With the rise of mobile messaging and social-networking apps, a wave of clever startups are providing social management solutions for companies trying to reach customers in new ways.
Kenyan startup Ongair has gotten a foothold in the market by offering a service focused on enabling companies to speak and make offers to their customers through Whatsapp, in the wake of Facebook's US$22 billion acquisition of the mobile messaging app.
There are other management tools on the market from companies such as Buffer and Hootsuite, but Ongair is hoping to use impending venture capital funding to expand its offerings for businesses that want to engage customers on instant mobile messaging platforms.
Ongair, derived from the Kiswahili word, "ongea," meaning "talk," has helped businesses from around the continent communicate with their customers and launch marketing campaigns using Whatsapp. While Whatsapp has an enormous user base of 600 million, Ongair is also looking to incorporate other mobile messaging platforms into its service.
According to Ongair co-founder and CEO Trevor Kimenye, the company is closing a funding round of about US$400,000 from unnamed investors. These funds will help the company launch a global marketing campaign and further develop the product.
"We have clients from virtually every continent." Kimenye said. "Though most of our clients are from Kenya because of the networks we have. From January 2015 we are going to start massive advertising and getting our product out there."
Brands such as Castle, the South African beer brewer, have launched campaigns with the software. Other brands that have used the service include Heineken, Chase Bank, Airtel, Deutche Welle and major media outlets in Kenya. Over 100 companies have already signed up for a trial period and around 20 are already paying for the service.
The product's origin began in February this year, when Kimenye was contracted to create a campaign for Chase Bank in Kenya. The bank was holding a marathon run to raise funds for a cause.
Kimenye thought it was impersonal for contributors to receive a mobile money payment notification stating that a payment was successful. He wanted more. He wanted to send a personalized message.
"We thought, what if we could, when somebody sends the donation -- we know their phone number -- find out if they are on Whatsapp and actually send them an image of a rose," Kimenye said. The idea clicked perfectly with Chase Bank since the campaign occurred around Valentine's Day.
Kimenye and his three-man team, CTO and co-founder Charles Gichuki, lead engineer Muaad Abdirahman and marketing and customer service manager James Bukusi founded Ongair to extend the service they developed for Case to other companies.
The company developed a user friendly desktop interface with a striking resemblance to most email clients. From inside the program, users can easily send messages, text, audio and video to single users or groups. Clients can also tag topics for customer service and track complaints from customers. The interface also allows users to get analytics on their interactions, to give them better insights on where opportunities and challenges lie.
The idea of targeting so-called over the top (OTT) mobile messaging platforms is based on growing smartphone penetration in Africa. Brands including Infinix, Tecno and Wiko are flooding the market with smartphones priced less US$100 smartphones.
OTT services are becoming the norm in Africa, with a majority of users accessing the Internet through their phones. The Communication Authority of Kenya, the communications regulatory body in Kenya, has reported that OTT services have eaten into revenue for regular short messaging service (SMS) for most telecom companies. In Kenya, 99 percent of Internet access is done through the phones.
Kimenye says there are great advantages to using OTT apps to reach out to customers. First of all, it is more private than using Twitter and Facebook. In addition, confirmation that a customer has been served is instant, since Whatsapp uses phone numbers for users.
"Customer service representatives do not have to ask for personal numbers to reach the clients. They already have it," Kimenye said.
There have been several OTT services that have reached hundreds of millions of users. Viber has 400 million users while WeChat has close to 500 million users. Skype and Facebook Messenger are also gunning to make waves in this market.
Kimenye wants Ongair to become the ultimate platform for all mobile chat services. Many companies have social sync tools, including programs from Hootsuite, Tweetdeck and SproutSocial, but there is "no single platform that helps companies manage their Whatsapp and WeChat," Kimenye noted. "There is just a gap when it comes to instant messaging."
Kimenye also noted that social media management tools cover a very small portion of the US$40 billion customer care global market.
Ongair also has plans to expand its services to individual users. Sharing links and articles on Whatsapp from blogs and other social media platform is not common, Kimenye says, adding that more sharing can happen within instant messaging services.
For example, in August content sharing plugin AddThis added a Whatsapp button, giving Whatsapp users another way to share links.
Kimenye now says that from next year, Ongair will be looking to branch out in more African countries and eventually play on the global stage.