THE release of this year's Internet Access in South Africa report by World Wide Worx makes it clear the local online population has moved past the point of viewing the internet as a distraction. Online users form a distinct market requiring strategic business focus. Business leaders should be asking how this market differs from the offline market and what unique growth opportunities it presents.

Recent research into digital penetration among the lowest living standards measures reveals how a single online connection is shared by an entire low-income community via a single human intermediary. Here, growth in connectivity is being driven, in part, by the lowered cost of broadband but primarily through mobile connectivity.

Among the websites tracked by Native, mobile access to the main websites has trebled year on year since 2009. We estimate that by the end of this year about 13% of access to websites will be via a mobile device, meaning mobile sites are becoming redundant as users look for the full web experience on their more capable handsets.

Businesses should be asking what kind of products or experiences they need to create to capture the attention or build relationships with this rapidly growing market sector.

In advanced economies, the internet has just made what was already available more convenient. However, in developing economies it is introducing products and services to people for the first time. This has huge implications for businesses and marketers; opportunities are opening up to provide new services to people in a totally uncompetitive space. From a marketing point of view, the opportunity is for companies to build relationships with customers by bringing them previously unavailable services.

Access to services or products too complex or expensive in their immediate offline environment will also attract users. Online travel aggregators, government services and medical information services are great examples of how communication platforms linking people to services enable a smoother conversation within these service sectors.

T here are also opportunities for existing brands to forge deeper relationships with their customers. Brands have a clear opportunity to sway opinion by providing services that are not necessarily the core focus of their business but are a realisation of their brand promise. Nike has embraced this thinking in its app strategy. A great example with a corporate social investment slant is AT&T's participation in the creation of the National Hub for Learning Through Video Games.

Businesses have an internet presence whether they like it or not. There's enough content being posted to the internet about them, their products and their services for people to form an opinion without companies actively participating in the creation of this content. Fighting this by dealing with posted content on an individual basis, as companies tend to do with social media, is not the way forward. Building a strong, transparent foundation of what your brand stands for, which customers can relate to, is a more intelligent approach, with the advantage of potentially creating brand champions who will help sell your product but, more importantly, help defend the brand in hard times.

. Petra is chief strategist at Native digital agency.