iMedia Agency Summit: Social Roundtable

Simon Kemp


Day Two of the iMedia Agency Summit kicked off with a series of roundtables, and I hosted a great discussion on “Demystifying The Complexities of Social in a Diverse Region”.

I was joined by delegates from Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan and the UK, each of whom highlighted the specific nuances of the social media landscape and audience behaviours on their respective markets.

Key Take-Aways

  1. Brands can’t just adapt global campaigns for social in Asia; the cultural context means we need a dedicated approach for local needs.
  2. Industry growth and improved ROI requires greater involvement from senior marketers within client organisations and agencies.
  3. Listening technologies still don’t offer a universal solution across the region, and this is a major barrier to improved success.
  4. Marketers need to think more about how to deliver meaningful social value, instead of antisocial product spam.
  5. We need to build social communities that people find welcoming and rewarding, and not egocentric brand fan clubs.

In-Depth Conversation Review

We started the roundtable by discussing the diversity of technologies and platforms around the region. Facebook and Twitter are still the dominant networks in markets like Malaysia and Singapore, but we’re seeing increased use of new platforms and services such as WeChat, Line and KakaoTalk, especially in Northern Asia.

However, while audiences have jumped on these platforms at a startling pace, Miki from Comnico suggested that many brands in Japan still struggle to use these platforms for marketing, especially where the interactions are more personal, private and contextual. She stressed that large-scale social media marketing in Japan is still dominated by Facebook and Twitter, whom she feels are better set up to cater to the needs of big brands.

Hanh from VietBuzzAd stressed the continued importance of forums in Vietnam’s social media ecosystem, pointing out that forum seeding and paid interactions still form a large part of many Vietnamese brands’ investments in social. Contrary to Miki’s experiences though, Hanh says that brands in Vietnam are already exploring how to use chat apps for marketing, and she’s been involved in activities for a fast-food chain where chat apps played a central part of communications. She believes that the mobile nature of these apps makes them ideal for marketers who want to connect with Vietnam’s permanently mobile youth.

This kicked off questions around the kinds of content brands are using in different channels, and Lola from Tribal in Malaysia pointed out the difficulties in managing consistent brand delivery across the region, whilst also catering to local cultural and linguistic nuances. This was a theme we discussed at the iMedia Brand Summit a few months back too, and it continues to challenge both agency and client-side marketers alike.

One thing all participants agreed on, however, was the need to develop content specifically for Asian audiences. Simply translating a global campaign into Asian languages rarely delivers meaningful audience engagement, because the ways Asian audiences engage around content are different. Asian audiences can be more reserved in the way they interact with content in social media, so brands need to make extra effort to ensure the content is tailored to specific audience needs and behaviour.

This segued into a conversation about how difficult it is to measure success across different markets. The cultural dimensions of engagement mean that it’s very tough for brands to benchmark and compare success metrics across markets like the Philippines, whose audiences are culturally more socially gregarious, and those in, say, Japan, whose audiences are often more reserved.

Kate from Profero said that these differences really struck her as a recent arrival to Asia; she wasn’t prepared for the diversity of platforms and technologies around the region, and the challenges this diversity causes. She noted that marketers in the West are used to using a single tool that can collect comparable data across markets – often in different languages – but that this was currently still unfeasible in Asia, where no single social listening tool covers all of the top languages.

This not only makes marketers’ jobs more difficult, it also makes it more difficult to compare the successes of activities across markets. As a result, marketers in Asia spend lots of time simply collecting data, rather than analysing it, and as a consequence struggle to gain the same momentum as their Western counterparts. This compounds the challenges marketers face when trying to develop regional activities, as it’s much more difficult to find common insights to inform strategy.

The difference here isn’t one of skills though; rather, it’s often about access to reliable tools and technology that would allow marketers in Asia to optimise activities more efficiently, and report their successes more accurately.

Many complexities stem from differences in how people around the region do business too; the challenges we face are not just technological, but also relate to the ways marketers approach things in their individual business cultures. Lola pointed out that differences in business culture can make it tougher to gain traction with regional clients too, so it’s imperative that agencies build strong relationships with senior marketers.

She suggested that social media doesn’t always get enough senior attention within larger agencies, and that by making it the domain of junior teams, social media would continue to remain a novelty, and would always struggle to gain the backing that it needs. She stressed that youthful enthusiasm had huge value, but agencies also need people with broader experience and an understanding of business to work on social activities.

In particular, senior marketers continue to worry about negative comments and ‘trolling’, and this is particularly important in Asia where senior marketers have an elevated need to ‘manage face’. This often makes it more difficult for senior managers in Asia to take big risks, and as a result, social media remains a marginal activity in traditional industries like Banking and professional services.

