Nikki Wicks
Dec 3, 2014

We Are Social: Asia is still playing catch-up in social-media investment

The disconnect between Asia's fixation with social media and the lack of investment from businesses is still puzzling, according to global agency We Are Social.

Nathan McDonald
Nathan McDonald

Every Tuesday on We Are Social’s Singapore blog, you’ll find a post titled ‘Tuesday Tuneup’, which follows the latest news, trends and stats in the world of social media, with a focus on Asia. The UK office’s equivalent is called ‘Monday Mashup’, and if you hadn’t guessed, it’s posted every Monday. A recent headline on the Tuesday Tuneup read, “WeChat reaches 468 million monthly active users,” while this week’s Monday Mashup leads with “Over half of UK ad budgets to go digital in 2015.”

Together, these two headlines tell an interesting story about the distinction between the markets when it comes to social media. In Asia, adoption is soaring, with user numbers continuing to grow at a rapid pace. In the UK on the other hand, investment from businesses in the space leaves Asia lagging far behind.

“Some markets are still struggling to catch up to that level of investment that we see in Europe and the US, and this [Asia] is one of those markets,” said Nathan McDonald, We Are Social’s co-founder and global managing partner.

On a recent visit to Singapore, McDonald told Campaign Asia-Pacific that whilst the region is highly advanced in its adoption of social media, many marketers are still reluctant to make significant investments. This presents both challenges and opportunities in the space.

“When we get together as a global group it’s very interesting to see what our different offices are focusing on; what the different opportunities are; what the different challenges are and so on," McDonald said. "And it feels like we’re always at a different place with Asia.”

Founded in 2008, We Are Social is a global social-media agency that works with brands including Adidas, Intel, Unilever, Heineken, eBay and Jaguar.

Case study: We Are Social helped iconic British car manufacturer Jaguar target a new generation of drivers.

The Singapore office opened in 2011, joining offices in London, New York, Paris, Milan, Munich, Sydney and São Paulo. When we met McDonald, the digital world had just passed a huge milestone, with the number of global Internet users tipping over the 3 billion mark. And it’s well reported that markets in Asia are driving much of this growth.

“The way that people use social media in their social lives in Asia is the most advanced in the world,” said Simon Kemp, regional managing partner at the agency’s Singapore office. “And yet, these very same people that use social media so much in their personal lives find it very difficult to transfer this in the business sense. It’s been frustrating. It feels like we’re stuck in this situation where the knowledge is there but the action isn’t following through.”

So what’s holding businesses back?

For McDonald, it’s part mystery and part conservatism amongst marketers.

“I think there is a conservatism here and a mentality to just keep doing it the way we’ve always done it,” he said. “We see that in other markets as well, but it seems to be more engrained here. It’s a mystery in many ways, when so many people are using social media, why isn’t that converting?”

Kemp, who was recently named in Campaign’s 40 Under 40, said there’s also an issue of a knowledge gap with people in procurement, who still aren’t understanding the value of social.

“Another thing that makes it really difficult here is that the people that are making the calls on where the budgets get spent are still with procurement,” he said. “And procurement genuinely do not understand any of this stuff.”

“The number of times I’ve sat in meetings and someone has said ‘don’t bother presenting us anything, just tell us how much it costs.’ If the people that are spending the money aren’t interested—let alone understand it—it’s inevitably going to be difficult.”

We Are Social's '4 Ps' of great social marketing
We Are Social's '4 Ps' of successful social marketing

Despite the challenges, Asia remains a strategic priority for the agency, which was recently awarded the title of "best digital/social agency in the world" by the Holmes Report. Many of the agency’s global clients are increasingly taking a ‘social first’ approach to their marketing campaigns, and McDonald is confident that Asia will catch up.

“We’re working with a number of brands in the UK who very much see social as driving a campaign," he said. "It’s a ‘social first’ approach and then looking at how that can play into other media. If you’ve got something that is genuinely sharable, it will work really well on social, but that will often extend into other channels.”

The agency sees the region as "massively important" for growth, as do many of its global clients. "Asia is a strategic priority for us and it’s essential in our ambition as a global network,” he said.


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