Social media and public relations in Asia

Friday, 17 August 2012 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Burson-Marsteller Thought Leadership Series

By Zaheer Nooruddin, Lead Digital and Social Media Strategist, Burson-Marsteller Asia-Pacific

I shall never forget when I called a plumber to fix a leak in my Hong Kong apartment and he arrived, not with a plumbing toolkit, but with an iPad! If you travel on the Beijing subway, as on any of the mass transit systems of other Asian world cities like Tokyo or Singapore, you will be struck by just how “connected” everyone is – watching video, writing email, typing messages, and playing a game – on mobile devices. Travelling time is used to share, to experience and to connect.

In Asia, we can’t help but be amazed by the rise of the mobile platform – powered and enabled as it is by social media.

Just a short time ago, the landscape was dramatically different. The internet was until recently a rare feature in the life of most Asians – from China to India to Indonesia to Sri Lanka.

Today, Asia-Pacific accounts for roughly half of all the world’s web users.  Consider this: just China produces more than half the world’s digital web content – and more than the rest of the world combined.

While the early chapters of the story of the World Wide Web, “Web 2.0”, and social media was written in the Western World, today the Eastern World – including South Asia – is beginning to play a significant part in shaping innovation in the new global social media landscape.

There are few other regions that are emerging so rapidly, with so much more potential for social media growth.

In fact, Asia’s social media story is very much also a mobile story. More Asians access the web and their social networks for the first time through mobile devices. This shift in how people around Asia are connected is creating a similar paradigm shift in how public relations, communications and marketing is managed in Asia.

Today, the increasing availability of affordable “smart” mobile devices has brought fascinating new opportunities for companies, organisations and brands to connect directly with their customers and stakeholders – in a real-time, highly targeted and relevant manner – more so than ever before in public relations and marketing.

In China, there are credible projections that indicate there will be as many as 800 million mobile Smartphone users – by 2015.

And so, as the average South Asian becomes more prosperous, and the cost of mobile devices continues to fall each year – a vast number of mobile users in Asia will turn into mobile internet users. The next few years could see as many as a billion people in South Asia connected to the internet via their mobile devices.

A similar story is playing out right across Asia, from North to South East Asia...Today, a staggering 98% of internet users in the Philippines are actively using Facebook. Twitter is another international platform that is enjoying a strong resurgence in Asia due to its iPhone, Android, Windows and iPad apps that make the platform accessible on the go. Indonesia (where Facebook is number one) has seen strong growth in social media usage. While there might soon be more social media in Indonesia than perhaps in any other South East Asian market, in Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong, social media usage has already reached saturation points – meaning that everyone who will be is already connected. From young to old, from rich to poor, from white collar to blue collar – in some form or another – everyone.

Asians are social and we love to share

In Asia, online sharing online takes place in a bewildering variety of places, collectively representing the diverse landscape of social media. In many parts of Asia, the most popular international social media platforms have yet to extend their dominance, where local social platforms still hold sway. Nowhere is this truer than in China, where entrenched local social networks enjoy a dominant position in that vast and lucrative market.

In China, there is no Facebook, no Twitter, and no YouTube. For a time, there was no BBC and no Google Video. Unless one has a VPN (virtual private network) that allows access over China’s “Great Firewall.” In other regions of Asia we take a more freely available internet more for granted, although not everywhere, and not always.

Central to social media in China is the bulletin board (BBS), a version of the online chat room; relegated to the nether regions of the social web. There are hundreds of thousands of BBS platforms in China, each offering conversations around distinct topics, with followers from different parts of its geography, divided and united mainly by interest and proximity.

All around Asia, social media has become “the connector” of local communities. In the age of social media, the increasingly prosperous people of Asia – from Vietnam to Sri Lanka to Malaysia, enjoy a vast array of experiences online – from blogging to microblogging services, to video, to social networking and online forums – all, quite literally, at their fingertips.

In a sense, therefore, social media and networking is not an “opt-in” choice for Asian users of the internet who are being plugged into the online experience during this decade – it is in the very DNA of online experiential adoption and web usage.

