Digital in APAC 2016

Thought Leadership
Simon Kemp

Continuing our ongoing series of data and trends reports, We Are Social’s latest report into all things digital, social and mobile in Asia-Pacific shows that there has been remarkable growth in the use of connected media and devices over the past 18 months.

Since our last APAC report in March last year, the reported number of internet users has jumped 27%, while the number of people using social media from mobile devices is up a staggering 50%. This compares to average global growth of 19% and 39% respectively for the same measures.

Here are the headline numbers for digital connectivity in APAC:


For context, APAC is now home to more than half of the world’s internet users, but based on share of population, the region still lags on all of our connectivity measures except for mobile social media use:

Despite this lag though, the acceleration in mobile adoption around the region is cause for optimism, especially in APAC’s more ‘developing’ economies. However, as we’ll see below, there are still some areas for concern, especially when it comes to equality of access.

It’s also worth noting that much of the growth in digital use around APAC over recent months has been driven by a handful of countries, so it’s worth digging into the individual data points for context and insight.

You can read the full report for free in the SlideShare embed above, or continue reading below for some richer context behind the numbers.

If you’re looking to make better sense of all this data, please join We Are Social’s Simon Kemp for a deep-dive into the key trends that will determine social media success for brands over the coming 12-18 months on Hootsuite’s webinar this Wednesday, 7th September – sign up for free here:

Global Update

Just before we dig into the APAC-specific numbers, it’s worth taking a look at how global connectivity has evolved since our huge Digital in 2016 report back in January:

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According to the latest figures, almost half of the world’s population – regardless of age – now has access to the internet. Internet access is still unevenly distributed around the world though, with penetration figures for Africa and South Asia still languishing at less than one-third of their respective region’s populations.


Nearly two-thirds of the planet’s population now has a mobile phone though, with the latest data from Ericsson suggesting that more than half of the handsets in use around the world – 55% – are now smartphones.

Much of this shift has been driven by improved economies of scale in the handset market, with the cost of internet-ready devices falling significantly in recent months. One manufacturer in India has even offered a basic smartphone model for as little as US$3.50, albeit as part of a controversial promotional offer.

With this increase in the penetration of smartphones, it’s likely that we’ll see internet use continue to accelerate in developing economies over the coming months, although the internet landscape will need to evolve quickly to match a shift in user experience characterised by smaller screens and slower connections than we were used to in the ‘laptop age’.


The cost and speed of data (i.e. access) remain core barriers to the growth of internet use in many parts of the world though, despite efforts from governments and companies like Google and Facebook to bring better access to everyone on the planet. These initiatives have not always been welcomed though – even in the areas that would benefit most from improved internet access – so we may not see universal internet access even within the next decade.

Where internet adoption is increasing, though, it’s often driven by a desire to connect with other people. Well over one-third of the world’s population now uses social media each month, with global penetration hitting 36% according to the latest available data.

The social media landscape is evolving quickly too; Facebook still dominates – and continues to grow – but the remaining spots in the top 5 of our latest platform rankings are held by mobile messenger services:


As we’ve seen consistently over recent reports, this increase in mobile social media use is delivering the most impressive growth stories; global penetration of mobile social media is up 24% (relative) since January this year, and up 39% (relative) since our last APAC report in March 2015.

It’s worth noting that many of the world’s top mobile social media platforms still don’t break out user numbers by country though, so it’s difficult to map trends at a regional or local level with any enduring confidence.

Internet Use in APAC

The latest data suggest that internet usage in APAC has jumped by 27% since our last report in March 2015, with regional penetration now sitting at 44%:


Internet penetration is above 75% in 9 of the 30 countries in this year’s report, but 5 nations still register access levels below 25%, with basic access to the worldwide web still all but blocked in North Korea:


As always, it’s worth noting that increases in the reported number of internet users may be the result of improved data collection and reporting, rather than the result of a sudden change in the number of people using the internet over the past 18 months.

However, it’s clear that many people around APAC are still discovering the internet for the first time every day, often thanks to improved mobile connectivity and more affordable connected devices such as smartphones.

For example, the internet was all but blocked in Myanmar when we ran our first report on the country just under 5 years ago, when barely 0.23% of the country’s population had access. Fast forward to today though, and things are looking much more encouraging in this rapidly developing economy: internet penetration is rapidly approaching 25%, with access up 354% (relative) since our most recent report in March 2015, and up a staggering 9,500% since our report in December 2011, less than 5 years ago.

What’s more, the numbers reported for Myanmar are likely to be significantly lower than actual usage rates due to a lag in collection and reporting, so we’re confident that the ‘real’ user numbers are already significantly higher than those we’re citing in today’s report.

The real standout story in internet growth belongs to Timor-Leste though, where internet usage has leapt by almost 2,500% since March 2015. Almost all of this growth can be attributed to improved mobile internet access, which has been driven in large part by bundled data packages (including free or very cheap Facebook access) offered by the country’s telco operators.


India, North Korea and Papua New Guinea also saw impressive growth in internet users, although it’s worth noting that true ‘internet’ use in North Korea is likely restricted to foreign nationals in the country.

However, Pakistan continues to suffer from low levels of internet usage, with the country’s 34 million internet users (18% penetration) registering an increase of less than 20% since our last report 18 months ago.

