Marketing is necessary to ensure that a start-up takes off and grows sustainably. However, in its traditional form- involving agencies- it is often cash intensive, presenting a major hurdle for businesses with low resources.
Kenyan start-ups have found found a way around the hurdle– and considerable marketing success for some - and are today building credible brands through inexpensive social media channels such as Facebook and WhatsApp.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) from movie stores, auto dealers and clothes sellers to restaurant and night clubs say the platforms offer them better chances of making sales after communicating with their potential customers.
“WhatsApp can be a very strong marketing tool. It is a good one-to-one platform for direct communication. You can use it to send images, audio files, short video clips of your products and text messages to clients,” says 23 year-old Nairobi-based entrepreneur June Muthoni who runs a movie store in the city centre.
Ms Muthoni, a millennial and just fresh from college has created a WhatsApp group where her customers can enquire about the latest movies and order copies. She also has a Facebook page.
“A key advantage of WhatsApp is that you don’t need to explicitly ask potential customers to check the messanger as they are hooked to it,” she says. Her WhatsApp group has over 200 members.
John Kimani, an auto dealer on Thika Road, is also all praise for WhatsApp saying it allows him to do follow-ups instead of direct phone calls that are often perceived at intrusive by most customers.
“No one appreciates phone calls from unknown numbers, but our customers are more likely to respond to personal messages. When I started using WhatsApp for customer communication, I noticed better response and engagement from my 250 members,” says Mr Kimani.
Ms Miriam Owino runs a clothes stall on Nairobi’s Tom Mboya Street sees WhatsApp as a great tool for customer support. Her group has 200 members.
“My customers always prefer to send me a message on WhatsApp rather than calling. It is convenient for them,” she explains.
Instead of calling friends to find out where the latest hip events are happening, users have also turned to the social media channel for updates.
“I am frequent patron of Club Fahrenheit, an outlet on Kimathi Street, Nairobi. All I do is log in to my phone to see the latest event and the DJ playing and decide whether to attend or not,” says Gabriel Otuki a Nairobi reveller. He is among the 256 members on the outlet’s WhatsApp group.
Other social media messaging apps that have proven a hit with small businesses include Skype, which allows businesses to instantly communicate with customers in a one-to-one capacity. It supports video and voice calls.
Telegram, the messaging app which claims to have speed and security, is also cited as a useful alternative. It allows file sharing of up to 1.5GB and group chats of up to 5,000 members.
WhatsApp supports more than 100 members within a group. The app now allows for up to 256 members to be added to a WhatsApp group.
However, Telegram channels can have an unlimited number of members.
Start-ups are, however, warned by experts not to spam their customers with WhatsApp messages as many customers hate messages coming from unknown numbers and this can prove counterproductive.