Vodacom plugs into The Grid - TechCentral

Vodacom plugs into The Grid

Gill Moodie

[By Gill Moodie] There’s a fascinating thing happening underground. If you’re over 35 you definitely won’t have heard of it. If you haven’t a clue how you surf the Net on your phone you won’t care. But if you’re a media player you really need to know.
With little fanfare, Vodacom has been growing a location-based social network called The Grid.

It’s very clever so pay attention (particularly the over 35s). Here’s the science bit: using the triangulation of cellphone towers, The Grid pinpoints members’ locations on a map. Just like Facebook or Twitter, you can send messages, chat, hook up with friends, and upload pictures and video. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, The Grid is designed for your cellphone (though you can access it on the Web) and it’s not limited to Vodacom subscribers.

Because you’re all located on a map, you can do fun things like see where your buddies are — is anyone close to the coffee shop you’re at? — or you can view all the messages, called “blips” on The Grid, written about a restaurant or a club, say.

If this all sounds a tad gimmicky, think for a moment about the potential for advertising. If you’re a pub and you want to market your happy hour, why waste money on a newspaper or website ad that will be seen by people who live miles from your establishment. Something like The Grid could deliver your advert to punters within, say, a 20km radius. It could prove cheaper and more effective.

Of course, The Grid is not reinventing the wheel. MXit, now part-owned by Naspers, got kids talking and networking on their cellphones. And, of course, the omniscient Google is offering Latitude with some geo-located fun up its sleeve, though not too many South Africans are using it yet.

So The Grid might just beat Google to the bank given that it already has more than 1m signed up users in SA.

And traditional media better pay attention.

The ever-splintering advertising pie means that all traditional media houses have seen their revenues impacted, sure.

But when a big company like Vodacom steps into the media fray, it’s time to sit up and take note. Not least because The Grid is being run by a respected new media guy called Vincent Maher, who has worked at the Mail & Guardian Online and was co-founder of blog aggregator Amatomu.

Social networks typically take quite a while to build critical mass, which is why The Grid is still under the radar. But if you’re big and monied like Vodacom, you can afford to wait, and once it starts cooking, Vodacom can market The Grid in a heartbeat and very cheaply to its millions of subscribers.

The Grid is even experimenting with gauging and mapping the moods of its users so that it can offer seriously targeted advertising. For example, as Maher explains on his blog: “Just before lunch, show my ad to women within 10km of Fourways Mall, between the age of 25 and 30, who are feeling sad, sleepy, angry or irritated”.

I say kudos to Vodacom for a bold step out of the box. And, to the old-school media, it’s time to put on your thinking caps and find out how you can ride this wave.

I’ve heard mobile gurus say that the problem with mobile news strategies is that, unlike newsprint and the Net, the media houses don’t own or control the medium so have to cosy up to the cellphone operators. Well, looks like Vodacom just figured out how to deliver content on its own — and they don’t even have the hassle or the expense of creating it. Their users will do it for them. In the parlance of Generation Y, I think that’s what you call “pimpin’ ”.

I can hear the conspiracy theorists getting jumpy about Big Brother but, really, if you don’t want to be located, don’t sign up. If voracious aliens land on Earth and hack into Vodacom’s files at least they’ll know how we feel about it: angry, irritated, murderous, petrified.


  1. I like the Grid, and I like what they are trying to do. That aside, characterising the only threat against third parties storing info about you as “veracious hacker aliens” is silly. There are very real hacker threats out there, luckily Vodacom realises this and has some clever security people and companies helping them (disclosure: not me and not my company).

    What’s more, the “if you don’t like it don’t use it” argument is also spurious. I want to be able to use a service without having to give up all rights to my information and privacy. Saying the only other option is to become some web-Luddite is no good. Once again, I was impressed by Vincent’s responses on how the Grid will protect privacy on his blog http://www.vincentmaher.com/?p=946#comment-6909

  2. My question about location based advertising is how many people you will be targeting.. take the example you have stated here of “Just before lunch, show my ad to women within 10km of Fourways Mall, between the age of 25 and 30, who are feeling sad, sleepy, angry or irritated” – how many people will this be? Let us say there are 10 people who are 10km from Fourways AND on the grid at that time AND are 25-30. of those 10 people, how many are sad, sleepy or angry? What if there are none of the 10 who post a mood like this? Location based advertising just cuts the small pie into pieces too tiny to count towards revenue for the advertiser or the publisher really.

  3. Hi Briana

    I agree that is an extreme example of how one could slice the data and probably will be too fine grained using time and location. In practice one would probably try gender, age range, mood and proximity to several locations.

    A common scenario where LBA works great is when you have an event or promo in which entrants can win tickets or something that requires them to be near-ish to where the event takes place – music concerts, activations anything that has a fixed location. As an example we are currently promoting Rocking the Daisies in Cape Town to people in the Western Cape for this exact reason.

    On the other hand, it gets pretty cool when we start planning campaigns and sit down with maps of our users and where they are. This helps agencies decide on which locations to target based on population density.

    The goal, ultimately, is to cut down on wastage when location/gender/age/time of day is relevant and to increase the relevance of the advertising to the user. This, in turn, should increase the quality of the lead.

    Keep in mind that when you say LBA “cuts the small pie into pieces too tiny to count towards revenue for the advertiser or the publisher” this is not the case for the small advertisers like the hairdressers and spaza shops. There is a long-tail element that will come into play.

    Thanks for the great feedback though 🙂

  4. My question is this:- if you are aiming for the “long tail” (hairdressers and spaza shops), I do not see how the model is going to work, for afew reasons. How many hairdressers and spaza shops are going to have access to purchasing mobile advertising? For those who do, they will need to rely on customers in their area being on the grid at the time that they are near their shop. So even if someone is registered on the grid, and in the area of the spaza, they might not be ON the grid to get the advertisement. Let’s say for a second that they are in the right area for that advertiser and they are logged into the grid, are you saying that people are going to drive around looking at their phones for ads popping up as they drive through your advertisers neighbourhoods? So there are three problems really, the first being that the long tail you are going after are not in the majority going to understand or be willing to advertise this way.. the second being that even if you get advertisers, there may not be enough people logged into the grid to make it worthwhile or have any serious impact on their business, and then thirdly that your users are surely going to become most irate with your service when it becomes clear that they are just being used to throw ads at on their phone while they are driving all day, which you must agree would iritate any of us. but yes good luck, i just do not see you being able to keep advertisers and users happy at the same time with this type of model.