The first text message, sent in 1992, was ‘Merry Christmas’ (text messages). Today, sending text and voice messages, images, videos, files, contacts, locations and even money with → smartphones is commonplace throughout the world.
This is all possible thanks to messenger services like Threema, Signal, Line, WeChat, WhatsApp or Telegram. In addition to enabling communication between two individuals, many messenger services also offer the option of sharing information with a larger, hand-picked group. The services offer a quick and low-cost way to contact a certain target group as well as an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of the work of DC and IC.
Using this type of communication offers numerous advantages: as an information service in agriculture (e-agriculture) or for medical advisory services (e-health) for rural regions, as early warning systems for natural disasters, and also as feedback mechanisms, to determine and measure project progress.
Social media platforms such as YouTube, Sina Weibo, Soundcloud, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, also offer the requisite digital infrastructure for sharing user-generated content such as videos, texts, images or even podcasts with the target group. However, unlike text messages, use of social media and messenger services requires an internet connection – and this precondition is not always met in some DC and IC project countries.
The following overview presents the associated challenges, realistic solutions and options for communicating with the target group.
1. Added value
Before you decide to use text messages, messenger services or social media. you need to look at what added value they offer your target group. Using these services for establishing contact to certain groups of people is popular, and even state actors and commercial enterprises use them too. These enterprises use the services to inform farmers about the weather, while at the same time advertising their new fertilisers, for example. You therefore need to ask yourself the following questions at the start of project planning:
- What (information) services already exist in the project region?
- What added value can my service provide for the target group?
By doing so, you can avoid duplicating services and refine the unique selling proposition in subsequent planning stages. Another option is to consider cooperation arrangements with actors that offer similar solutions.
WHAT OFFERS ADDED VALUE?
Closing information gaps: In agriculture, access to information can boost production or even save lives in times of crisis (issuing a tsunami warning, for example). For this reason, it is essential to precisely identify what information is needed in a certain project region.
Quality: Despite the wealth of digital information services available, not all of them are of equally good quality. A cooperation arrangement with universities or government agencies that verify and secure information before it is shared with the target group can significantly improve quality compared to other similar services.
Specification: Information services should be tailored to the target group as specifically as possible. Farmers who grow grain, for instance, need different weather information than those who raise livestock. Customising information services leads to quicker acceptance by users.
Up-to-Dateness: The factors ‘regularity’ and ‘reliability’ can set new information services apart from existing ones. It is important to check these factors very precisely during project planning to ensure they can be guaranteed.
2. Target group
The target group determines the means of communication best-suited to contacting them. Factors such as age, gender, culture, religion, living and housing situation, as well as the income of the relevant group make or break the project.
It is therefore important that you keep the following points in mind:
- Mobile internet (access): You need a 3G telecommunication network to use instant messenger services and social media. However, this is often not available, especially in remote project regions (see section 3.1). That means that you need to analyse the network coverage available to the target group before you select the technology. It is advisable to commission external IT service-providers to check this in the project region. National telecoms providers can also provide this information on a certain region.
- End devices: A smartphone is needed to use messenger services and social media. While smartphones are now widely used in German DC partner countries, you should still check beforehand whether the target group has them at their disposal.
- Digital literacy and literacy levels: Operating a smartphone or tablet and using messenger services and social media require digital skills (→ e-literacy). The language (such as regional dialects) and literacy levels also have to be clarified in advance. Digital formats such as images, videos or voice messages can provide excellent alternative options for communication, since they reach people who cannot read or write.
- Create incentives: Discounts for mobile data volume or reduced phone rates are economic incentives that can make using the services more attractive for the target group. Such incentives can be negotiated with a regional network provider that could then serve as a project partner.
Vulnerable target groups: When identifying the target group, it is important to include and strengthen vulnerable groups. For example, many women and girls have more limited access to digital technologies than men and boys. In rural areas in particular, there is often only one smartphone per household, which is often controlled by male family members.
- Special economic incentives, such as special conditions specifically for women and girls, may be a solution, for example, in the context of corporate social responsibility activities of national network providers.
- To guarantee internet access and in turn, the use of information services that are tailored specifically to women – such as pregnancy apps – girls and women can be given the appropriate equipment and undergo training courses in separate programmes.
It is not always easy to obtain a realistic picture of the target group. Survey participants’ responses may not be truthful and incentive systems may be used only to gain financial benefits and not to obtain access to the information service content on offer. For this reason, ongoing evaluation is key. You also need to determine in advance how personal data (data protection) will be protected during the course of the project.
Once the added value for a target group has been identified, you need to select the appropriate technology. Initially, developing a proprietary → app may appear to be the best way of establishing contact with the target group. Doing so, however, is very costly and time-consuming.
In many countries, text messages are the preferred means of communication, as mobile communications networks are often adequate, even in remote regions. The limited number of characters or the inability to send voice messages and other file formats, however, may be grounds for deciding against using text messaging as the distribution method.
It is therefore helpful to use digital solutions along the lines of the Digital Principles, which …
… have already been developed,
… are available free of charge or at low cost
… and that have been tried and tested worldwide.
The advantage is that established digital solutions have the requisite resources to continue to be viable in future. When selecting established options, however, you should bear in mind the following points:
- Do No Harm: Not all messenger services can be used in every country. In many countries, using services that offer a high level of encryption for communications is discouraged or even prohibited. You must not pose a risk to the target group by using such messenger services.
