Digital & Social Media

The Next Big Thing in Apps Is Probably Made in Asia

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Asia has an answer to Facebook and Twitter, Sina Weibo; a rival to Hulu, Viki.com; an alternative to iPhone, Xiaomi; a hot mobile texting and voice communication service, WeChat; and even a fashion-focused Instagram, Clozette.co. All are only about five years old or less, and growing at an unparalleled pace, but always looking over their shoulders for the next big thing in Asia digital to be born.

On this, the most populace of continents where there are an estimated 875 million social media users and mobile penetration eclipses 125 percent in some markets, the pace of communications innovation is in hyper drive. It is the equivalent of the Silicon Valleys and Alleys that sprung up across the United States in the late 1990s that were churning out internet sites like P&G turns out toothpaste—except like everything in Asia there seems to be a lot more.

New channels and apps are appearing regularly across the continent as thousands of fresh university graduates and serial entrepreneurs turn their attention to the Internet with significant support from universities and various governments, and funding from an economic revolution that has already minted at least 122 new billionaires in China alone, according to Forbes.

Entrepreneurship is the ‘new social’, and startups are the rock stars of Asia. Where it took Facebook six years to hit half-billion users in 2010, WeChat, created by Internet giant Tencent Holdings and, strangely enough, Procter & Gamble, was able to surpass 400 million users in just two years.

Geopolitical factors also are reshaping social media and digital communications, particularly in China where individual freedoms, personal privacy and personalization are driving individuals away from mass-oriented platforms, such as Sina Weibo toward more ‘inner circle’ focused options like WeChat. At the same time, discussion forums that make it more difficult to monitor dialogue also own a place in social conversations and connections.

So what does this frenetic pace of entrepreneurism and development mean? For corporations, this independent mindset will create new challenges and opportunities.

Like social itself, consumers are constantly on the move discovering new channels and apps daily, and brands must be more adaptable and committed to delivering communications of higher value and relevancy to target audiences if they want to engage consumers in the current environment. Careful and constant evaluation of trends and behaviors will be important to platform communications strategies, as market crowding will inevitably lead to industry correction or consolidation of platforms through acquisition.

In the mobile messaging apps space, for example, the battle lines are currently being drawn by the likes of Korea-based Naver, the parent company to mobile chat app LINE. It’s committing a seven-figure marketing budget to establish itself in Southeast Asian markets, despite a playing field already crowded by the likes of WeChat, WhatsApp and Kakao Talk, among others. Likewise, micropayments companies Malaysia’s MOL and Singapore’s MIG33 have tapped the tendency among young Asians to express their personalities in digital through virtual goods, as well as established new engagement and transaction models for brands to access.

With Asia smartphone sales up 78 percent year-on-year representing a cumulative US$13.7 billion in handset sales, according to research agency GfK, it’s an opportunity hard to ignore.

Established operators like Singapore-based Singtel have recognized the opportunities this new wave of entrepreneurship provides to diversify its product portfolio and revenue streams. For SingTel, growth is currently coming from its digital business, which experienced 156 percent revenue growth in the last quarter, largely attributed to their investments in mobile ad company Amobee, food recommendation startup HungryGoWhere, and mobile game developer and publisher Yodo1 in mainland China. The company has since set aside US$1.6 billion for further startup acquisitions within the region.

Besides the onslaught of channels and apps, corporations need to be prepared for cultural differences in sharing personal information or social behavior in general. It is not uncommon, for instance, for Indonesian netizens to have frank discussions on social, sharing highly personal information on public sites such as Kaskus.co.id. Chinese consumers have been known to mount mass movements in social media against brands perceived as acting in bad faith. Companies should employ social monitoring and crisis management protocols as an integral part of a holistic digital communications strategy.

There is no question that organizations face a bewildering array of options and a complex, hypercompetitive marketplace as they contemplate Asia’s evolving digital communications space. They can mitigate risk exposure by getting informed market insights, based on real-time monitoring and on-the-ground expertise, to help guide their business and communications strategies. But whatever they do, they must be prepared for a wild ride.