Internet Marketing in South Africa today

Neil Pursey
Neil Pursey

Course Convenor

Online marketing has taken advertising to a whole new level. The online directory has replaced the telephone book. Your business advertisement will no longer disappear along with the newspaper but will instead be available online 24/7 to potential customers on the other side of the ocean.

We know this right?

As the South African digital industry matures, it’s now a case of how we execute a strategy to separate you from your competitors… Just having a static website and expect to generate business won’t work in the years to come.

So what do we need to know?

A few years back, Derek Robson, a local internet marketing writer, has mentioned in one of his articles how the state-owned telecommunications company, Telkom, has the monopoly, leading to “very highly priced access and an indifferent service.” He compares South Africa’s internet coverage to that of the United Sates, referencing a small population of South Africans who have any form of access to the Internet and he says that this is largely due to the high costs.

We’re not in 2007 anymore…

In the years since Robson wrote his article, it is obvious that times have changed. A recent study conducted by World Wide Worx in collaboration with Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group tells us just how much.

The study states that the number of South African internet users has passed the 5 million mark for the first time in 2010. The number of internet users rose from 5.3 million to 5.6 million in 2009 and a similar growth rate was expected to occur in 2010. World Wide Worx MD, Arthur Goldstruck, confirmed this by saying that South Africa will continue to see strong growth in 2010. Based on 2014 stats from, South Africa has hit the 24 million mark! This is EXPONENTIAL growth!

And that obviously means more consumers are online.

This recent development will cause operators to begin to leverage the combination of undersea cable capacity and new fibre-optic networks to supply corporate clients and resellers with bigger, faster and more flexible capacity. Says Reshaad Sha, Senior Manager for Cisco, “We will see the proliferation of high-speed connectivity materialising more widely than ever before.”

No longer do we live in a country where the state-owned telecommunications company has the monopoly. Instead, this new development will spark an 18% increase in the number of Internet access and service providers in South Africa.

More internet = more internet marketing

This rise in internet usage is synonymous with a rise in online marketing. South African internet marketing service provider, eTraffic states in an article on their website that there are a multitude of internet marketing strategies which can provide companies with great advertising for a much lower price and for proven better results. The article goes on to mention that search engine optimisation is one of these strategies.

The rate at which the Internet has advanced is pretty incredible and thus we are able to conduct online marketing campaigns that are a lot more sophisticated than they have been previously.

However, one cannot deny that we are still behind “so-called first world countries,” as Robson calls them, and still have catching up to do. Therefore, I think it is imperative that we examine the trends and developments of internet marketing strategies in these countries and take notice of what internet users are searching for, i.e. what services are growing in popularity?

SEO specialists, 1st Place, in an article titled “SEO for small businesses in South Africa” state that “SEO is ranked as one of the top ROI [Return of Investment] solutions”. I totally agree with them.

Of course SEO isn’t the only channel companies can use in their online marketing campaigns. As the industry matures, services are becoming more integrated into a complete digital strategy. No longer are they being marketed as a single service or at least they shouldn’t be. PPC (pay per click) advertising is another popular form of internet marketing. Some companies might choose to conduct a social media campaign, but this cannot be measured as well as methods like SEO and PPC. Social is about branding and reach. It should be driven by targeted on-site content, which ultimately also drives SEO. So you can see how closely these services should be integrated. South African retailers and larger corporates are still getting KPI’s incorrect when it comes to Social Media. What is the point of having 400k fans when they aren’t engaging?


How does South Africa compare to the US?

We chose “online marketing” and “digital marketing”, you’d think they’d be a similar graph but you will see that there is a clear trend towards one:

A – compare the popularity of the keyword ‘online marketing’ as a search word versus that of ‘digital marketing’ in South Africa and;

B – compare the popularity of the keyword ‘online marketing’ as a search word versus that of ‘digital marketing’ in the US.

To do this, I have used Google Insights and searched for the terms; ‘online marketing’ and ‘digital marketing’. I have chosen to look for results between January 2004 and September 2015 and only in South Africa. This is what we see:

South African search data

The South African graph looks rather sporadic because of the minimal data coming through – most likely because of the low internet penetration pre-2010. Interesting to note though is how word usage can change over time. In 2012 “online marketing” was the more popular word in comparison to “digital marketing”. However, since 2014 “digital marketing” is now the choice word for the industry. My hunch is because the web has evolved into a more integrated channel i.e. desktop, mobile and app.

For the second part of my investigation, I used the same two keywords and time period but made the search specific to the United States. These are the results:

US search data

Obviously there is a lot more data because of the amount of people using online devices and desktops in the US but the trends are much the same (except the possible glitch in Google’s matrix in 2013 – huge unknown spike in “online marketing”).

Career opportunities

What’s good to know is that within Digital Marketing as a skillset, there are a number of specialist skills that one can learn to fast track a career path in digital and there is no slowing down in the demand for them. Just have a look at Adtalent’s survey to know why.

South African digital marketing salary survey

View more from the source:

In the medium to longer term we believe the creative agency is moving into a new golden age, where more and more spend will move away from expensive, traditional mass media to content creation and dissemination through more effective, targeted digital channels.

– Paul Jackson, Grey Advertising South Africa

Apart from managerial skills required in the digital industry, the industry is in desperate need for specialist skills.

Top Search Marketing company in the UK, Distilled, state on their website under the ‘Organic Search’ subheading “technically sound and crawlable platform, content that speaks the language of the search audience, and an intelligent strategy for building robust brand signals”. This is how SEO should be managed and South African SEO strategists need to push themselves to improve their service offering to match the quality of international companies.

It is without a doubt that specialist skills like SEO, PPC, Content marketing and Analytics are a growing need in South Africa and that their potential as internet marketing strategies can’t be ignored. SEO for one pulls all strategies together, acting as the pillar for organic traffic (which should be the bulk of every website’s traffic). With the rise of social media and changes in Google algorithms, all digital marketing services need to be integrated. No more can marketers and business owners have a silo’d approach. If you decide you want to rank organically, you will need a content strategy, which means you will need a social strategy to promote your content and finally paid advertising (Adwords) will provide the foundation to collect search data.

Career Advice conducted an industry survey earlier this year (2015) to their community members, which are predominately US and UK based. The result from the survey showed that Analytics was the service with most activity (at agency level) plus the most requested by client. From what I’ve experienced in the South African internet marketing industry, the demand is not there yet but as clients become more knowledgeable, they are definitely paying more attention to meaningful analytics. I prepared a presentation for a group of AAA Advertising students around the subject of analytics. My advice to the students was that they consider analytics as a secondary skill to support their primary career path i.e. Content, SEO, Paid Advertising, Conversion Marketing etc. Although the demand curve for internet marketing analytics is on the rise, the demand in South Africa is not at the point of supporting full time careers (there are obviously unique cases of full time employment but this is a general statement). In two to three years time though, I will most likely have to edit the above. See below the presentation: