Thanks to its accessibility, relatively low cost and multifunctional nature, the mobile phone may be the most sought-after device the world has ever known.

In developed nations, consumers are hungry to adopt new mobile technologies such as video, apps and location awareness as they become available. In emerging markets, consumers are bypassing devices, opting for mobiles over PCs where income constraints prevent them from getting both.

The mobile phone is having a transformative effect in many emerging markets, empowering people with information and connectivity.

In Africa, it’s a factor in the continent’s amazing renaissance. Mobile has given farmers access to information on prices and weather patterns that enables them to plan better and, by extension, make more money.

Mobile phone banking has made it cost effective for banks to offer services to many more people and for much smaller transactions. This is transforming Africa from a cash economy to a mobile one with none of the intermediary steps – from cheque books to credit cards – that developed markets had to go through.

As a result, mobile is available everywhere in Africa. In fact, when I sat in a tent in the Serengeti last year, I got a better signal than I usually get in the centre of Sydney.

With the legacy of the PC weak in emerging markets, mobile is the preferred platform for many online activities. Digital consumers in Emerging Asia, India and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are particularly high on mobile, preferring to surf the Internet on their mobile devices rather than on a computer.

Mobile culture

What’s interesting is how well mobile is nesting with traditional cultures. It’s actually pretty common to see a Masai warrior in traditional clothes whipping a mobile phone out of his belt to check up on his brother with the cows.

But not only does mobile help people in emerging markets connect to each other and the world, it also creates opportunities for those of us in the travel industry to connect to them. It means that a digital strategy that taps into mobile is becoming as relevant in emerging markets as it is in the developed world.

But as we discussed in Same Same, But Different and Sex Still Sells, emerging markets cannot be treated as a homogeneous lump; there are cultural and infrastructural differences that brands and marketers must take into account.

Ready to engage

Internet penetration varies markedly across emerging markets, from 7 percent in India and 10 percent in Kenya to 31 percent in China and 38 percent in Brazil.

What varies less, however, is the engagement level among those who have Internet access. Engagement is very high in emerging markets, considerably higher than in most developed nations. So given the population size of most emerging nations, there are hundreds of millions of highly engaged people just waiting to connect with your brand online.

Consumers in emerging markets are often more open to connecting with brands compared to people in developed markets, who are typically more guarded.

This is also a leap of sorts. Consumers in these markets are engaging with brands at a time when brands are more customer-centric and concerned about connecting with their customers in an open and honest way. So these people have good reason to feel comfortable with brands.

In emerging markets, the percentage of online users who are considered “highly engaged” is far greater than in the developing world. Digital engagement is a measure of how involved people are with the Internet, based on usage, behaviour and attitudes toward digital media.

The mobile journey

This affinity for mobile among emerging-market consumers creates amazing opportunities for brands to connect, particularly in the travel space.

Travel brands can create tools that help enrich and streamline every step of the journey. Apps and the mobile Web can be used to keep travellers informed, enable self-service and to make travel paperless and more convenient.

While some of these tools might relate to services travel brands offer themselves (mobile booking, mobile boarding passes, mobile check-in for hotels and airlines), I believe some of the strongest relationship builders might be providing information about or links to other services that ensure a great journey experience.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the proliferation of online translation tools, from Google translate to my favourite, Word Lens, where you hold up your phone and the app reads a sign for you.

Travellers from emerging markets are often less confident when travelling overseas, and navigating foreign languages can be a concern. A simple translation tool can help them enjoy their experience all the more.

Similarly, travellers from emerging markets often enjoy a little bit of home when they travel. According to The Economist, Chinese tourists seeking home-style cuisine are transforming London’s Chinatown, creating a demand for authentic Chinese food rather than the Westernized versions favoured by Britons.

A mobile app that directs Chinese travellers to local restaurants serving their home cuisine could help take them off the beaten path and give them some great bragging rights back home.

Different content for different cultures

When creating content or tailoring services for emerging-market travellers, it’s important for brands to remember that people use technology for different reasons.

In China, Russia and to a certain extent India, digital engagement is strongly driven by the need for self-expression, so encouraging these travellers to share content and engage through social media can be a great way to connect.

In Tanzania, it’s about connecting and learning, which is pretty similar to Brazil. In neighbouring Uganda, it’s still very much about the basics – so if you want to connect with these travellers, give them lots of facts and useful travel tips before and during their journey.

With usage levels in places like China, Brazil and U.A.E. already matching mature markets (and some even moving ahead), mobile is the key to connecting with emerging market consumers now, and on their own terms. There’s never been a better time to join that technology leap.