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Social skills: what can the west can learn from Asia's social media subculture?

By Wayne Arnold, global CEO

February 19, 2015 | 6 min read

Having worked in and out of south-east Asia for more than a decade, Wayne Arnold, CEO of Lowe Profero and chair of the Marketing Society for south-east Asia, knows a thing or two about the opportunities and challenges of doing business in this vast, sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal and never boring part of the world. Here he tackles the hottest and most localised topic in the region at the moment – the rise and rise of social media.

As anyone who has travelled even briefly within south-east Asia will recognise, this ancient and proud continent has embraced mobile collectively to its heart.

Smartphones and their ability to connect simply and cost effectively to the web, bypassing expensive and often unobtainable fixed line internet, has transformed commerce, entertainment and communication across the region.

And in the kingdom of mobile, social media is king.

Across Asia, social media is everywhere, embedded seamlessly into so many lives in ways that are certainly interesting, if not sometimes a little confusing.

Exciting as all this is, brands looking to harness the power of social in the region shouldn’t underestimate the complexities that lie beneath the surface.

For starters, paradoxically south-east Asia has some of the most and least social nations in the world. Take Indonesia for example; the island nation has the world’s fourth largest population of Facebook users, generating a staggering 15 per cent of the world’s tweets.

By contrast, however, internet access in Myanmar remains low, unstable and unaffordable, and at the time of writing less than one per cent of a population of over 60 million were online.

In addition, while the rest of the planet gorges on Facebook and Twitter, Asia has its own and very distinct subculture of social media.

That’s not to say Facebook and Twitter are not still huge in many Asian markets. It might be hard to believe, but even Yahoo is still a major player in Japan. But for every western platform there is a ‘Silicon Dragon’ equivalent, often doing it quicker, faster and more locally relevant than its Silicon Valley partner.

Take Baidu, the Google of China, scooping an enviable $2.2bn revenue in Q3 of 2014 alone from 500m monthly searches. Baidu is now the globe’s fourth most popular search engine.

Not bad considering it is only really used in one market, albeit an admittedly big one. Baidu’s share of China’s online searches rose to 70 per cent last quarter from 64 per cent the previous quarter, while Google’s share fell to 24 per cent. At first glance it may seem that local players like Baidu are mere replicas of their western counterparts.

But localisation and a mobile first mentally has created something more than a mere slavish copy of an established technology and, importantly, social platforms the west should be learning from it. Away from the western influenced platforms you have applications like Line, WeChat and QQ.

These are just some of the social juggernauts you may or may not have heard of, yet they underpin the lives of millions of people in Asia everyday.

And most interestingly, they are all Asian innovations, starting to show the west how to play the social game. So why are these players so important? Launched in Japan in 2011, Line reached a staggering 100 million users within 18 months and 200 million users only six months later.

It became Japan's largest social network in 2013 and in October 2014 it announced 560 million users worldwide. Pretty good for an ‘obscure’ app right? And brands have not been slow to latch onto to the commercial potential, with the WSJ, Wendy’s Burgers and FC Barcelona all getting onboard.

In fact, according to their website, Barcelona recently gained over 10 million followers in one week after launching an account. And then there’s WeChat, with close to 500 million active users and a growing population outside China. Inspired by messaging apps like WhatsApp and Line, WeChat has since evolved into a mega online platform.

Part Facebook, part Instagram, a mobile news platform, mobile wallet and e-commerce store, it is literally the entire web in your pocket.

And it has done all of this development in half the time of a Facebook, Instagram or Amazon. In fact,many online observers have tipped WeChat to be the platform that finally takes Facebook’s crown in many parts of the world.

Next up there’s QQ, the granddaddy of social networks in Asia. Launching in 1999 and conceived around the idea of instant messaging (via a penguin!), with a mind-boggling 829m active accounts and an average of 176.4 million online at any one time, QQ has evolved and is showing that even old dogs can learn new tricks.

Smart thinking behind QQ’s development has seen it launch its own currency, Q Coin, which is rivalling Bitcoin, and it even boasts a hefty second revenue stream in branded QQ penguin merchandise.

What is most impressive about these players, and might actually be the key to their long-term success, is that they are not reliant on advertising.

So while we all reluctantly and patiently skip past those sponsored and suggested posts, many of these local platforms avoid the problem completely.

The reason? Their revenue comes not from advertising but from micro e-commerce plays. Think Candy Crush but for social, maximising gaming, stickers and increasingly payments.

QQ, Line and WeChat are a long way to inventing a new commercial model for social platforms that Facebook and Google could learn from.

Singapore-based Wayne Arnold is the global CEO of Lowe Profero and chairman of the Marketing Society’s south-east Asia division.

He also fronts The Drum’s new video series, Man About Asia, which offers guidance to western companies looking to make an impact in the region. As well as social media and technology, the series delves into topics as broad as geography, creativity and even where to locate talent.

To find out more or to watch the Man About Asia series, go to www.thedrum/ manaboutasia and follow the hashtag #manaboutasia.

This feature first appeared as part of an Asia-focused issue of The Drum, published on 18 February.

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