Explosive Growth in Ever-Decreasing Circles

Guest post by Gavin Coombes, president, Edelman Digital Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa.

A version of this post appeared in PRWeek.

Relatively speaking, social media is still so new – Facebook, bear in mind, is just over 10-years-old – that it can be startling to witness the degree of change that can take place in a short span of time. One might assume a new, popular form of communication would grow at a steep but consistent curve.

And one would be very wrong indeed.

Edelman Digital APACMEA’s review of social media usage across Asia Pacific and the Middle East reveals constant shifts in the channels being used, the nature of usage and who is using them. As social media continues to become more and more a part of the fabric of daily life, the pattern of that fabric is forever altering, as can be seen by the following trends:

  1. Where did the kids go? British satirist Charlie Brooker refers to Facebook as “the social media platform kids know that their parents use.” It’s funny because it’s true. And maybe this is why the kids are increasingly using something else. The average age of social media users across all six key markets in Southeast Asia now starts at 18 rather than 15 or 16 in every country except the Philippines – which has the fastest growing population (Source: comScore). The popularity of more visually oriented platforms such as Instagram – usage in the United Arab Emirates has grown from 14 to 34 percent of the population over the past two years (Source: ictQATAR) – and private networks have fragmented the markets. But the simple fact is that as social media platforms become a life tool for older users, average age goes up.
  2. China and India are experiencing a war of attrition among social media platforms. Of the top five platforms in China in 2014, only one remained as of last year. And that one – RenRen, once considered the Facebook of China – was bringing up the rear at number five with less than a fifth the users of the market leader (Source: CNNIC). It’s a similar story in India, where the once mighty Orkut has gone from second-to-oblivion in the same amount of time (Source: comScore). The China story is a contradiction: explosive growth in ever-decreasing circles, as users shifted first to micro-blogging (Tencent Weibo/QQ and Sina Weibo) and then to native mobile apps (Source: CNNIC). Smartphone growth is the obvious driving force here as people upgrade their channels in line with their devices.
  3. Private is the new black. Native apps are undoubtedly seen as more user-friendly, and less cluttered with advertising, than more “traditional” platforms – but there is another reason they are becoming more popular. The generation that was once seen as over-sharing has grown up to be a bit shy and now prefers to circulate their selfies among smaller, more secure networks. Partly, this can be explained by the growing desire for privacy among formerly socialist (the original “sharing”) societies, but it’s also connected to the first point above. “You never drink what your dad drank” goes an old saying in the brewery business and the same is true, to at least a certain extent, for social networks.
  4. Mobile is the new TV. The number of people using mobile for video in China has more than doubled during the past five years, while the number of people accessing via TV has collapsed to less than a quarter, confirming that this is the dusk of the single-use device (Source: CNNIC). Elsewhere, and especially in Southeast Asia, the amount of video downloaded has actually decreased since 2010, but this can be explained via the increased popularity and accessibility of streaming services (Source: Moonlight Blog). Many marketers now design mobile-first: TV makers surely cannot be far behind.
  5. Brand-based engagement is low… but when it sticks, it sticks. Across Southeast Asia, average engagement levels for brand-based content continue to fall to below single digits, with the notable exception of Vietnam, where it is a whopping 25 percent (Source: socialbakers). Vietnamese marketers: make the most of this while you can. But the relatively mature market of Australia highlights an interesting variation. The number of social media users reporting engaging with at least one piece of brand-based content in a 30-day timeframe has increased to 88 percent, while 82 percent of users undertook an e-commerce related activity (Source: ACMA). Could this be because Australia’s high level of brand-based creativity and utility is more successful in reaching users? One would certainly like to think so.

So what can we learn from this? Three things:

  1. Keep an eye on the landscape. Today’s conventional wisdom can become tomorrow’s “what were they thinking?” There is no need to jump on any new channel that launches, but keep an eye on how those seeds are growing. Some of the biggest communications innovations caught even their makers off guard (not even cellphone manufacturers predicted the popularity of text messaging) and the same is true for social networks. Nobody is really in control except the users.
  2. The generation gap is now online. The great thing about social media is you can find anyone there. But when the party gets crowded, the cool kids move on. You need to know exactly who you are talking to and where they can be found… and the answer to that question may be a bit different tomorrow than it is today.
  3. Make the most of your accidents of geography. Places like Australia and New Zealand are Western countries in an Asian region and often afterthoughts when it comes to regional work. Marketers would be wise to look at what works for brand-based engagement in Australasia and think how the richness, boldness and sophistication of their creativity could be put onto a wider stage.

Learn more about 2015 social media use across Asia Pacific and the Middle East in the infographics below:

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