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Obami: Barbara Mallinson

An online marketer turned entrepreneur creates unique social networking platforms for South African schools.

Juliet Pitman

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Barbara Mallinson

Sometimes gaps in the market are so obvious that people automatically assume they’ve already been filled. Take social networking for example. If there’s a community out there, it seems to have been digitised on a social community platform.

Except there’s one obvious community that no one had thought of creating a social platform for – schools. It seems incredible, given that school children are among the biggest users of social networking sites. But there you have it. However, a young South African entrepreneur saw, and is now filling the gap. Enter Obami.com, a social networking platform aimed specifically at South African schools, connecting teachers, parents and learners in a highly effective virtual community.

Creating a new community

The idea is the brainchild of Barbara Mallinson, who started Obami.com as a generic social networking site in the United Kingdom, but with the saturation of the market had to reconsider how to niche it to a particular community. “Consider the fact that school kids spend on average 15 hours a week in virtual societies. More than any other group, this is their new natural environment – but no one had created a social networking platform specifically for school children that focused on education. In a way, it was an obvious market,” she says.

The elegance of the idea lies in its simplicity. Obami.com uses the Facebook model for education purposes. It allows for communication between teachers, parents and learners on a virtual platform. The possibilities are endless. “Teachers and principals can post school notices for learners or their parents or set assignments online, learners can upload assignments to their teachers, sports teams and societies can create their own sub-communities, teachers can share notes, or the PTA can remain in touch on key issues,” Mallinson explains. Obami.com also allows for SMSs to be sent out to the community, obviating the need for endless notes and newsletters to be sent home to parents through their children, and ensuring real-time updates on things like event cancellations.

Providing security

But for all its myriad advantages and applications, Mallinson knew that Obami.com would have to answer the obvious questions related to the security of its vulnerable users. The reality is that social networking sites targeted specifically at children also attract cyber predators.

“When you’re talking about children and social networking, one of the first things you need to bear in mind is their security. I knew Obami would have to be able to guarantee that it protected children from the predatory aspects inherent in most open social networking platforms,” says Mallinson. Her solution lay in creating a completely closed community. “It’s closed to outsiders. Joining is by invitation only and only for Obami-registered schools.

And schools can create their own flexible privacy settings. So correspondence between teachers can be closed to learners for example, or a learner can upload an assignment that can be viewed only by the teacher. Generic notices can be available to all users,” Mallinson explains. And while learners can send private messages to each other, parents are automatically notified of any friend request their child receives, providing them with an important sense of security about the people with whom their child is interacting.

Doing her homework

With the security issue taken care of, the next question lay in whether South African schools were ready for this level of technological interaction. Learners were no problem – they are among the most sophisticated consumers of digital and social networking media – but parents and teachers presented Mallinson with a different challenge.

This is why solid foundation research was critical to the success of the business. Mallison spent a full year-and-a-half talking to schools, principals, teachers, parents and learners. “They are all very different markets, with different needs and different levels of Internet competency. If Obami was going to work, it needed everyone to use it, not just the school kids. What I learned was that the teachers need an initial time investment to familiarise themselves with the site. Once they see what it can do, they love it, but it’s often a battle to get them to sit down and look at it,” she said.

Growing for the future

She first piloted the site with St Mary’s School for Girls, her alma mater, and today has six schools online, with a further six in the process of being integrated. Around 50 schools are waiting to come on board. Schools need to have Internet access and Mallinson worked hard to get Obami recognised as a member of IASA (Independent Schools Association of South Africa), whose schools have around 98% computer penetration. The closed nature of the communities means that the number of users is limited, but user logins are encouraging. “Current users log in for around 20 minutes at a time and one third of them log in more than 30 times a month,” she says.

Apart from the optional SMS functionality, the service is free to schools, which makes it doubly attractive to its target market. Revenue streams come from advertising, listings, sponsored content and affiliations, all of which are closely vetted and approved as suitable for and not harmful to the target audience. Mallinson’s current focus is to get as many schools on board as possible. “I want a huge presence in South Africa, where I think there’s the opportunity to do great things in education,” she says. The same can be said of the African continent, and it’s to those markets that she’ll extend her focus. Watch this cyberspace.

Obami
Player : Barbara Mallinson
Est 2006
Contact: +27 83 215 8112 www.obami.co.za

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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