By Tebogo Gantsa, frayintermedia
Publisher Nigel Mugamu established 263Chat in September 2012 to encourage dialogue and increase access to information in his home country. By 2013, the publication had adopted WhatsApp as one of its delivery platforms.
“In a country like Zimbabwe, where the political landscape is toxic and polarising, it is even more important to engage in dialogue,” he said.
Mugamu will share insights on how innovation can drive dialogue at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Africa Conference in September in Johannesburg.
He will be joining other speakers and digital disruptors from the industry including John Oluwafemi Abayomi, Online Editor, Punch, Nigeria; Indra da Lanerolle, Director of jamlab, South Africa; and, Yinka Adekoge, Quartz’s Africa Editor, who will bring a fresh take on topical issues within the African media landscape.
‘To a lot of people the internet is WhatsApp’
263Chat is ad-based, which is how they manage to deliver free content to their more than 35,000 subscribers, Mugamu said.
An accountant by profession, he said the way Zimbabweans use the internet was what inspired the shift to WhatsApp distribution.
“To a lot of people the internet is WhatsApp,” he said, explaining that few people would ask for a smartphone, but were more likely to request a device that supports WhatsApp. “And so we decided at that time that perhaps we need to push our articles on these groups.”
Mugamu says the move proved to be a fruitful one.
“It has enabled our brand to get to places that it has not been able to before,” – Nigel Mugamu
It is also helped the publication access new audiences. “You’ve got a youngster who probably wasn’t interested in politics or news, and they’ve got a mobile device – they are getting this e-paper in a closed WhatsApp group and can read this news on their way home in a taxi,” he said.
Part of this success, according to Mugamu, is because they acknowledge younger people as a different demographic altogether. On the African continent, where more than 60 percent of the population is classified as youth, the demand for the latest information is real, he said.
Unlike traditional print audiences, this demographic wants to actually get today’s news today, he said.
“The whole idea of a print newspaper is that the news available in the morning is yesterday’s news,” Mugamu said.
WhatApp groups as a distribution platform for 263Chat made sense because this is where younger people interact.
“If someone has an interest in music, art, even skateboarding, there is usually a WhatApp community they belong to,” – Nigel Mugamu
By 2017, 263Chat was packaging articles in such a way to address the growing issue of disinformation.
Ad revenues on WhatsApp
Advertisements in the 263Chat e-paper appear as they would in any publication. Mugamu says the important thing for 263Chat is to maximise advertising revenues, which happens when people share the e-paper privately.
The publication is shared on average two or three times, he said.
“If you find something interesting you will probably share it in a family, church or WhatsApp group,” he said.
And because their subscriber base keeps growing, they must take privacy considerations very seriously if they want to sustain their revenue generating model.
What happens when ad revenues dry up?
Mugamu says that due to the country’s dire economic situation, many Zimbabweans cannot pay for news.
This meant they had to explore different advertising models, and will have to keep coming up with creative solutions to generate revenue.
“There’s a perception that print versions are paid for and online version is free. For us, especially because we are growth-focused, we reinforce that we are a trusted brand,” – Nigel Mugamu
He says big companies now opt for online advertising instead of print because the online ads get more traffic and better engagement.
“I don’t think advertising revenue will completely dry up; I think it will shift. If people are used to advertising on paper, they are certainly advertising online because it is cheaper and easier, and it is something you can track,” he said.
Other distribution models
As disruptors in the field of news, he says 263Chat is already exploring other news distribution models.
“We are looking at mainstream media organisations who now distribute news via SMS, where the users pay for that service. It’s a small amount, around 12 cents per SMS. You get a series of SMSs throughout the day, and it works out to about 88 cents to a dollar per week,” – Nigel Mugamu
Dwindling advertising revenue is not the only threat 263Chat faces.
In Zimbabwe the media is also under pressure from the government. The threat of Zimbabwean authorities cracking down and disrupting content distribution is a real one: in January 2019, they restricted internet access in an attempt to quell mass protests sparked by a hike in fuel prices.
“It crippled us. It really did,” Mugamu said. “We know for a fact that whenever there is some sort of election or a national crisis people turn to us because of the credibility that we’ve built over the years.”
And these restrictions usually come at a time when the people need access to news and information the most.
Mugamu says it is almost impossible to plan around these shutdowns, but adds that they are looking to partner with organisations and individuals in neighbouring countries, such as South Africa.
“It seems in Zim you are constantly firefighting. It’s extremely annoying but that’s the nature of what it means to live in Zimbabwe at the moment,” he said.
As this nature shifts, so will their approach and distribution techniques, ensuring that 263Chat remains relevant and accessible its audiences – both new and existing.