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Experts on ‘the crazy explosion of digital data in APAC’ (and its massive complexity)


By Sam Anderson | Network Editor

March 15, 2023 | 8 min read

At a recent roundtable in Singapore, The Drum Network gathered a trio of the region’s smartest data minds to take stock of rapidly developing capabilities in the region – and how marketers can keep up.

A neon-lit nighttime view of Singapore's iconic marina

How are data experts managing the hugely complex data situation in APAC? / Joshua Ang via Unsplash

To make sweeping statements about the data landscape in APAC would not be smart. For one thing, it’s an area where things are moving very quickly. For another, it’s a massively heterodox region, where platforms, audiences, rules and customs vary hugely. This latter point is not unique to the data space – as Pardeep Kainth of Invnt APAC puts it matter-of-factly: “When multinational brands take a copy-and-paste marketing approach to Asia, they don’t do very well”.

Kainth said so at a recent meeting of The Drum Network’s APAC chapter, where a roundtable of three data experts from the region was set the task of better understanding this landscape.

A third factor is what Georgina Wong, lead consultant at M&C Saatchi’s data consultancy Fluency, calls the “crazy explosion of digital in Asia”. The region, she says, is “way ahead of the West in terms of how many ambient data signals are being sent from machine to machine and person to person.”

That might sound like a blessing, but there’s always the risk of too much of a good thing. “The more data we get, the more opportunity we have, but the more complex environment is. In one sense, [the market] is mature in the sense of how much data there is. But the other question is quality, and our ability to actually get that data, collect it and analyze it in a meaningful way.

“We look at social platforms across the region, China-specific ones, and things that are more local, and we’ve struggled to find tools that are as competitive as in the West for measuring social media and listening in this region… We just don’t have the same power with Asian platforms.”

There, the third difficulty (complexity) shades into a fourth: protectionism and access. China’s unique selection of social apps, including the instant messaging service WeChat and the shopping app, known as ‘Little Red Book’, ‘Red’ and ‘Xiaohongshu’, have gained a reputation for being rather closed-off from a data point-of-view. That’s not because the data isn’t there; far from it. As Veron Dai, regional data and consultancy director at agency Assembly, puts it, “The big players basically know everything about you,” but, “as media agencies, the data that is open to you (or to the public) is very limited compared to in the Western world, generally… we can only see what the platform wants us to see – not to mention end-to-end tracking, and tracking across different platforms. That’s super difficult”.

A similar point goes for APAC’s other heterodox markets – Japan and Korea, say, also bring their own platforms and challenges. “They’re all their own walled gardens,” says Dai.

So: there’s no shortage of data flowing through the APAC region and no shortage of people and tools to understand it. But data heads outside the region do not need to rush to be jealous: it can be hard to get at and to synthesize.

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Diversity, culture and language: it’s all data

Depicting an arms race of sorts, our panel describes a response to this complex array of silos and walled gardens through a cohesive system to triangulate data from diverse sources. “The diversity angle really matters,” says Wong. “We try and look at every single platform and angle we can. We don't just focus on social; we might look at search data; we might look at forums; we might look at news and press. The goal when you don't have one view on the data is to diversify and make sure that you're covering all bases to get a full 360-degree view of the story”. Kainth agrees, saying that “every company will have their own version” of this diversification strategy in the region.

In this context, the data profession cannot be walled off in its own ivory tower (or walled garden). Instead – in this diverse region and presumably, by extrapolation, other regions too – a sensitivity to linguistic and cultural differences is essential. “Language and culture are really key in this region,” says Wong. Even on a practical level, “for us to analyze everything, we need to run AI and translation on it, building models that can read all these different languages (and the sentiment and emotions behind them) is a big task”.

The same goes for cultural nuances, like relationships with social media. “In Asia, social media culture is very different… People don’t want to talk about things openly in public, so they hold back.” One upshot is that, often, engagement will be lower in APAC than (say) the US – but impressions may be higher.

The next big thing?

In attempting to chart this complicated demography, Kainth argues that one important factor is that much of the region is a “mobile-first economy, home to a hugely youthful population, and technology-driven… many economies in the APAC region are developing, meaning that most consumers ‘missed’ the desktop age of the internet, and had their first experience of surfing the web through a smartphone”.

It’s that pervasiveness of mobile-first users that is fueling the strategic growth of the Chinese apps mentioned above, the region’s booming social commerce and live shopping industries, and data-hungry fast fashion DTC brands like Shein that are taking on the world. But onlookers shouldn’t be tricked into thinking that the latter owns the keys to the future. As Wong says, “this is just fast fashion trying to make a quick buck – they’re not changing the world but just embedding into new innovations and data to make a lot of money. That’s great for them. The interesting part is: will they last?”

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