The indelible scars of digital evolution
Digital Evolution


Like the tumultuous marks that a glacier leaves as it transcends a landmass, the evolutionary progress of digital in a market also leave indelible scars that define it.

It is not sufficient to simply describe consumer behaviour: as marketers we have to understand “why” people behave how they do. Seek the deep-rooted cultural and visceral truths – these are the defining marks through which communications can build an “edge”.

For me there are three perspectives that I have learnt in Asia – that I consider when looking for deep insights.

The first one became clear to me when I was developing strategies in Philippines and Indonesia.  Up to that time I had viewed “the internet” as an unbounded world of which I only experience a fraction. English content actually accounts for 56.6% of all of the internet content but only 25% of its speakers; Chinese contributes 4.5% of the content but 24% of its citizens. If you speak Bengali (200m), Javanese (135m) or Hindi (200m) your internet is less than 0.1% of the total internet. It’s allure is different. It’s promise is different. Its role is different. Its value is different. The internet is finite. It is familiar. What brands can offer consumers, and what consumers view as valuable is radically different.

The second perspective relates to social media and how it became the first experience of the internet for most of Asia. Facebook began spreading across the region with incredible speed in 2009. Developing markets had generally been stuck in a vicious cycle of delivering poor digital experiences: poor quality of local websites, poor loading time, little media money invested online, and therefore consumer engagement remained pretty low.

Then along came Facebook – connecting people to everyone who they care about. In highly “social” societies across Asia this was incredible. One by one the local networks like Orkut, Cyworld, Friendster and Wretch fell to Facebook. And finally brands had a platform from which they could engage their consumers. Brands often don’t bother building a website; they just built a Facebook presence. The key point to observe here is that in world of relatively low level engagement on most local language websites, social media – in general meaning Facebook, but Weibo in China – is disproportionately central to the internet experience. For many consumers in markets with low quality content, Facebook is the internet.

But there’s a deeper insight about Asians and social media –they engage with social media with a far deeper embrace than developed markets. The most recent study by Global Web Index on “social engagement” highlights Asian consumers’ highly participative involvement in social activity. Seven of the world’s most socially engaged markets are in Asia –  lead by China and followed by Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Philippines, [Turkey], Malaysia, [Brazil], and Thailand; [Argentina is tenth]. Consumers in China are twice as likely as those in the US or UK to engage with brands, upload pictures and create social content. Even the older internet users in the 45-60 age group are MORE likely to engage than the most engaged age group of European teenagers.

The third perspective is to understand what the internet represents to people in relation to the broader world. In western markets the internet is often a symbol of “freedom of speech”. In China it clearly doesn’t represent that but nor does it stand for the absence of it. Censorship is not viewed as oppression, but as a game. More importantly, for the young people in a one-child family the Internet stands for the ability to connect with people beyond one’s narrow circle – it is liberation – an escape to reality; for mothers, post melamine scandal, it stands for the ability to go online to buy baby milk from abroad; for older people it stands for China’s progress – and the ability to hold the government to account.

Digital’s evolution has emancipated people in many different ways. An in each market its reality is different. Its promise is different. Its role is different. Its value is different. Understanding the value it holds to someone is key to developing a deeper relationship with them.

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