The Next Big Thing

How mobile messaging apps are changing social behaviour in Asia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 April, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 April, 2015, 8:00am

Mobile connectivity is changing the way we shop, socialise and play. While this trend is helpful for many businesses and consumers, its disruption of social norms has created new challenges that we must address in order to fully capitalise on innovative technology.

According to global social marketing agency We Are Social, more than 2 billion Asians are registered with social-media accounts, 1.7 billion of them active. From audio to video to text, technology facilitates human expression. On smartphones alone, we average 23 minutes talking, 20 minutes texting, 18 minutes emailing and 11 minutes social-networking each day, according to research from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Forty-four per cent of us even admit to sleeping beside our devices because we are afraid of missing calls, text messages and other updates overnight. Clearly, we’re living in a day and age not just defined by mobile connectivity, but dominated and controlled by it.  

Building communities

While social networks such as Facebook and Instagram still retain prominence as community-building apps, people are becoming more and more disengaged. They’re looking at their newsfeeds rather than actively participating. On the other hand, mobile-chat apps such as Kakao Talk, Line and WeChat have become increasingly popular in Asia with their mobile-friendly and personal approach. Conversations that used to take place on traditional social networks are now moving towards these chat apps.

Successful businesses in the digital economy should recognise that to thrive on socially connected digital platforms means more than just having an online or social presence. To be successful in the connected era, businesses should leverage mobile social communities as a tool to encourage one-to-one relationship building, find new and more personal ways to communicate with consumers and provide innovative platforms and venues for communities to grow.

With the business community in mind, both Line and WeChat have set about building platforms for brands to engage with their customers on a one-on-one level. These tools enable companies to reconsider social strategies to ensure content will persuade the disengaged to participate.  

M-commerce 2.0

Today’s chat apps are more than just outlets to rant, vent and gossip. Several of Asia’s home-grown chat apps, recognising the potential of online-to-offline (O2O) commerce, have sought to create an avenue for fans to check out a brand, validate an item and complete the purchase by making a payment seamlessly via their mobile phones.

Retailers now not only have to worry about e-retailers, but also the rise of m-retailers — retailers who sell their wares via the user-friendly and simpler interface of the mobile phone. Individuals can also buy and sell their personal items consumer-to-consumer via chat apps like e-commerce platform, Line Mall. This increasing micro-commerce trend could well be the inspiration for many to start their own businesses.

With increasing smartphone penetration in Asia, the threat and economic implications of m-commerce have become very real. In fact, WeChat in China is going one step further by offering its users the opportunity to send Chinese New Year red packets — a common practice of gift-giving (typically, cash) during the festival — virtually. On this past Chinese New Year’s Eve, China’s WeChat users sent each other more than 1 billion red packets over the app.  

An ecosystem in itself

Even as brands begin realising the growing potential of chat apps, these apps seem ready to take over the world. Not only are Asian-grown chat apps driving the push to take over community building and m-commerce, they’re also becoming a one-stop platform for all entertainment needs — developing in-house mobile games and working with wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Several chat apps are building the beta version of what’s to come in the near future, with the IoT becoming a reality. It’s easy to imagine a future where household appliances and errands are controlled from within chat apps, potentially freeing up time for the average consumer. From buying groceries to logging exercises to downloading media files, all of these activities could potentially be done without missing a new text from a friend.  

Face-to-face interactions still key

Ultimately, nothing beats the rapport developed through face-to-face conversations, eye contact and a firm handshake. As such, chat apps aim to be as personable as possible, and even encourage interactions out of the app. For instance, both Line and WeChat allow users to create customised stickers, using their own photos. Apart from video and voice-messaging functions, which give users the ability to send voice messages or video-chat with another party, WeChat has a “People Nearby” function that encourages users to make friends with others in the vicinity.

Over the past 40 years, technology has evolved quickly, and the next 40 years will almost certainly deliver innovations at an even faster pace. The workforce will become increasingly mobile, with the majority of consumers using mobile devices for day-to-day tasks, such as grocery shopping and banking. Even as technology solutions and tools evolve, the fundamentals of communication will never change. Face-to-face interactions, personal relationships and first hand impressions still matter, especially in business. Trade shows like the International CES and the upcoming CES Asia continue to grow in popularity because they offer opportunities for direct discovery and personal interaction.

Chat app developers from Asia could learn from their counterparts in the Middle East how to build and sustain relationships. Jeltee, a new mobile application in United Arab Emirates, was launched to get people off their smartphones and start chatting in real life. The app limits online interaction to just 24 hours of chatting before encouraging people to take things offline and meet face to face. This is in line with my own thinking that although technology can help in creating and maintaining relationships and empowering diverse communities, a relationship cannot be only electronic; it has to be personal. 

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, owner and producer of the International CES. Together with Intex Shanghai, CEA is organising the inaugural International CES Asia, a consumer-electronics trade show, set to happen May 25-27 in Shanghai, China, at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre.