Asia has been the world’s economic growth catalyst for the past two decades and has continued to boast high growth, despite the recent economic meltdown in the west. Asia is now home to 3.7 billion consumers and more than half a billion internet users, driving the region into the next phase of an economic and technological era.
The region’s large population bases, from India to China and other fast-growing emerging markets, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, have opened a tremendous opportunity to the world’s producers of consumer goods, from mobile phones to cars. As the wealth continues to flow east, opportunities will open up for marketers. They should experience a large increase in marketing spending and a growing consumer appetite from Asia, fuelled by expanding buying power.
Consumers in Asia are avid inventors and adopters of technology, from consumer electronics to social networking services. Facebook and Friendster, for example, are achieving their highest levels of growth in Asia, with Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines eclipsing other countries for internet traffic and sign-ups.
Even the region’s leaders are getting in on the act and adopting new technology to help engender support. From Chinese premier Hu Jin Tao to Malaysia’s former prime minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, they have grasped Web 2.0 media and have built strong followings on their Face-book pages and personal blogs.
China’s Hu Jin Tao and Malaysia’s Tun Mahathir Mohamad used Facebook in political campaigns
Instant messaging site Twitter offers valuable real-time insights into consumer behaviour
YOUTH CULTURE GOES ONLINE
The popularity of new media is prevalent among the young, who are spending an increasing amount of time on the internet, rather than conventional media streams such as TV (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Media habits: percentage of respondents aged 15 to 25
From a social standpoint, this adoption of new media is having profound effects. Asia is experiencing the phenomenon of people extending their social circles to virtual worlds and social networks. An MTV survey found that in some markets, such as China, Generation Y-ers – those born in the last two decades of the 20th century – had more virtual friends on social networks than real, physical ones (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Number of friends (user ave)
This phenomenon has also sparked a huge spike in online gaming, blogging and social networking sites throughout the region. For example, the top three national audiences for Friendster.com come from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia respectively.
Other portals are hot on Friendster’s heels, such as Facebook and Disney’s www.clubpenguin.com, where children aged six to 14 can create penguin avatars, play games and interact with each other. Club Penguin appeals to South East Asian children because of their affinity to the Disney brand and also because they are emulating adults’ behaviour.
The success of Disney’s Club Penguin website reflects the popularity of western brands in Asia
Asian teens have long had a strong affinity toward western brands; Yahoo, Google, McDonald’s and Starbucks have all been a major influence on Asia’s youth culture. The hunger for foreign brands has been growing rapidly in the past few years, tapping into the most populous region in the world and mainly driven by western influence.
A large proportion of Asia’s youth blog daily, many of them spending more than four hours per day managing, writing, and/or reading blogs (Figure 3). Blogging is a relatively new medium through which Asians can express themselves to the world. Historically, many Asian countries have been closed in terms of information dissemination from the west, but this has changed dramatically in recent years, with markets opening up and technology providing access to international news and Web 2.0 media.
Figure 3: % of youth blogging daily
It is almost impossible now to censor the internet, or to filter out the online thoughts and conversations from Asia’s consumers, whether the topic is Tibet, democracy, or Burmese opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi. Asians are becoming more vocal about their views, which technology has enabled them to share.
Blogging offers an immediacy not seen in other communication channels and political motivations have the potential to be a powerful influence.
In Malaysia, 15% are blogging daily; in Singapore the figure is 16%, and this rises to 23% in Taiwan, although China has the highest proportion of bloggers in Asia, with 23% of young respondents blogging every day.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE READ BLOGS
Even if people aren’t writing their own blogs, they are reading them. Four out of five respondents read blogs, with those in China and Taiwan reading the most. Bloggers are 45% more likely to read someone else’s blogs than non-bloggers.
In developing markets, such as Malaysia and Singapore, blogging is not seen as a male-dominated medium and bloggers are relatively evenly balanced between the sexes – more so than in Australia, for example, where 62% of bloggers are men. In fact, in some Asian markets, females surpass males in internet use, as well as online gaming. This is a positive trend whereby women are becoming empowered with technology and have as much, or even more, control of what they are doing online than men.
The research shows that 65% of bloggers have one year or less of experience, although Singapore has more veterans, with 17% blogging for three years or more. As with any mass medium, it takes a tipping point to shift the balance and create critical mass. With Asia’s fascination with technology, this shift can occur extremely quickly.
Other factors that have driven the increase in blogging are rapidly falling broadband and PC costs, increased coverage and localised tools becoming widely available. So the sudden take-off of blogging is the result of a combination of macro and micro economic factors.
Bloggers typically post new material about three times a week, although among Indians this is higher, at more than five times a week on average. Text is the most likely material to be posted (88%), followed by photos (76%).
In Singapore, there is a greater prevalence for posting videos than in other countries. In some cases, more advanced blogging formats, such as animation and interactive devices, are being used.
