Analysis: explaining Facebook’s huge growth in Thailand


This morning I posted a couple of interesting statistics which demonstrate the huge growth Facebook has enjoyed in Thailand. A part of the analysis, and graphics, came from Inside Facebook, a much respect blog specialising in analytics and measurement behind the social network.

The Inside Facebook article which highlights Thailand as the third fastest growing market for Facebook anywhere in the world.

I already highlighted Inside Facebook’s strange take on Hi5-Facebook rivalry in Thailand, with Facebook commanding greater monthly visitor numbers since at least May 2010, but the blog includes further analysis which fails to tackle the key reasons behind the growth of Facebook users in Thailand.

The article begins by looking at the overall growth:

Most of Thailand’s growth occurred at the beginning of this year, trailing neighbors like Malaysia. Other nearby countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, however, have yet to follow for social and political reasons — Vietnam, for instance, blocked Facebook and, more recently, launched a government-owned social network,

It is true to say that most growth occurred in early 2010 however the articles fails to mention that civil unrest issues in Bangkok – during the ‘Red Shirt’ protests – were the trigger for for a rapid rise in adoption as I revealed back in April:

A cursory glance at Facebook’s own estimation for users (aged over 18) in Thailand shows 2,787,320, a staggering increase  of 288,360 new members since my last check on 7 April (see here).

That’s a record 11.5% increase in the two weeks during which Facebook has become a key place for political discussion, news reporting, and political organisation – it is even being monitored by the MICT.

Considering 500,000 new members joined between January and April this year, a 280,000 plus new additions in two weeks suggests politics has led many to Thais to join Facebook to take part, though it is difficult to assess how/to what extent the snowballing is taking place.

Had there not been protests it seems unlikely Thailand’s membership growth would have been so explosive, although clearly momentum was gaining and numbers would likely have risen to a lesser extent. Given the interesting combination between

Inside Facebook continues:

Having a more open government and society than some of its neighbors certainly helps drive Thai growth on Facebook, which is beginning to resemble more liberal, if also more distant, areas like Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose growth has stabilized over the past months. Facebook’s high growth rates in the Thai market indicate that the site is still near the beginning of its upswing in that country.

I’m not sure I would classify Thailand’s government as bing more “open” than some of its neighbours given it is the first regime anywhere to have blocked 100,000 websites and has seen citizens arrested for content posted to Facebook too.

Added to that webmasters have been arrested for failing to removed illegal content fast enough on the basis of a complaint from a member of the public, so it is fair to say that Thailand’s society is not easily described as comparatively “open” either.

In fact, it is more plausible to conclude that the Thai government’s failure to be ‘open’ has caused such a rapid growth in Facebook in the first place. Arguably government issues led to the Bangkok demonstrations, while citizens flocked to Facebook to keep up with events in real-time and discuss and exchanged views on a new, perhaps as yet unmonitored medium – compared to websites and blogs that were more regularly searched and blocked. Facebook was a safer haven for comment and discussion, as the the chances of a government block were more remote.

Side note: although Facebook is blocked in Vietnam the censorship can be circumvented as a recent Global Post article nicely summarised:

Experts say it isn’t much of a block. Vietnam’s answer to China’s Great Firewall is more of a smoldering bamboo fence — an inconvenience more than an outright prohibition.

Moving on, Inside Facebook address Thailand’s internet penetration and its likely effect on Facebook usage:

Thailand’s internet penetration is only 26.3 percent, which means that about 30 percent of its internet users are already online. The country has a total population of 66 million people.

But even if Thailand’s internet penetration only grows slowly, Facebook may have other ways of solidifying growth in the country. As listed in our most recent Facebook Quarterly Business Review, major Thai carriers AIS and Dtac both have partnerships with Facebook, while the latter has reached out to users through advertising and Facebook apps.

Quite how the article discussed the internet whilse barely scraping the topic of mobile I’m not sure. The popularity of BlackBerry smartphonesreduction in prices of ‘entry-level’ smartphones and the rise of mobile internet tariffs in the country are represents a rise in affordable and convenient access to the internet, and sites like Facebook which render well as mobile version or can be accessed through applications.

There is also no discussion of gaming (as discussed in this post), a key driver in bringing friendship groups onto the platform with games like Farmville, Restaurant City and more encouraging Facebook users to invite their friends, while even basic social features like sharing photo online, which TNS rate Thailand as number one for worldwide (with 92% of internet users sharing photos), prompt non-Facebook users to join up.

I’m usually reasonably impressed with Inside Facebook but despite presenting the statistics it has failed to explain the reasons for the growth of social media in Thailand in any kind of adequate way, even presenting a misleading statement with regards to Hi5’s popularity in the country.

Looking forwards to future, it is unclear whether this huge growth rate can continue as I said in September when Thailand passed 5 million users, :

 With Facebook reportedly enjoying a 30 percent penetration rate of online users, how much further can it grow without require more of its target audience to be online? Once again the significance of mobile internet is made clear as a driver of new users.

Cautions aside, Thailand is showing that despite a great number of technology and political constraints, it has a thriving social media landscape… and that is just looking at Facebook alone.

One point for Facebook, who will find mobile a greater driver of new users than fixed-line given Thailand’s sizeable digital divide, might be to look at the potential of Facebook chat. the BlackBerry Mesenger (BBM) is hugely popular in Thailand, although it is somewhat restricted to BlackBerry owners (of course) and those subscribing to a BlackBerry mobile tariff. Facebook chat has the potential to connect a greater number of people in Thailand, if it can find a way into non-BlackBerry smartphone users and non-smartphone users in Thailand.

A Facebook Zero like initiative – with end user costs covered by operators/service providers – with Facebook Chat might make a large impression though it is unclear whether it would be feasible.

With Facebook recently opening an office in Singapore, it seems likely Thailand will be in its thoughts as it continues to driver user growth in Southeast Asia, a market it has dominated for a while.