A conversation with the US Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa

With the World Cup now at an end I wanted to learn more about the efforts, with regards to social organizational processes,  of the United States in this area of the world.  With this in mind I reached out to the US Embassy in Pretoria to ask a few questions.  They were kind enough to follow-up with great information, enjoy.

Q. William May and I discussed the approaches used in engaging with citizens and discussed that South Africans are often technological ahead of many others on the African continent. How do you use mobile solutions, like Mxit, to engage?

A. MXit is a chat platform for cellular phones which allows users to converse using affordable text messaging and is popular with urban youth due to its pricing compared to regular text messaging. Users can also view portals, which can roughly be compared to websites, using a text-based menu. Our MXit presence currently consists of such a portal called “American Beatbox”. Information on the portal includes background and bio’s on President Obama & family, PEPFAR, World Cup 2010 and information on Embassy services such as the libraries etc. We also provide downloadable content such as wallpaper images, screensavers, ringtones and short movie clips.

Our portal opened in December 2009. As of the end of May 2010:

  • Dedicated subscribers totaled over 31000 – we’ve reached over 2.5 million users directly.
  • 62% of users fall into the 18-25 year old group
  • 25% of users fall into the 15-17 year old group

During May, we engaged in a ‘Splash Campaign’ in the run up to the 2010 World Cup. Here we provided art, imagery and text which were used in ‘splash screens’: targeted advertising which pops up as a user logs into MXit. The user can click-through to our portal upon seeing the advert. This campaign ran for 30 days up until the opening of the World Cup and we saw drastic increases in the number of users during this time.

MXit is a strong tool for reaching a young urban audience as it uses an existing popular medium among the youth and appeals to the demographic with concise information and a variety of colorful downloadable content.

Q. How big of a role does social media play in your overall communication strategy?

A. Social media plays a huge role in our communication strategy. We spend a lot of time updating our pages with pictures, quotes, and articles, and have even held competitions all in effort to connect with our target audience, the South African people. Our dedication has yielded positive results, as we have over 14000 people who like our page on Facebook and almost 3000 followers on Twitter. The various social media outlets available provide us the space to engage with South African on a level once unimaginable before the inception of these platforms. We have enjoyed being able to post our happenings in real-time and communicate one-on-one with ordinary South Africans. I believe this gives us a certain legitimacy and authenticity that changes the way our followers view us and what we represent.

Q. What are the major social media platforms used in South Africa?

A. South Africans are very active on Facebook. MXit, the phone application, is also widely used. We utilize these mediums to promote our message to South Africa, especially its youth, who are almost the sole users of this technology. We see it as influencing the leaders of tomorrow. By consistently communicating our message today through new age mediums, we hope to be a part of the consciousness of those making change for years to come.

Q. From a cultural perspective, are their major differences in communication strategies or tactics in a country like South Africa vs. other places in the world?

A. Communicating with South Africans is just like communicating with Americans. Like Americans, South Africans are a diverse sort ethnically, racially, religiously, etc. So when we post a hot issue we usually get a number of differing perspectives, which motivates us to post more. In places that are more homogenous, we might not get the same level of engagement and diversity of opinion as we get here in South Africa.

The name of the game is staying relevant. Maintaining South Africans interest isn’t that difficult because their interests are broad. As South Africa is the leader on the continent in many ways, its citizens have interest that include happenings in South Africa, Africa generally, and beyond. In less developed places, the scope of their citizen’s interest isn’t as broad to due to the socioeconomic handcuffs that apprehend their ability to see beyond their reality. As South Africa positions itself not only as an African leader, but a leader globally, its citizens have internalized this emergence, guiding their interest beyond the borders of South Africa and the coasts of Africa, generally.

Q. Any great stories of how social media has helped you bridge divides, accomplish goals, in ways that you would not have been able to do without it’s use?

A. Our social media presence during the World Cup is a perfect example of how we were able to bridge divides and accomplish goals using social media. Our Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr accounts constantly updated our followers as to all of our endeavors around South Africa. We could post original blog pieces, pictures, and competitions to make following the page more worthwhile. While people do enjoy just getting news updates, we also discovered by the numerous responses to our photos and competitions that people like interaction and seeing an original perspective rather than a globally published story. Without Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr we could not have possibly reached the same size audience, especially not with the same sense of personal touch.

If you would like to view more case studies and interviews, or just want to read about The Social Ecosystem, click on the links and let me know your thoughts.

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Filed under: Gov20, Government 2.0 Tagged: communication, community, Facebook, gov20, innovation, Social Ecosystem, Twitter
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