The rapid expansion of internet connections in Colombia, combined with the growing demand for multi-platform communication strategies, is strengthening online media outlets in the country. Much of it has been driven by the explosion in the use of social media, especially among the country’s youth. However, the online media sector is also being galvanised by the move from established media products towards digital content.

According to figures by the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications, penetration of internet services in Colombia reached 20% in the first quarter of 2014, with broadband internet subscriptions expected to hit 8.8m by the end of 2014. This is solidifying the importance of online platforms, not only for news and entertainment content but also as a means of discussing political and social issues. Investment in online platforms is also being encouraged by the increasing number of multinational companies moving in to take advantage of the macroeconomic stability and business opportunities. “Colombia has become very attractive for investment, and these foreign companies are already accustomed to having an online presence for their products and services,” Olga Britto, the managing director for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) in Colombia, a worldwide grouping of digital advertisers and agencies, told OBG.

International social media brands are growing in the Colombian market. Facebook has 17m members across the country and was the second most visited site in Colombia in 2013 after Google Colombia, according to figures by Alexa, an internet service owned by Amazon that provides website traffic data. Other popular sites include YouTube, Wikipedia and Blogspot.

Political Discussion

Social networks and the emergence of a politically motivated blogosphere have allowed citizens to voice opinions. In 2008 Facebook was used by human rights activists to stage a global demonstration against the militia group FARC and the longstanding armed conflict. In 2013 social media outlet Twitter helped gather support for a constitutional referendum to allow elected politicians to be removed from power if found guilty of corruption.

Twitter and Facebook were also used to protest the broadcasting of a television series portraying the lives of three prominent paramilitary leaders. The campaign rallied support for a boycott on firms advertising with the show, prompting RCN, the station broadcasting the show, to lose ten advertisers within two weeks after the start of the online campaign. Social media is also used to denounce social problems across the country; in the city of Medellín, Twitter users regularly share information about crimes they have witnessed.

Although most of the 10 most visited websites in Colombia are international, much internet traffic is moving towards local media brands, especially those that already have an established presence outside the web and have been able to translate that success into the online arena. As internet connections become widespread across the country, these media platforms are attracting visitors and advertising money, getting audiences from their print or broadcasting products on to their internet and mobile phone offerings.

The top Colombian website in terms of visitors (10th in the overall ranking) is the online version of daily newspaper El Tiempo, followed by Mercado Libre, an online platform to buy and sell goods. Another newspaper, El Espectador, is also popular among internet users, as are the online versions of television station Caracol and RCN radio. New genuinely web-based platforms, including Terra, are increasingly establishing themselves in the market. In response to the rising importance of the internet, most advertising agencies in Colombia are offering digital marketing as part of communications strategies for their clients.

Follow The Money

As a result, investment in digital media has intensified over the years. According to a report by IAB Colombia about investment trends into online platforms published in early 2014, online advertisement rose from COP162bn ($81m) in 2012 to COP212bn ($106m) at the end of 2013, accounting for 8.7% of all investment in advertising. It is still considerably below the amount of advertising that is going into traditional media outlets such as television, which accounted for 46% of advertising investment, or radio, which got 21% of the total market. However, growth patterns show promise for online platforms. In 2013 investment into digital advertising in Colombia rose 31%. By comparison, television advertising investment increased 5.3% and radio attracted 11.8% higher advertising investment than the previous year.

A New Trend

Growth in the number of smartphones is opening up the door for new advertising opportunities as well as more customised campaigns, although investment remains largely directed towards websites. Accumulated fourth-quarter figures show 97.8% of digital media investment going towards the internet, with the rest geared towards mobile phone advertising. Mobile advertising has been growing rapidly across the world, with the IAB reporting investment in this type of digital advertising to be worth up to $8.9bn in 2012, although only 0.6% relates to the Latin American region. However, total investment in digital media in Colombia might be bigger than demonstrated by figures, considering the weight internet giants Google and Facebook have in the digital advertising sector. The market value given in the IAB Colombia report about investment in the sector includes only investment in advertising on Google and Facebook products through Colombian advertising agencies, and leaves out advertising investment that was directly negotiated between Google and Facebook with their customers. “This means that the realistic weight of digital advertising in Colombia can be closer to 11% or 12% of the total advertising investment,” said Britto. Demonstrating its interest in the country’s digital advertising sector, Facebook opened a commercial office in Colombia in early 2014.

Companies in different sectors of the economy are betting on digital advertising. Agro-industry, building materials and construction firms were responsible for over 13% of investment in digital advertising, according to fourth-quarter 2013 figures by IAB Colombia, followed by the automotive sector with just under 10%. Government presence in digital advertising for communications and civic campaigns has been growing, although it represented just 3.8% of total investment in 2013, compared to 2.3% the previous year. Despite the small numbers, governmental communication and competing political entities will most likely increase their online presence in 2014 due to parliamentary and presidential elections that have taken place.

Greater Transparency

Although there is no specific law covering digital media or advertising, agencies and media outlets in Colombia generally follow the Self-regulation in Advertising Code, developed by the industry to establish standards and avoid more stringent regulation by authorities. Although the government has established stricter laws for e-commerce and is improving legislation on data protection, online platforms follow the same rules as traditional media in terms of advertising content. In 2013 the advertising code was updated to include new sectors such as social cause advertising and established rules for advertising targeting younger audiences. This is relevant considering the speed at which increased internet access and social media are reaching young consumers.

Despite the increasing amount of investment into digital media, some barriers exist. “We need companies and advertisers to be less timid and launch themselves openly in these new platforms,” Britto told OBG. Enhanced confidence in digital platforms as a communication vehicle might also come with added transparency. Over the past few years the IAB has worked to implement a new measuring system to gauge online advertising effectiveness, which focuses on the number of viewable impressions as opposed to served ads. This means that the industry worldwide will centre measurability on the amount of viewed advertisements, and not just advertisements that are presented on a specific website. Despite some initial glitches, which led the Media Rating Council, a US-based organisation focusing on media measurability issues, to temporarily delay the transition to the new system, it is expected that the digital advertising industry as a whole will move to implement new measuring standards during 2014. “This is where the whole market is going, and in Colombia, we are already pushing for it,” Britto told OBG. “The main advantage is that it makes it much easier to compare investment into digital platforms with that going towards more traditional media. This is essential to accommodate the rising importance of digital advertising in the country.”

Online platforms are increasingly attracting more investment, and this trend is set to continue, as long as web platforms remain relevant. The expansion of internet access in the country, whether through home connections or mobile broadband, represents an opportunity for Colombian companies and institutions to connect effectively with their audiences. The continued relevance of established media brands in the online arena suggests that content will remain the more important driver for the business over the coming years.