Three out of four bloggers across the region cited expressing themselves creatively as a major reason to blog. There is a fascination with being able to share one’s experience with others, something that was very much oppressed without such media. Personal experiences are the most natural thing the masses can talk about. Female bloggers are more likely to blog to document their personal experiences.
Respondents cited life and personal experience as the main subject for blogs (62%), with entertainment and particular hobbies running a very distant second, at 8%. Technology ranked third and was mentioned by most Indians, but by none of the Singaporeans.
Such statistics underline the fact that Asian consumers have embraced blogging and social networking in a large and advanced way.
The power of blogging in Asia has also paved the way for freedom of speech and drawn a wide range of people into democratic debate. Bloggers played an important role in providing communication during the recent Cambodian riots and had an integral role in shifting the balance of power in Malaysia’s elections.
More recently, they provided the most up-to-date reports from hostages in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. This was the first time the power of real-time knowledge and experience-sharing had been experienced on such a level throughout the world.
CHALLENGES TO ONLINE FREEDOM
However, freedom of speech, as well as the verification of information discussed, has also been questioned. Bloggers often run the risk of antagonising the authorities. Prominent bloggers in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and China have been targeted, to the dismay of many who promote the medium as a conduit for free speech and human rights. But from a non-political viewpoint, the upsides of blogging still outweigh the downsides.
Having recently started to blog more frequently, writing more structured columns about brands, research and the Asian consumer, I have found that the intrinsic value in sharing thoughts, when professionally and impartially written, provides a fresh flow of innovation and ideas, as well as an interactive and dynamic stream of discussion, compared with a traditional one-way approach, such as podcasting.
There is huge potential for blogs to be used for marketing purposes when brands and dispositions are mined to develop a pattern of behaviour.
Companies such as Technorati and Intelliseek (which has been acquired by Nielsen) invested in ‘text mining’ early in the game. The ability to text-mine conversations, capturing brands and what is being discussed around them, has provided a vast opportunity for providing insights into online behaviour.
More recent web-monitoring tools can even simulate trends based on a combination of keywords, using algorithms to recreate consumers’ moods – a very powerful research tool in mapping out the ‘desire-to-purchase’ cycle.
I have also been exploring Twitter, a wonderful social networking site (SNS) that allows people to share real-time thoughts, updates and happenings, in less than 140 words, with their ‘following’.
In research terms, this could unlock the ability to study and understand consumers as they are exposed to brands throughout the day, in real time, and to understand the consumption habits, location tracking and overall behaviour of consumers on the move.
TRACKING THE BUZZ AROUND BRANDS
Invoke Media has launched an account management system that allows marketers to schedule tweets – messages sent via Twitter – track their campaign progress and keep track of multiple accounts. Companies using Twitter to track buzz about their brand include Starbucks and Amazon.
We have now moved from the more passive forms of media – television and radio – into the digital age, which allows us to interact, respond and collaborate on the move.
The ability to target and follow groups of consumers, while also being able to track individuals via their mobiles, makes an even more compelling reason to use these media and tools for research purposes. Our industry should keep a very close watch on services that allow us to track consumers.
Three findings from the research are most relevant to us as marketers. First, by blogging and using social networking services, consumers are tapping into an elevated sensation that comes from reaching out and feeling part of something bigger than themselves. Media such as blogs and SNS sites allow for a rich platform to convey one’s daily experiences and viewpoints.
Second, consumers are now exposed to so many brands each day that there is a conflict between brand adoption and over-exposure.
Finally, the intermediaries in the research supply chain are being removed; using a variety of new media, Asian consumers are communicating, reviewing and commenting on brands, products and services.
Another important factor in today’s world is the use of new electronic devices and features. Singapore leads the world in ownership of digital cameras, as well as mobile phones with features such as MP3, internet browsers and 3G.
THE MOST COVETED DEVICES
IPhone had the lowest penetration of the gadgets surveyed, at 10%, although 45% of respondents said they wanted to buy one. Vietnamese consumers showed the keenest interest in the iPhone (62%), followed by Indonesia (61%) and the Philippines. Other coveted Apple products include the Video iPod and iPod Nano.
In terms of the next wave of two-way interactive connection with consumers, the mobile is seen as the next big thing. This is because it has the ability to interact and obtain real-time, location-based insights from consumers.
On average, more than 90% of respondents have SMS functions on their main mobile phone, with Singapore leading in the region in terms of functions available on their phones.
Asia’s advancement in the area of media and research 2.0 has also forced us to think about new and creative means of obtaining rich and relevant insights, be it via quantitative, qualitative, longitudinal or latitudinal research.
The amalgamation of conventional research and research 2.0 methods will continue to evolve, while the consumer will also continue to fascinate marketers. This is what keeps our lives interesting.
Bob Chua is chief executive of Pulse Group, which operates Asia’s largest online community of research respondents and provides research services to agencies globally. He lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.