Hanh noted that this is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult for agencies to find a good remuneration model. She noted that clients are used to paying for people’s time when it comes to producing social content (e.g. images), but they don’t really understand the value of activities such as community management, so don’t want to pay for them. Consequently, many agencies in Vietnam have been including these for little or no cost, which has further devalued them in clients’ eyes.

Miki said the situation in Japan was equally tricky for two reasons: firstly, because too many of the people working in social media are very junior, and secondly, because very few senior marketers use any form of social media in their personal or professional lives. She said that even when clients were keen to get involved in social media, it was more as a result of looking at what their competitors were doing, rather than because they saw a unique opportunity for their own brands.

This leads to a lot of copying between brands. The resulting lack of differentiation results in much lower engagement, creating a vicious cycle where senior marketers don’t see any meaningful value in social media. Miki noted that this problem is particularly prevalent in Japan, where few people speak English well enough to be able to benchmark what brands in other countries are doing, and as a result, Japanese social marketing has become a bit of an echo chamber.

Lola said things are different in Malaysia, where clients are more comfortable paying for strategy and listening, although on-going community management is far from being an attractive, scalable opportunity despite its potential to add value to clients’ brands.

Cristel from OMG noted that Filipinos are generally highly social anyway, and are much more likely to click ‘Like’ or follow brands than people in other cultures. As a result, social media seems to work well for many brands locally, and marketers are getting increasingly involved. Social media is popular across the population, but when it comes to people in lower socio-economic groups, social media activity is driven by interactions with celebrities and staying in touch with family members who are working overseas.

Interestingly, however, the majority of the 93% of internet users in the Philippines who already use Facebook, most still access predominantly through desktops due to the cost and patchy reliability of mobile data. This means that internet cafes are still very important around the country, although home internet access is on the increase.

We then got into a heated conversation about the need for brands to add distinct value in social media. We agreed that too many brands are still filling in content calendars, rather than understanding how the brand can actively offer entertainment, information and education to its audiences through social activities. Kate made the important distinction between ‘Liking’ a brand page, which is a one-off, versus ‘Liking’ individual content and posts, which is what brands need to strive for. If content doesn’t continue to offer value, people will quickly ignore it. In particular, as an industry, we need to take a stand on unscrupulous marketers, and the proliferation of spam.

Social media’s role in political issues is also causing concerns for marketers around the region, especially in areas like China and Vietnam where people are turning to social channels for more ‘activist’ activities. Political beliefs aside, this makes the social environment more tricky for marketers to navigate, and fears that certain (or even all) channels may be blocked continue to worry brands and agencies across the region. We agreed that open social media were preferable to highly regulated platforms, but that, just like in offline communities, some degree of protection and moderation was needed to ensure people’s safety and a welcoming environment for everyone.

In a similar way, the wide array of religious beliefs around the region also adds to the complexity for marketers. For example, if a brand wants to make a social media app for a particular religious festival, laws and cultural sensitivity may require them to create such an app for all relevant religious festivals. Marketers need to show a high degree of social, cultural and religious sensitivity when engaging with Asia’s multi-ethnic audiences.

However, we also agreed that traditional media are often a large part of the problem, sensationalising stories about social media, and focusing heavily on the negative aspects of social media behaviour. Sadly, this sensationalism often extends to the marketing trade press too, so it’s important for agencies to offer meaningful contributions to stories that help to mitigate the issues.

Cristel then made the point that too many brands focus on sales and trade, and they’re missing the ‘engaging heart’ of social. If marketers are not matching cultural context, they’re going to struggle to engage people. She contested that audiences go to social media to have a conversation with their peers about the things they care about – not to be sold products – so marketers need to offer people something to connect around that adds social value.

Hanh noted that many marketers resort to competitions for this though, which again contributed to the erosion of social value. She and Cristel both said this has led to the rise of ‘professional competition entrants’ in their markets, and sometimes whole families make a living by entering social competitions and voting for each other in order to win. Marketers and audiences alike are increasingly frustrated about this, and it’s rendering competitions less and less effective.

Cristel brought the roundtable to a fitting conclusion by noting that brands are still stuck in conversations about quantity, but the real opportunity is one of quality. Too many marketers are envious of their competitors’ “vanity scores” (e.g. Facebook Page Likes), but they’re not looking at whether the size of the community actually delivers any value. As an industry, we need to stop focusing on ‘lowest common denominator activities’ (e.g. “like this post if…”) that dilute the quality of engagement and make social media marketing far too antisocial.

If you’re looking for more insights into the diversities of social media around Asia, be sure to check out our Social, Digital and Mobile series of reports.