- Double-check: Some messenger services may not be known to the target group, or they do not know how to use them. You should therefore use services that are established among the members of your target group.
- Application programming interface (API): When creating an information service for a large target group, such as a weather forecasting service for small farmers, you need to create a backend to collect, classify, save and automatically send the resulting huge data volume. The only way to do this is with → open source messengers that have an (open) application programming interface or API for short. An API enables you to adapt the messenger as needed and supply it with information without having to spend money on developing your own app (for DC, Telegram is one of the services that has proven very useful – provided its use is permitted in the project country).
- Combine: It is also possible to use two different technologies. For instance, in the event of a (weather-related) disaster, sending a text message to the target group in addition to a message sent via a messenger group can be useful because it may reach them more quickly. Combining messenger and social media channels can also be helpful. This way, a piece of information will not only reach a limited group of people but is also available to others.
4. Responsibility and upkeep
Whether you choose to use text messages, a messenger service or social media, all three of these options must be maintained on an ongoing basis in order for the target group to accept them as a means of communication. Maintenance can be carried out automatically or manually. From the very outset of the project, you need to consider who will carry out maintenance and what state institutions or other actors will eventually take over the service.
Was Sie sonst beachten müssen:
- Responsibility: The sender of information is responsible for the content communicated. In other words, if the information, ‘It will rain tomorrow’ is shared, and farmers sow their fields and the predicted rain does not come, financial damage will be incurred. This can have devastating consequences for the people and jeopardise continuation of the project.
- Safeguarding: Specialists should validate the content to be communicated in advance in order to minimise the risk of misinformation. To this end, cooperation arrangements with specialist institutions, universities and government agencies in the project regions can be helpful. Including state actors can also prevent mistrust of the project.
- Feedback and moderation: For messenger groups and social media channels, feedback by the target group can help improve the project and enable it to meet specific objectives and needs. Input by moderators, either manually or via chatbots, can move the discussion forward and enhance willingness to use the service.
In the DC context, online communities and networks can be used in a number of ways. They …
- … promote communication and coordination in order to achieve sustainable development;
- … act as effective catalysts for establishing partnerships and engagement between public and private special-interest groups;
- … support mutual learning and capacity development;
- … help build trust-based relations for exchanging information and know-how;
- … pool expertise.
The tips below show how to work with an online community to achieve results and what you need to keep in mind. These tips can also be used for online networks, since here too, setting objectives, assigning roles and mobilising participants are all crucial factors for the success or failure of the network.
Tips for managing a community
A COMMON GOAL
Online groups need shared interests or a common goal. It should be clear to the users what benefit they derive from their active involvement in the community, since activities are voluntary in most cases.
The goal is determined by the size and composition of the group, as well as by how long the group is intended to exist. Co-creative processes with a high level of complexity require smaller groups in order to be able to work effectively. In contrast, less intense tasks such as networking and sharing knowledge may be easier to achieve in larger communities. The level of openness and transparency of a community should be determined in line with the purpose (who should be able to see the posts?).
Large online communities often have more than one community manager. Communication in online communities is usually asynchronous. Additional responsibilities such as moderating sub-groups or acting as administrators may also be assigned. Individual responsibilities can also be distributed, such as welcoming new members, serving as experts and points of contact for certain topics, providing support for IT problems or taking responsibility for developing certain content.
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY, BUT HOW YOU SAY IT
Community managers typically communicate with the participants authentically, openly and respectfully. At the same time, however, they ensure that participants use an appropriate tone to communicate with each other. When rules are violated, they reprimand bad behaviour. In the case of extreme violations, they delete individual posts, remove participants from the group or request that the relevant administrators in the community do so. Such actions should be carried out transparently. The group, under the guidance of the community manager, can jointly decide how they wish to communicate with each other and what constitutes appropriate communication. To this end, they may draw up netiquette rules or a manifesto for using the online community. Having participants establish these rules together also increases the degree with which they identify with the community.
BUILD TRUST AND PROMOTE CONTACT
Trust plays a key role when working together in online communities, especially when dealing with sensitive topics. It’s no coincidence that many online groups also meet up offline in order to intensify their contact. Community managers can initiate and support such meet-ups. User profiles help participants get to know each other and find shared interests. By modelling open and respectful communication and by offering positive feedback, community managers can help build trust. They are willing to listen to the group’s issues and concerns and use the community’s feedback to continuously improve their own work.
Even in the best online communities, most members are only passive users, meaning that these ‘lurkers’ are not active posters. To help (re)engage these participants, community managers may address them directly (for instance, by sending them messages that are visible only to the community managers and the member in question).
They may ask them whether they need more guidance for using the platform or whether they do not feel that they are properly valued or even that they are outsiders. Community managers can find out what the particular members need into order to contribute to the community.
In addition to the joint compilation of results, feedback from the group and from the community managers (such as responses to questions by other participants) may play an important role. Gamification aspects may also offer further incentives for members to participate actively.
RELATIONSHIP TO THE PLATFORM
Community managers also serve as points of contact for participants who need guidance and support with using the technical platform. They can answer requests either themselves or can forward them and see to it that they are answered. They are also points of contact for the platform operators and pass on feedback from the community, such as technical issues or usage statistics. Depending on the community’s goals, tasks and needs, the platform must be aware of different forms of cooperation and may need to take this into account when developing features. Examples include sub-communities or forums, synchronised dates and Skype connections.
If the community plans to expand, the community managers can also take on roles for advertising the community and act as ambassadors, for example. This is often the case for social media channels.