Social media refers to the means of interaction among people in which they create, share, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks. Social media depends on mobile and web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms through which individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content. It introduces substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organisations, communities and individuals.
Long view guides social media strategy
Marketing efforts must factor in Asian nuances in the use of popular websites to nurture an enduring customer loyalty in growing markets
If anyone still doubts the prominent role of social media in Asia, the latest figures should remove any uncertainty. In China alone, there are more than 560 million internet users. That flows through to impressive numbers for social networks such as Qzone, with more than 530 million users; Renren, 250 million; and micro-blogging site Sina Weibo, 350 million.
Elsewhere, social media has experienced massive growth recently. For instance, Facebook usage grew by 30 per cent in the Philippines, 17 per cent in South Korea and 10 per cent in Japan, according to socialbakers.com
And, while Asian multinationals are still more hesitant towards social media than their Western counterparts, some companies such as AirAsia have successfully engaged in the new media revolution. About 15 per cent of new visitors to AirAsia.com come via its Facebook page.
Importantly, online activity differs vastly depending on the type of platform, and the presence of the platform in a given geographic area. For example, the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony triggered "only" 10 million tweets on Twitter as its use is restricted on the mainland, but 119 million posts on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Platforms can also be more or less country or territory-specific, such as Wretch in Taiwan or Cyworld in South Korea.
The diversity of platforms bears a clear implication: adopt a multi-platform strategy and leverage the specific functions of each social media website. A good example of such multi-platform strategy is global shipping company Maersk.
Maersk aimed to increase employee cohesion and pride in the company, generate brand awareness and engage with its industry partners outside the company. To reach these ambitious goals, the company cleverly leveraged the functions of each social media platform it used.
It used Twitter to help employees share updates with one another (like news about a ship reaching a harbour after several days of travelling) and Facebook to share news and funny tidbits to its wider audience (such as the shipping of a giraffe named Nakuru from Auckland to Melbourne).
In addition, it used Linkedin to reach out to industry experts and scientists the company would not have otherwise had access to. These experts could then be invited to participate in working groups targeted at improving some of Maersk's business processes.
This example illustrates how it is important to use platforms wisely, depending on their functions. Overall, a global approach - especially across Asian countries - requires leveraging both the functions of each platform as well as taking into account different usage patterns between countries (such as across platforms like Orkut, Wretch, Cyworld, Friendster or even Hi5).
How does social media activity in Asia differ from most Western countries, and how should businesses leverage these differences? Three differences, at least, deserve attention.
First, internet users in Asia often think about and use social media to engage in conversations with those close to them. Recent research points out that while Europeans tend to use micro-blogging sites such as Twitter to share links to news stories with a high number of "passive users", users of such sites in countries such as South Korea and Malaysia prefer using the network for chatting with their friends.
This is good news for companies that are thinking about using social media, as one primary benefit of using such a channel is to engage in meaningful conversations with customers, in order to learn from consumers' expectations and thoughts, and to build more personalised relationships with them, both in business-to-business and business-to-consumer contexts.
American Express massively invested in social media and set up conversational platforms, both independent (such as Open Forum) and on mainstream social media platforms (like Amex on Facebook). This investment greatly increased its brand image, in particular among small businesses and significantly improved relationships with these customers.
Second, Asian internet users seem more active and likely to create new online content when engaging in social media. A recent study by Forrester Research found that while 76 per cent of Americans and 69 per cent of Europeans are passive users, Asian internet users are much more involved in active creation (except Japan, which is closer to the Western pattern).
For instance, 76 per cent of Chinese users and 80 per cent of Indian users generated new online content. Provided companies know how to channel this energy and accompany users in the generation of new content by giving them self-authoring tools and ways to share their content with friends, this can prove a powerful springboard for companies to increase their brand awareness.
In the fast-moving consumer goods area, some brands give consumers the opportunity to upload their own homemade advertisements (such as Old Spice Swagger and British food brand Oxo), often yielding double-digit sales growth for several years.
Third, a side product of Asia's relative late adoption of social media in countries such as the Philippines or Vietnam is the importance of mobile. China alone counts more than 420 million users who access the internet via mobiles. This insight should encourage companies to prioritise developing innovative strategies to interact with customers through mobile.
Brands that will move fast will benefit from first-mover advantage as, surprisingly, only 29 per cent of brands in the Asia-Pacific region report having a formal mobile strategy.
Altogether, these three characteristics - a greater emphasis on conversation; a propensity to create online content; and a more rapid use of mobile when accessing social media - represent a clear opportunity for companies to use social media in Asia.
While many think about using social media mainly in the short term, perhaps because this communication channel is often characterised by fast pace, the benefits of social media are in the long run. Companies should focus on creating a lasting engagement and culture around their brands.
They can expect lasting benefits, in the form of greater loyalty. In this new paradigm where brands become true patchworks of customers' impressions, with each customer participating by creating some content related to how he or she views and experiences a brand, companies have a lot to gain. As long as they do not forget that the focus should be on forging long-term relationships.
David Dubois is an assistant professor of marketing at INSEAD.