Deals by text: USSD proves popular for Vouchercloud

If you’re the sort of South African who likes to find a bargain (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) then the chances are you’ve probably heard of Vouchercloud. The firm, which started in the UK back in 2010, has a suite of mobile apps and online tools which offer laser guided coupon codes based on your current location. Just open the app on a smartphone, and Vouchercloud will find you a nearby bargain in seconds.

Since its launch in South Africa back in January this year, the app has had around 35 000 downloads via the BlackBerry, iOS and Google Play stores. But according to managing director of Vouchercloud SA, Lyndon Munetsi, its biggest success over here has been via old fashioned USSD – the text based menu system which is accessible via shortcode on any mobile phone in the world. In just two weeks since the service launched, Vouchercloud has already had 80 000 unique users and served up over 100 000 deals to canny shoppers.

And the success of USSD has been a complete surprise, apparently.

“Anyone who tells you USSD is dead in South Africa is wrong,” says Munetsi, “I’ll be the first to admit that before we launched, I was sceptical that USSD was still relevant.”

Online deal sites can generally be split into three types. Group buying services, which buy in bulk and sell on deals to members, are popular in South Africa. Aggregation sites (like our own work mainly by finding existing deals and linking to them, building up an independent community of bargain lovers who support the site through page views and advertising. Vouchercloud, meanwhile, relies on brokering deals directly with retailers and earning affiliate revenue from referrals – it’s a model which has been very popular for years overseas, but slow to take off in South Africa as it’s usually applied to online shopping.

The way Vouchercloud works is simple. You can access it through the web portal, smartphone app or by dialing the shortcode *120*100# from any mobile phone in the country. The system then triangulates your position by looking at the cell tower you’re connected to, and comes up with a list of nearby offers. Mostly, these are sent in the form of text codes that can be stored in-app or SMSed to you, which you present at the till when paying for goods or services. Munetsi says that the company focusses on sourcing deals they know will be popular – his mantra is ‘food, fashion and fun’.

Vouchercloud does have one big advantage over rivals, however: the majority owner is the Vodafone group, which includes South Africa’s Vodacom – in whose Midrand offices most of the local team sit. That gives them access to development skills and – more importantly – the huge marketing talent and access to tech Vodacom has in-house.

By way of reciprocation, Vouchercloud reserves its very best discounts as exclusive offers to Vodacom customers. For example, Cell C cinema goers might find an offer for a 40% discount in-app, while Vodacom subscribers will see the same deal with a 60% off price.

Munetsi is honest about where the vast majority of deal hunters are coming from. While the firm is aggressively pushing its services through advertising in Vodacom stores, on the radio and online, and bundling the app with new smartphones, it’s small ads attached to the bottom of Please Call Me (PCM).

“These have been the single biggest driver for USSD across all networks,” says Munetsi, “And it’s not just on ‘dumb’ phones either. There are many people in South Africa who can afford smartphones but don’t use them like early adopters do.”

Munetsi believes that another reason for the success of the USSD service with smartphone users is that there are plenty of South Africans who can afford and want smartphones, but often don’t use many of the features or download apps. For the older generation, this may simply be down to inexperience with technology, but the fact that data remains expensive means that people can be very careful with what they download and how often they access apps.

According to Munetsi, there are future plans for the service are to grow it to Vouchercloud to over 1 000 000 registered users by the end of the financial year, and refine the deal engine so that it will search for offers based on previous buying habits and other personal information.


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