Today I am going to contradict myself. Since 2005, I have been advocating the use of the internet in the media mix and since 2007, the use of Facebook. I have, until now, been firmly on the side of digital advertising and the fact that smartphones are not the luxury of the rich and privileged and there is evidence for their penetration in semi-urban and rural areas too.
Last year, however, I received a rude awakening. My wife is a school teacher and her school decided that in addition to the required online classes, she had to prepare notes in hard copy format. The reason for this was the fact that a large proportion of the parents do not have laptops or smartphones.
This came as a shock to me, as I realised that I was not really in touch with the lives of a major portion of the people living in my city. In fact, if corona and the lockdown boosted the transition to online for consumers in Pakistan, it also badly exposed what The Diplomat (an international online magazine) has called ‘the great digital divide’. The fact is that although a growing number of people are on the internet and use smartphones, a large majority do not.
According to The Diplomat, there are several reasons for this including: “…infrastructure gaps, the rural and urban divide and economic inequality in Pakistan. Many impoverished regions and far-flung areas of Pakistan don’t have access to the internet.” In fact, the percentage of people with access to the internet in Pakistan is approximately 35% with 78 million broadband and 76 million mobile internet (3/4G) connections. Factor in that 65% of our population lives in rural areas and you have a fairly big urban/rural divide.
Even in the urban areas, many people do not have access to the internet because they cannot afford it. According to some reports, a large proportion of the 30,000 students studying at the University of Karachi belong to working class homes and cannot afford smartphones or internet packages. Statistics in this regard are few and reliable ones are even harder to find. Simon Kemp (CEO, Kepious, a marketing strategy consultancy) is among the more credible sources. On We Are Social, Kemp notes that Pakistan has a population of 223 million, 173 million mobile connections, 61 million internet users and 46 million active social media users. The population grew by two percent between January 2020 and 2021, while mobile connections grew by four percent, internet users by 21% and social media users by 24.3%. Although this may seem promising (and it is), the fact is that one individual may possess up to five mobile SIM chips, thereby casting a slightly different light on the figure of 173 mobile connections.
Another issue is the lack of a consensus on the credibility of various data sources. Even the recent population census was subject to controversy; a major one being that, whereas the census puts Karachi’s population at 10 million, the more commonly believed figure is 20 million. No surprises then that according to We Are Social, the figure of 61 million Internet users is at odds with other sources. For example, the CIA Factbook gives the figure as 34.59 million, World Stats quotes 71 million and the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) quotes 92.88 million broadband subscribers. However, despite the discrepancy, the fact is that about 40% of the population is online.
This being said, it is one thing to register that a sizeable segment of the population does not have access to the internet, but quite another thing to act on this data. Reaching out to rural audiences for marketing purposes is becoming increasingly important given the saturation in the urban markets. The big question is: What media works best? In this respect, one may consider print, radio, cinema and brand activation. However, another medium, which has been tapped effectively in India and to some extent in Pakistan, is rural women. Unilever and RB have started programmes aimed at empowering rural women and enlisting them as brand ambassadors (leaving aside the debate of about whether this is empowerment or manipulation to sell products).
Another way to reach rural audiences (or even urban audiences who do not have access to the internet) is through services such as USSD and SMS. For example, USSD/SMS have helped people without smartphones to access the services of Careem without an app. From my time at an agency that was handling TCS Connect (now Yayvo), we partnered with and later managed Pring, a mobile-based social network which used SMS to enable customers to browse and purchase products from TCS Weekly Hot Deals.
Most marketing students are encouraged to focus on early adopters and often forget about the existence of late adopters, who actually constitute a majority. Yet, it is towards them that brands should also focus their marketing efforts. This requires a realisation that neither the internet, apps nor any other digital media will reach these audiences and other media must be brought to the fore to access them. The fact is that most marketers are affluent urbanites, yet we are living in a country that is impoverished and rural. This requires empathy and as far as I know there is no app for that. n
Tyrone Tellis is Marketing Manager, Bogo. firstname.lastname@example.org