Four factors driving digital uptake in Southeast Asia

Singapore Management University Professor Michael Netzley (@communicateasia) has posted an excellent list of factors explaining the sizeable digital uptake that Southeast Asia has seen over the last year or so on his blog.

Below are the key factors behind the growth of digital and internet usage in the region taken from his post. The list doesn’t include the “everyone else is doing it factor” which doesn’t make the list as it inherently obvious and not region specific:

1. Politics.  We have numerous examples coming from the anti-US beef protests in South Korea, the recent upheavals in Thailand, and protests in Indonesia to immediately identify politics as a major driver for going online.

2. Mobile.  Recently Luca Penati of Ogilvy spoke at SMU and stated that “mobile is the last form of access adopted in developed markets, but is becoming the first form of access in emerging markets.”  Here is a simple example from the Philippines.

3. Gaming. This argument, in particular, points the finger at Facebook for being a major driver for adoption of online communications.  The point was discussed at length in September during the first day of the Social Media World Forum here in Singapore. People are inviting their friends to play games online, and Facebook games such as Farmville or Mafia Wars have been major contributors to this trend.

4. International Business Expansion.  The recent APAC Corporate Social Media Study released by Burson Marsteller argues that companies expanding internationally are far more likely to develop and sustain a social media presence than are companies not expanding.  While this zeros in on business rather than broader national or regional trends, the observation strikes me as quite insightful nonetheless.

I’ve discussed the factors behind Thailand’s own digital surge over here. As one of Southeast Asia’s biggest growers – particularly when looking at Facebook numbers – Thailand is a prime example of Michael’s points, particularly the first three.

For me personally, mobile is the single biggest driver. It is more than just a growth factor, it is THE enabler in the region. Were mobile internet in the region not available as it is, it is likely that Southeast Asia’s digital presence would not be as significant as it is. None of the other three factors have anything like this much influence.

So, why has mobile become such a huge driver of internet adoption and usage across Southeast Asia? Here are a few thoughts:

– Lower cost: perhaps the bigger driver of mobile is its sheer affordability. While the latest iPhone or BlackBerry may be as prohibitively expensive for the mass market as a laptop, the growth of budget smartphones and internet enabled (normal) phones makes the hardware affordable. Additionally, customisable mobile tariffs can be cheaper than that ISP access. 

– Greater convenience: owning a mobile is commonplace in the region so using that device to access the internet is convenient. Aside from the cost element of fixed-internet, mobile internet is comparatively hassle free. 

– Commitment free: the vast majority of mobile users in Southeast Asia use prepaid tariffs. Prepaid mobile internet usage is commitment free, unlike a 12-month ISP service agreement,  with users able to add credit for internet access as and when they desire.

– Greater access: bar Singapore, no Southeast Asian countries has the infrastructure which makes a quality, ‘wired’ internet experience possible across the entire nation. Mobile signals provide greater access from remote areas.

– Communication: Southeast Asia is a region well known for love of instant messaging and social networks. In the past the likes of Yahoo Messager, MSN, Hi5 and Friendster have all found great success with people who love instant and online communication. Services like BlackBerry Messenger and social networks have found great adoption, tapping into the region’s continued desire for instantaneous IM conversations on mobile. Though one might argue that buying a mobile comes before discovering services like BBM, in Thailand, for example, many want BlackBerry smartphones just to use BBM, as dedicated tariffs offering the service without full internet are available.

What is exciting about mobile in Southeast Asia, and other non-Western regions, is that the influence and effects we are seeing are just the beginning as mobile internet usage rates, as a ratio of mobile phone ownership, remains low. Unlike western markets, as Professor Michael’s post explains, the mobile phone is the primary access device of Southeast Asia and many other growing markets. Where this could take these regions is anyone’s guess at this stage but we can certainly expect continued growth of internet users and internet usage in such regions.