Social media opportunities and challenges for marketers in Asia

Written by Gracia Sim

Today’s age of advertising is no longer something as one-dimensional as that of traditional newspapers or billboard advertisements, but has evolved to be more interactive and somewhat personal by leveraging on social media platforms. Social media is defined as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (Kaplan & Michael, 2010). With such spontaneity allowed from consumers, marketers can now smartly draw from such information for many purposes such as determining consumer preferences, facilitate conversations to build up brand images, etc. This is an especially huge opportunity in Asia where research shows that Asians are the most likely to visit social networking sites and blogs compared to the global average (Nielsen, 2009). Hence, it is no surprise that marketers are rushing to leverage on this platform for various campaigns within Asia. However, the numbers alone –such as  458% change growth in social networking from 2007-2008 in Asia (Comscore, 2008) –may have been biasedly reflected as positive sentiments in Asia that fails to draw upon other qualitative or documented research of possible backlashes of the influx of social media marketing. Therefore, this study seeks to explore both the opportunities and challenges social media presents to marketers in Asia.

In this first part of this essay, let us first explore the opportunities social media provides for marketers in Asia.

Current Trends in Asia

A study by Burson-Marsteller showed that social media usage in the Asia-Pacific region has shown remarkable growth (growth rates ranging from 107% in South Korea to 12,305% in Vietnam). More than half of the region's population is active online and in China alone, more than half a billion people surf the web. (Consunji, 2012) The sheer numbers of active online users and population participation in social media platforms is definitely an indicative trend to most marketers that this is a lucrative market to go into.

Virtual communities and its role in Asia

Virtual communities refers to “online groups of people who either share norms of behaviour or certain defining practices, who actively enforce certain moral standards, who intentionally attempt to found a community, or who simply coexist in close proximity to one another” (Komito, 1998).The growing importance of issues such a human rights, education, social status and gender in Asia as the basis for social divisions as well as identity provides organizations of interest to use these mediums as an empowering tool to voice their opinions. Take for example the most popular blogger in China  Han han – who is seen as a rebel writer and voice for his generation has had 306 million hits (Hille, 2010) on his blog and a community of people who follow/comment on it (Infocus, 2011)). Economic growth in parts of Asia has also led to a surge in the middle class who are more educated, informed about their rights and open to different kinds of causes (Ho, et al., 2003). As Ebo (Ebo, 1998) points out, “access to cyberspace becomes even more important as new notions of social identities develop, and the measurement of a good life assumes new dimensions”. This also means that as desires for change and a better standard of living surface in Asia, people are motivated to contribute to these virtual communities as they believe in its power to be a transformational tool in their societies. Marketers who can identify such virtual communities and can make themselves relevant to the needs and deliver a more customer-focused marketing.

How it complements traditional media

The concept of social media in Asia is one that complements traditional media rather than replace it (T. stephen & Galak, 2009)- this is especially with respect to earned media, which could be defined as “media activity related to a company or brand that is not directly generated by the company or its agents, but rather by other entities such as customers or journalists” (T. stephen & Galak, 2012). If we study this in the context of Asia, a Nielsen survey reveals that Asian consumers trusts earned media the most where consumers rank “recommendations from people they know” and “online consumer opinions” as their most trusted form of advertising (Nielsen, 2012).  Drawing from Armelini and Villanueva’s “chart of WOM (word of mouth) vs advertising”, we can understand that earned media is deemed as more credible, less controlled and interactive in nature compared to traditional media (Villanueva, 2011). Also, because of social media’s real-time and high volume presence, earned media in social channels have a substantially larger impact on sales than traditional earned media do (T. stephen & Galak, 2012). Hence social media may better help facilitate WOM and earned media in Asia.

Having discussed the opportunities for marketing in Asia, the next part of the paper then delves into a more controversial investigation on what the above cited and other academic papers/statistics have failed to explore and what should be taken into consideration for marketers in Asia in view of newer trends.

