In 2017, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) commissioned Echo Mobile to examine how and to what effect international development organizations have used messaging apps, capturing lessons for development and technology practitioners. Those lessons are synthesized in this paper and exemplified in the project summaries and case studies. From in-depth research into these cases, Echo identified four common use cases where messaging apps have been effective for international development, across borders and within different sectors:
One-to-One Matching of People With Resources
Group Peer-to-Peer Learning and Behavior Change
Crowdsourced Reporting and Feedback
For all of these use cases, Echo found that the following considerations are essential for successful project design when deploying messaging apps for development:
Go Where the People’s Attention Is: For organizations deploying messaging apps for development, the most critical factor that determined success was whether target audiences were familiar with the apps. If people are unfamiliar with an app, organizations should use something else or combine channels.
Focus on User Needs Over Implementer Needs: Organizations that deployed messaging apps successfully conducted extensive user research first. Each tested their assumptions about users and chose messaging apps based on user appeal, not ease of integration, and in consideration of the costs to users, not implementers. During and after testing, each maintained flexibility, adapting to emerging needs and scale.
Engage More Users With Multiple Channels: Messaging apps are cheaper for organizations than SMS but can be costly to users, so smartphone users without Wi-Fi still prefer free SMS. Complementary channels also enable organizations to extend their reach to those without smartphones or internet access. However, messaging apps can sometimes be deployed when SMS cannot.
Prioritize Communications Content and Personnel: Development organizations had the most success with messaging apps when they built and maintained teams dedicated to continuous content development, as well as sector experts and data analysts.
Partner for Scale and Technical Expertise: Many organizations achieved scale and impact by partnering with the messaging app developers, third-party technical service partners, or government or creative agencies.
The following considerations are essential when selecting specific messaging apps:
Privacy and Security: To protect user information and personal security, especially vulnerable groups like refugees and pregnant women, development organizations should consider different information types and stakeholders when reviewing encryption protocols, data policies, and anonymity features and policies.
Operational Requirements: Not all messaging apps have features tailored to institutional users like development organizations, which can have implications on operational efficiency. Development organizations should consider apps’ integration and account-sharing options, which have implications on device requirements.
Scalability and Searchability: Some messaging apps limit the size of group chats and lists, and some have limited sharing and search features, all of which can make it difficult for development organizations to scale messaging app initiatives.