Online gaming and dating – two major trends

In China, Japan and South Korea, the growth of social networking in the mainstream has been driven by the adoption of online gaming as a leading pastime for the young and middle-aged. A little-known fact is that ‘Farmville’, one of the world’s most popular of online “social games”, was produced first in China and then exported to the rest of the world. Online gaming is a massive phenomenon right across Asia. Another social media phenomenon in Asia is online dating. As Asians have become more prosperous through the rapid urbanisation that their markets are witnessing, they have also become very busy. Working 60 to 80 hour weeks in Asia’s urban centres, the young demographic of Asia has increasingly less time to socialise at leisure in the traditional offline environment.

This phenomenon has driven the growth of online dating platforms, to help young people connect with prospective partners in a social networking environment. India’s social networking market has been spurred by demand for online dating and matchmaking sites like Some of China’s largest social networks are essentially online dating platforms – with the promise of meeting people and going on dates – sometimes virtually – at the core of the offering. These dating communities enjoy loyal following and have great longevity in Asia.

Asia’s colourful social media landscape

Asia has some of the earliest and most successful locally developed social networking sites, such as CyWorld (Korea), Mixi (Japan), QZone (China) and Zing Me (Vietnam), each with dedicated local user bases.  Social media trends keep evolving as the major global players like LinkedIn – the world’s largest professional social network – and Facebook, make strides across the Asian region, with rich platforms and the promise of what’s new and exciting in branded entertainment. There is no sure bet with social media in Asia. Sites that were popular just a year ago are now obsolete, and the same goes for China, and other fast-developing large internet markets in Asia. I remember how in India, not more than just a year ago, a social media platform called “SMS Gupshup” was doing extremely well. Within just a few months, the site had evaporated from the news, and today, I am not even sure if it still exists. In China, challenged by a heavy regulation of the internet, many social sites that are popular face the constant risk of being blocked and put out of business. Such is the risky life of a social media entrepreneur in Asia! Social media users in South Asia are by and large still reluctant to pay for online services – at least for entry. Once inside and loyal – with a community formed – users spend on gaming and entertainment apps, as well as on virtual goods and currencies. In Asia, the virtual goods market has already grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. Time and time again we have seen the list of most popular platforms change, and there is no doubt, that over the next few years, we will witness more changes as newer social technologies emerge, and as new habits take hold.

Public relations and social media - the rise of visual story sharing

Social media has fundamentally altered the international media landscape. It has changed how we think about corporate reputation, brand management, marketing and public relations. Recent studies of the space reveal how large organisations and multinationals particularly, have yet to sustain cohesive strategies around digital engagement and social media.

Yet, many companies in Asia still continue to struggle with the new realities of social media, and how best to integrate social media channels and content into public relations and marketing programs.

One thing is certain – the opportunities for companies and organisation that ‘do it right’ are big – from greater sales and increased market share, to better reputation and stronger brands.

My guess is that no company or organisation in Asia will be able to communicate successfully to stakeholders without grasping the importance of visualising ideas and data better. “Visual story sharing” and digital storytelling are concepts being actively embraced by companies and by the PR, communications industry in Asia-Pacific and beyond. Today, infographics are being developed by agencies like ours, and are becoming the ‘new normal’ of brand and corporate communications.

Some safe predictions for the future of social media in Asia are no large company can afford not to be present here, and that no company in Asia can market and communicate successfully without developing a cohesive and sustainable social media strategy. And it must be a thoughtful strategy; one that speaks to its stakeholders in their own languages and customs, in real-time.

It truly is a most interesting time to be living in Asia. We are the lucky ones. As they say in China, “May you live in interesting times!”

(Born in India, Zaheer is global public relations and integrated communications firm Burson-Marsteller’s Asia-Pacific Director of Digital and Social Media, and regional digital crisis communications strategist. A recognised thought-leader in the field of social media in Asia-Pacific, Zaheer actively tracks the space where mobile meets social media. He is a regular speaker about social media at regional conferences, including SES Hong Kong, the Internet Show Asia, Social Media Week and events organised by the American and British Chambers of Commerce. During his career, Zaheer has been based in New York City, Mumbai, Dubai and Beijing. He is currently based in Hong Kong.Follow Zaheer’s social media musings on or read more at