users is about 11,000 people, around 70% of whom are interested in telecoms and Internet in English and French and 30% in broadcast and film: that’s those topics from Africa, not anywhere else. We are a specialist, niche media so bear these figures in mind when looking at the stats below.

Readers sometimes write and talk about “in your blog” and the “the blog you write” but besides the Top Story every week in these e-letters (which are based on facts but are opinionated), the rest is a newsletter. It comes out at a particular time so people know when to expect it and it has sections so they know where to look for things that might interest them. We could do a blog separately but somehow what’s the point when you have a weekly opportunity to say something?

So about 12 months ago we decided to get engaged with social media to see in practical terms what it meant. Since it eats time like some minor addiction, you have to decide what you’re going to do and how much of it. We chose to put time into LinkedIn because it is a site for professionals rather than Facebook that has taken advantage of corporate interest but is still fundamentally individuals.

You can’t appear on all social platforms so we chose Twitter rather than the slightly more long-form Tumblr and we chose You Tube rather than Vimeo. In other words, we made somewhat safe choices on the basis that it’s easier to be on platforms that are well-known and established with existing audiences. So for example in African terms, You Tube is up in the Top 5 most-used sites in those African countries analysed by whereas Vimeo and Tumblr are not.

We have 1,816 LinkedIn contacts right across the continent from the smallest most unconnected country to the largest and it is an excellent way of meeting people at all levels in a company. However, its mail lists are amongst the dullest we sample and rare is the week when they produce interesting and surprising information: people use it to promote what they do (as we do) and that is usually less than riveting.

Our You Tube channel attracts just under 2,000 users a month and has just under 4,000 views a month. This has happened in the space of 12 months and it is still growing. These are 5-10 minute interviews with industry leaders about what’s happening in their company or more widely in the business. A successful interview can expect to get 300-500 views. The exceptions have been film-makers: Ghana’s Shirley Frimpong Manso who made Adam’s Apples has got 10,508 views and Tunisia’s Nadia El Fani who made Ould Lenine 5,569 views. In the telecoms field, Kenya’s John Kamau has got 1,437 views talking about Fibre-To-The-Home.

It’s not broadcast quality but rough-and-ready compressed HD video clips shot using a small camera with no external mike or additional lighting. There’s not enough time to edit, except to take out the more obvious mistakes. You soon discover that what you thought was quiet and undisturbed attracts noise and disturbance. Watch Jessica Verrili of Twitter not just because it’s on topic for this article but also because you can see the hotel staff in the background opening and closing the doors behind her head as they are shooed away off-camera:

People are more cautious about what they say in a video clip than they are when they talk in an interview for a print article but there are still plenty of surprises. Although you can put your videos into topic categories, which run down the right hand side of the featured video clip, it feels awkward and it is not designed to create easy ways for people – professional or otherwise – creating categories they can use. Surprise, surprise, you have to use a search engine to do that….

Currently we have only 106 subscribers to the channel and 22 friends but thus far we have promoted individual videos rather than subscribing to the channel. But if you want to know about 2-5 videos a week covering your industry, subscribe to BalancingActAfrica on You Tube.

We currently have 889 followers on Twitter (@balancingactafr) and on the current growth pattern will go over a thousand in the next month or two. We follow 253 other people or companies and tweet about 200 times a month. Twitter eats time if you let it but it’s a good way of spotting things that you might not otherwise have come across.

In African terms, the majority of the users seem to be from South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya with lesser showings from Ghana and Senegal. The outliers are people like Nenna (from Cote d’Ivoire) and George Mpoudi of MTN (from Cameroon). The twitterscape from where we are seems to be dominated by ICT4D (as in development) folk rather than private sector companies, which is a little surprising. The corporate tweets tend to be a little dull and uninformative or aimed at the consumers of that company’s products. The exception is Bob Collymore, CEO of Safaricom who engages in regular banter with Safaricom’s users in Kenya.

Getting the tone right on Twitter is hard. Some people use it simply to talk about what they’re feeling or what they think. Others describe every last person they’ve met. But we meet people who don’t really want to feature in our Twitter feed and whilst we think our opinions about everything in the whole wide world are riveting, we’re not sure you would. That said, there’s no doubt Twitter users are (awful word) “thought leaders”.

So we’ve come a long way since Balancing Act’s newsletter output used to be a simple e-mail using Outlook Express. Our target readers may not always have the bandwidth to hand for You Tube but they want to be part of it. One person asked us why we weren’t doing audio blogs rather than video clips, with the unspoken assumption that because “this is Africa”. We’ve now passed that point and whilst everything won’t work for everybody, there’s no reason to assume that something won’t work for a large number of people, including You Tube.

In terms of devices, we have below 5% who use mobile phones to access our content because our core audience is in the content and bandwidth business. Nevertheless, the number of smartphones, feature phones and tablets is growing fast so the Internet will allow us to be on all those platforms as they achieve “critical mass”.

The newsletters are done as an adjunct to our consultancy and research business and are supported by advertising. But what is much less clear is the business model for other parts of social media. You can see Twitter as a way of engaging with audiences but there are few ways that it converts into cash, even for the company itself.

Likewise, despite already having just under half the users of the text e-letter, there is no quick and easy way to monetize the You Tube Channel. You make money with Google Ads if you have millions of views, not if you are a niche channel with thousands. Any daring advertiser out there, give us a ring (+44 207 582 5220): it only took one advertiser on the text e-letters for all the others to get the idea.

If you have your own experiences with social media in Africa, send them to:

On the Balancing Act You Tube Channel this week a Nigeria special:

Adebayo Oyewole, Hd Marketing & Strategy, Main One on its new IP products

Uchechi Chuta on Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's use of social media

Olalekan Olude, Head of Sales, on the growth of this jobs website

Azuka Ndulewe, Chief Marketing Officer, Helios Towers Nigeria on the business case for shared towers

Ojaye Idoko, CEO, Layer3 on the barriers to broadband expansion in Nigeria

Want up-to-the-minute breaking news? Balancing Act's Twitter feed provides a combination of breaking news for telecoms, Internet and broadcast in Africa, direct tweets from countries visited and access to the occasional rumours circulating. You can follow us on: @BalancingActAfr