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Updated 21 Sep 2017

The importance of being earnestly ‘mobile first’ in Africa

Soaring smartphone adoption rates are forcing businesses to think differently about how they adapt the online experience to pocket-sized devices. Travelstart is one such company which recognises the importance mobile devices have in the lives of its customers. Smaller screens play such a significant role in the online travel agency’s e-commerce strategy that product managers at the booking site believe merely being ‘mobile friendly’ is missing the quintessence of the trend. 

Russell Jarvis, 30 May 2016  Share  0 comments  Print

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If you keep up with search engine developments you will remember when Google announced it would begin punishing websites who ignored their mobile friendly guidelines by ranking them lower on its search results pages. That was more than a year ago and Internet-dependent businesses raced to get with the program as the compliancy deadline loomed.

As the world gets increasingly mobile it’s no wonder the search engines look to small screen responsiveness as a major ranking indicator.

Smartphone and feature phone penetration in Africa is at an all-time high with approximately half the masses accessing the Internet via the palm of their hand.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most robust economy, mobile leapfrogged the desktop revolution which had already happened in other parts of the world; fast forward to 2016 and there are more than two phones per person in Nigeria’s 180 million populace, largely a result of connectivity issues in that country.

According to projections by McKinsey & Company the continent will have 360 million smartphones by 2025 and Internet penetration will reach 50 percent.

Related: Connect to your customers with mobile technology

Mobile first > Mobile friendly

Companies who embrace the mobile friendliness concept beyond Google’s guidelines stand to reap the rewards of this surging trend. Essentially, to be truly ‘mobile friendly’ requires a shift in the organisational mind-set to be ‘mobile first’. This means a mobile strategy should be one of the most important factors driving a company’s roadmap.

Last year Flipkart, India’s most successful e-commerce venture, set their focus on desktop aside to focus wholly on the mobile experience; a direct response to data which showed just how many of their customers were accessing the site on a small screen. Locally, emerging markets online travel agency Travelstart has instilled a mobile first culture in the company of which their Flapp flight booking app is the flagship result.

“Companies who are flippant about their mobile experience, bolting it on just to grandstand to Google’s guidelines are missing the point and sales,” says Travelstart’s Head of Product Pia Spratley.

Travelstart’s seriousness about being mobile first was realised mid-2015 with the launch of Flapp – the world’s first single route flight booking app. Flapp relaunched last month and is now available in all countries they operate in with comprehensive content (user can book all routes and airlines as well as travel insurance) in local currencies using localised payment methods.

Apps & mobi sites

Mobile -technology

Travelstart has fostered a mobile first culture in the company from the top down. The online travel agency encourages employees on all levels in the organisation to think about how their customers interact with the booking website in order to deliver the best mobile experience on the market. While they have vastly improved the mobile version of the website, they have also invested considerable resources in Flapp – the free flight booking app for iOS and Android operating systems.

According to Bevan Williams who heads up the mobile development team at Travelstart, e-commerce conversions have been better on the app than on the mobile site; this has helped guide their focus.

“We find our customers are more inclined to use the mobile website for exploratory or research purposes. On the other hand, app users have more intent to buy. We can also send our app downloaders push notifications which help us upsell where a mobile website can’t.”

Travelstart views mobile apps as an intimate means of communicating with their customers. Users tend to play with apps in personal spaces such as on the couch at home, in bed and while riding the bus to work. It’s the same sense of high-touch which enables the company to form a much bigger part of the interaction their customers have with the booking engine.

Related: How has mobile technology changed the supply chain landscape?

The first version of Flapp, a ‘micro app’ because it delivered highly targeted functionality (the ability to book flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town only), was served to a predominantly business travel audience.

“Even though we realised we needed a mobile solution forallour customers beyond Johannesburg and Cape Town, we have maintained the essence of Flapp in the latest version by not neglecting its core purposes of making it simple to navigate on a small screen, quick to book, easy to add commuter routes, and receive great airline content,” says Spratley.

There is a perception among smartphone owners that a company is inherently trustworthy if it has an app. While this perception is unlikely to last as smartphone penetration increases, Travelstart’s mobile team warns against a haphazard approach to apps, “Be doing all you can to provide your customers with a great experience from day one. Rest assured when a user has an unsatisfactory experience with your app they are likely to uninstall it and will seldom reinstall, making it very difficult to reacquire them.”

Travelstart concedes that many of their customers are not yet at a point where they’re buying everything under the Sun, travel and otherwise, on a mobile device. While the best approach is to be well-balanced and focused on creating an integrated brand impression where your customers have a great experience no matter the device they visit you on, current data points to mobile as where you customers purchasing decisions are really punctuated.

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About the author

Russell Jarvis

Russell Jarvis is the Head of Communications at Travelstart – Africa’s leading Online Travel Agency with a presence in more than 15 countries throughout Africa, the Middle East and Turkey. Russell regularly appears in the media as a commentator on the airline industry, issues affecting travel in Africa and travel technology.

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