Social Media Use in APAC

Asia-Pacific’s love affair with social media continues, with penetration levels up an impressive 31% since our last APAC report in March 2015, to reach region-wide penetration of 35% as of September 2016:


It’s worth noting that part of this growth is down to more timely reporting of monthly active user (MAU) figures for LINE in Japan and Kakaotalk in South Korea by these platforms’ respective owners, but the growth of WeChat – up 59% in the past 18 months – has also helped fuel the overall increase:


We’ve opted not to report growth figures for Japan and South Korea in this year’s report, because the figures we reported back in March 2015 were for Facebook – rather than the figures for LINE and Kakaotalk that we’ve used in this year’s report – so we can’t offer like-for-like comparisons.

We’ve also decided not to report growth figures for Singapore due to a suspected discrepancy in the local data provided by Facebook back in March 2015, when the number of MAUs the platform reported for Singapore exceeded the total number of people living in the country.

On that note, finding reliable usage and trend numbers continues to be a challenge for marketers in APAC (which is one of the reasons we’re pleased to offer these reports for free). In particular, social media data is patchy once we get down to individual country levels, with Facebook the only platform to provide meaningful MAU numbers on a regular basis for each country in the region.

However, some data that we have seen suggests that LINE is close to overtaking Facebook in terms of MAUs in both Thailand and Taiwan; sadly, LINE has consistently declined our requests for further information that would help clarify this issue though, so we can’t report whether this has already happened.

Based on the available data though, South Korea now tops the APAC league table in terms of social media penetration at an impressive 82% of total population, with Taiwan, The Maldives and Brunei all exceeding 70%.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, social media use remains disappointingly low throughout South Asia, with Nepal registering the highest penetration level in the region at just 23%:


One potential reason why social media use remains so low in South Asia is the exceptional disparity in access between men and women. On average, women account for 38% of Facebook’s users around APAC – a figure that is already lower than it should be – but in India, women account for just 24% of the country’s users. In Bangladesh that figure is just 23%, and in Pakistan, it’s even lower, at barely 22%:


This iniquity of access between men and women may explain part of the reason why digital connectivity levels are so low across South Asia, but there’s no obvious reason for the imbalance; Facebook reports its user figures based on active user accounts, not devices used, so their data is unlikely to be skewed by issues such as shared computers or mobile handsets. As a result, we can only assume that too few women have access to social media in these countries.

This is symptomatic of one of the more worrying trends that we’ve been tracking in our reports over the past 5 years, and the latest data suggest that little has been done to address this digital imbalance between the genders. However, it’s clear that digital connectivity levels in South Asia will continue to under-perform compared to the rest of the world until more women have access to the internet.

Mobile Use in APAC

Low levels of mobile penetration impact South Asia’s overall digital connectivity too, although North Korea and Papua New Guinea registered the lowest levels of mobile connectivity in APAC in the latest data from GSMA Intelligence.


Macau continues to hold one of the highest rankings in the world in terms of mobile connectivity, with the latest data indicating an average of more than 3 connections per head of population. Connectivity rates in Cambodia are also relatively high; our understanding is that this has been driven in large part by consumers taking advantage of network-exclusive deals, leading to many people signing up for two or more telco operators at any given time (a trend which has also led to the widespread popularity of multi-SIM handsets in the country).


As with the internet figures though, the latest rankings don’t tell the full story; for example, Myanmar still struggles at the bottom end of the regional league table for mobile connectivity, but today’s 68% penetration is astounding when we consider that the same figure in 2011 was just 2%.


Perhaps surprisingly though, Laos – which still sits in the bottom 5 of the regional rankings – registered the greatest drop in mobile connections since our report in March 2015, with the total number of active connections down almost 30%. This likely represents a consolidation of the services used by individuals though, and does not indicate a drop in the total number of unique users in the country.

Mobile Social Media Use in APAC

As we noted in the global overview above, mobile social media continues to be the most impressive story when it comes to the growth in digital connectivity, with APAC user figures up a whopping 50% since our March 2015 report on the region.


Usage is still unevenly distributed though, with South Asian nations occupying the majority of the lower penetration rankings:


There are a couple of surprises when it comes to the speed of growth in mobile social usage, however. Notably, and despite already being home to one-third of the world’s mobile social media users, China continues to register impressive growth in mobile social media usage, with the latest data suggest growth of almost 60% since our last report just 18 months ago:


While Facebook dominates the social media landscape everywhere in Asia except China, Japan, and South Korea, it’s worth noting that the mobile messenger landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented around the region:

It’s also worth highlighting that many people in APAC use a combination of messenger platforms on a regular basis, including the universally popular WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. However, it’s tough to find individual country data for these apps, so when we’re working with clients around the region, we often rely on proxy data such as app installs to get a sense of what’s popular in each country. If you’re looking for something similar, this great resource from SimilarWeb may help.

Individual Country Data

We’ve included snapshots of the latest data for 30 countries around the region in this year’s report:


You can find all of this data presented in our handy infographic format in the full report, ready to screen-grab and paste direct into your own presentations and social media content. You can read the full report on SlideShare, or download it direct by clicking here.

In the meantime though, here’s the country snapshot for India to whet your appetite:

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* These figures are derived from the latest reported monthly active user figures for the most active (popular) social media platform in each country. Actual numbers for total social media usage are likely to be higher than these figures, but we err on the side of caution to avoid double-counting people using multiple social media platforms.

** Note that this figure represents mobile connections, not unique users.