Opportunity Clicks

I arrived in the Philippines a few days ago as part of my global tour to publicize my new book, “Clicks, Bricks, and Brands.” My expectations of the country had been formed by my previous visit (in 1996). I had lots of impressions to call upon, but they had little to do with communications technology. That was then.

This visit, on entering a taxi at the airport, I found I had trouble communicating my desired destination to the driver. Not because we couldn’t understand each other’s English, but because the driver’s full attention was on his mobile phone, which rang more frequently than the busiest Wall Street stockbroker’s!

And the taxi driver wasn’t the only one occupied with his mobile phone. The whole country seemed preoccupied with cell phones. Every kid on the way to school had one; the receptionist checking me into the hotel was distracted by hers; and the teens at McDonald’s shared the same diversion. Everyone! But nobody was talking — they were all writing.

Take a Message

I am, of course, talking of short messaging service (SMS), the pre-WAP-generation communication tool that has captured audiences in even the poorest economies.

Most mobile phones in the Philippines are, according to the locals, secondhand models from major manufacturers. They’re apparently shipped to countries with markets that can’t justify high mobile phone prices.

When you also consider that sending an SMS message costs about two U.S. cents — and that’s about 15 times cheaper than sending a letter or phoning — you can better understand why the SMS infrastructure is booming in third-world countries.

But it doesn’t stop there. In all the Philippine major cities you’ll find an Internet cafi every 50 meters or so. And they’re packed. It’s estimated that the world’s five biggest Internet email suppliers, including Hotmail, Excite, and Lycos, share more than 36 million active email accounts in the Philippines — close to half of the country’s population.

Note This Notion

This story is not about the Philippines, however — or the fact that my taxi driver never managed to communicate with me on the way to the hotel. It’s about reminding Internet brand builders of the value of countries such as the Philippines that have high communications-technology uptake. Their lack of first-world offline infrastructure should not obscure your appreciation of the sophisticated online infrastructure that’s been fostered in countries such as the Philippines.

A media plan for these and similar markets might not emphasize strategies for traditional media but would most profitably concentrate on electronic media — the mobile phone and Internet — combined with broadcast communication channels.

The reality is that countries such as the Philippines are more “clicks” than “bricks” when it comes to the split between their online and offline media. They also accommodate audiences that capture information and communicate in ways that are totally different from the communications habits of their Western-world counterparts — and that’s a crucial distinction.

Ponder These Points

On the way back to the airport, the taxi driver received an SMS ad promoting cheap gasoline; he immediately asked if I would mind waiting two minutes for him to fill up at the appropriate gas station.

I saw a crowd of people watching a game show on a television in a street restaurant: 30 out of the 40 people sitting at the bar were on their mobile phones, communicating the bets the show called for.

A seven-year-old girl sold me some bananas on the street. In response to my overgenerous payment, she quickly grabbed her mobile phone from behind her bananas, pointed at it, and asked me for my SMS phone number.

I’ll now leave you Internet brand builders to ponder these everyday behaviors.

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