THE battle between social media in South Africa has just become more than a numbers game. Although Facebook and WhatsApp are dominant with more than 11 million users each, a challenger has them in its sights, exploring and exploiting the big players’ gaps.
The challenger — which is big in its own right, but in different markets — entered the fray with this week’s announcement that Gareth Cliff, 5FM’s former star presenter, will be launching a content account on WeChat.
WeChat is owned by Chinese social media giant Tencent Holdings, which in turn is part-owned by Naspers. Despite the South African connection, WeChat has not quite ignited the local market since its launch here in June last year. A massive WeChat marketing drive saw a leap in sign-ons to WhatsApp because of brand confusion.
Late last year, the Chinese service had 300-million active users, with 100-million of them outside China. In South Africa, according to the South African Social Media Landscape 2014 report, it reached just one million users.
Enter Cliff. The no-holds-barred radio presenter has 637,000 Twitter followers, making him the most popular South African broadcaster in social media.
It’s not only the numbers. Cliff brings credibility to the platform and he highlights its functionality and versatility — a factor usually ignored in the media focus on figures.
When his online show, CliffCentral, debuts on WeChat at the beginning of May, it will for the first time position the social network in South African minds as a content rather than contact channel. Unlike WhatsApp and Twitter, WeChat provides for magazine, newspaper and broadcast-style content, including live voice and video streaming.
“It isn’t just a messenger service. On WeChat you can listen live, get picture updates, voice clips and polls,” said Cliff in an interview this week. “WeChat is the fastest-growing platform internationally and it allows me to do what WhatsApp cannot.”
The question is whether this makes Cliff or WeChat the biggest winner in the deal.
“It’s a win-win,” said Cliff. “It’s a good sponsorship opportunity for WeChat because it gets access to an audience and content that ordinary advertising wouldn’t reach, and PR spin-off and association with something new.
“It’s good for me because I get a sponsor who has the credibility and resources to make mobile a sensible option alongside internet, TV and other platforms. It’s essential that we bring everything to people’s phones. That’s where content is consumed and where people make the decision to consume it.”
Cliff brings with him not only his Twitter and Facebook following, but also most of his former 5FM breakfast team. Leigh-Anne Mol, Damon Kalvari and Mabale Moloi are all taking a mobile leap to CliffCentral. Along with a TV campaign preceding the launch, this provides an inkling of the level of sponsorship WeChat has put into the initiative. It shows how seriously WeChat takes the South African market and its presence outside China.
Cliff does not intend pushing his reputation as a “shock-jock”, but aims to explore the freedom of the new channel.
“The absence of rules doesn’t mean anarchy. It should be more of everything — more sensible, rational debate, more craziness, more powerful conversation.”