July 23, 2012
Islam Spreading through Text Messages in Pakistan
A recent report from a journalist traveling through Pakistan referred to an incident in which a text message arrived in the journalist's inbox. Expecting to see a message from a friend, instead there was a message informing the user that the practice of distributing a dessert, known as halwa, during the religious holiday known as Shab-e-Barat was neither specifically required nor expressly forbidden. While this message seemed a bit noncommittal, for those interested in knowing specifically what to think about giving out dessert during Shab-e-Barat, the message suggested texting back and asking, at a standard text message cost. This measure, as it turns out, represents something of a growing trend in Pakistan: evangelism by SMS.
Reports from that same journalist who got the text message about halwa during Shab-e-Barat suggest that the practice was especially brisk during the Ramadan holiday, including text messages involving Koran snippets, assorted sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, advice on how to pray, and of course, encouragement toward charitable giving. Some have pointed to this as a sign of a rise in the overall level of religious observance in Pakistan, while others just say that spam is still spam, whether for Viagra or Islam.
Indeed, the latter is asserting itself increasingly, as many of the religious text messages include some kind of for-pay offer, including religious textbooks, travel deals to Mecca, or access to audio translations of Koran verses at a rate of two rupees--roughly two cents U.S.--per minute. The cell phone market in Pakistan is almost disturbingly vast, with just over 114 million subscribers in the market as of January alone, and mobile penetration hovering at just over 66 percent, SMS marketing has not only terrific reach, but also incredible cost-effectiveness, especially given that spam messages cost laughably tiny amounts to launch in the first place. At last report, the volume of SMS traffic in Pakistan alone shot up fully 253 percent between 2009 and 2010, so the levels today must be impressive, assuming even comparable growth year over year.
Yet with this huge rate comes new challenges; SMS marketing is a crowded field. Sufficiently crowded, in fact, that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has announced that anyone who sends more than 200 identical SMS messages, strictly for commercial purposes, in a 15 minute time frame will have their account canceled. But religious texts, however, are something of a gray area, and are popular with the users themselves.
It's unusual to say the least, but it's a consequence of not only the times but standard marketing protocol; go where the users are. In this case the users are clearly on their mobile devices, so the messages are going where the users are. The implications may be a bit disturbing, depending on cultural mores, but the overall effect is hard to deny.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman
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