Social-web wave hits emerging Asia

Facebook connections map Indonesia has the second highest number of Facebook users in the world, after the US

As the emerging economies of Asia come online in earnest, the web's ability to bring people together is proving its most appealing aspect.

Whether they are raising a voice of opposition in the Singapore elections, organising rallies against corruption in India or helping victims of the earthquake in Japan locate their loved ones, online communities are giving people a space to band together and speak out.

In some cases, Asian nations are overtaking their Western counterparts as the "friendliest" countries.

In Indonesia, almost 80% of internet users engaged in a social activity such as managing a social-network profile, writing a blog or using a microblogging service, such as Twitter, in a one month time period, according to GlobalWebIndex.

Internet users in Asia

The Philippines and Malaysia are not far behind, with 79% and 73% respectively. Compare that with 55% in the US and 48% in the UK.

In the more mature markets in east Asia, they have their own domestic social-media players, such as Mixi in Japan and Cyworld in South Korea, which have dominated the social space.

China is an exception in that although it is still a developing internet market, local sites like RenRen, which is similar to Facebook, and Sina Weibo, a Twitter equivalent, are most popular.

It is not exactly a fair competition, as the government blocks access to Facebook and Twitter.

'Virtual bridge'

Indonesia has the second most users on Facebook of any country in the world, after the US, according to monitoring site Socialbakers.com.

Even though broadband infrastructure is limited and smart phones are not as prevalent, people are finding ways to connect online.

And it is not just global social-media companies riding the wave, it is home-grown operations as well.

Kaskus, short for Kasak Kusuk, which means chit chat in Indonesian Bahasa, is a forum website that brings people together in interest-based communities.

It boasts 3.2 million registered users who contribute to pages.

Graphic: top social networking sites

"Indonesians like to chat, they like to express their opinions but in a shy way," says Danny Wirianto, chief marketing officer at Kaskus.

"Sometimes they don't dare say things in front of people, but in a chatting forum they will."

Mr Wirianto says a combination of factors has lead to the networking boom in Indonesia.

Internet infrastructure is improving, bringing prices down, and the country's fragmented nature, comprising of more than 17,500 islands, makes it hard for people to connect in other ways.

"The internet becomes a virtual bridge between the islands, to talk to each other and other parts of the world," he says.

'Focus group'

The potential of the growing numbers coming online has not gone unnoticed by businesses, who see the social space as a marketplace to sell their wares but also to find out what people think about them.

But strategies developed for mature markets like the US are not necessarily going to work in the emerging countries of Asia. The businesses need to be able to speak the language to pick up on how consumers in Asia are reacting.

Kelly Choo works at Brandtology, a media monitoring company that essentially listens in on conversations in cyberspace, using analysts to account for slang, sarcasm, context and relevance.

"We extract from Facebook groups, fan pages, blogs, forums, anything that is publicly available online," Mr Choo says.

They can then give companies insight into what people think of a certain product, their image or their marketing strategy.

"In the past, market research was getting 10 people to sit in a room and do a focus group. In a sense, the web has become a huge focus group." says Mr Choo.

Once the research is done, and it comes to cashing in on social-media networks, some businesses know not to become the uninvited guest at the party.

"Success of brands with social web is not about marketing, it's about fostering a relationship with the audience," says Nikolaus Ong, digital strategist for the McCann Worldgroup.

Companies that want to tap into countries where more and more potential consumers are grabbing the social-media megaphone will be looking to join the conversation.

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