Numbers misrepresented

Current metrics such as (Comscore, 2008), Nielsen (Nielsen, 2009), Burson-Marsteller (Burons-Martseller, n.d.) used to measure positive trends in Asia are one-dimensional in their focus on numerical value and not the qualitative aspect of which. This is a similar problem in Hoffman and Fodor’s “relevant metrics for social media applications” (Hoffman & Fodor, 2010)which suggested measuring the WOM of one’s social media effectiveness through:

  1. the number of posts on the wall
  2. the number of reposts/shares
  3. the number of responses to a friend referral invites
  4. frequency of appearances in timeline of friend

However, we can see that none of the above metrics talk about the nature of these numbers and whether they served as a positive or negative WOM. The sheer numbers alone could be a result of insensitive advertising which could be something that increase all the above metrics. Take for example the case of Volkswagen India—the company made a sexist tweet which sparked a furore amongst female readers who replied the tweet. The company’s insensitive reply to their readers further invited more angry tweets which then caught the attention of online news platforms and became viral (Post, 2012). Hence, sheer numbers alone can be misrepresented and in fact negative WOM can cause serious, even irreversible, damage to a brand’s reputation and sales (Villanueva, 2011).

New social roles becomes a burden

In today’s age, companies are often fighting to grow their social media presence by engaging different online activities such as building up conversations that interest people or creating platforms (like facebook groups) for people to share and exchange ideas on and encouraging greater online presence (Kietzman, et al., 2011).  These activities often engage different kind of users in different ways based on different social behaviours (Kietzman, et al., 2011)—this results in people who are creators, critics, collectors, joiners and/or sharers (Li & Bernoff, 2008).  As online activity and participation increases, participants who are characterized as more of “collectors/joiners/sharers” may benefit greatly from the knowledge shared but users like the “creators/critics” may be taking on a rather burdensome job as they are more “pressured” to keep up with the pace of contribution. In Singapore for example, “93% of youths have Facebook accounts (one of the highest percentages in the world) and more than a quarter check their Facebook pages every few hours. One in ten check their pages every minute, and almost all log on to the social networking site once a day.” The result of this is that more than half found it too demanding to maintain their online presence and this has had negative repercussions on them balancing their other commitments – managing such online activities “is now becoming a chore” according to the survey’s results (Wall Street Journal, 2012). The need to have an ever-present social obligation may be wearing out users and affecting their daily life in a way that is unconscious now but could be a bigger social problem in future.

Lack of strategy

Effective marketers are those that know how to “interact” with consumers by facilitating property (e.g. things like files/music), social (e.g. identities/reputations) and cultural exchanges (e.g. ideas/opinions) in a spontaneous manner and tap on these resources to understand customers better, rather than merely “broadcast” their ideas. (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009) This could draw back to a lack of understanding and strategizing based on frameworks such as the seven functional blocks of social marketing. The seven functional blocks of social media are built on the extent to which a user:

  1. reveals his identity online
  2. engage in conversations
  3. share content with others
  4. can know if other are virtually present
  5. can form relationships
  6. determine theirs’ and other user’s reputations
  7. can form communities

These functional blocks help marketers better strategize to obtain useful information such as how to facilitate the kind of conversations to obtain consumer insight or how to build meaningful relationships between users and the company to create a better company-consumer relationship (Kietzman, et al., 2011). However, a survey by Burson-Marsteller shows that although many Asian companies may not have employed such strategies to tap on resources and facilitate such conversations.” Although many companies have a social media presence, 62% of social channels surveyed were inactive. Also, the majority of active accounts are updated infrequently having been set-up for ad-hoc marketing projects—where Asian companies are focused mostly on ‘pushing’ news to users rather than ‘pulling’ them into conversations. Most firms are still new to social media, and fear that associating it to more ‘core’ online channels may cause somewhat of a degradation to brand image (Martseller, 2011).  In this area, marketers in Asia are failing to grasp the concept that “advertising works most effectively when it's in line with what people are already trying to do. And people are trying to communicate in a certain way on Facebook—they share information with their friends, they learn about what their friends are doing (Locke, 2007).” Hence, in this area marketers in Asia are still not effective enough in employing relevant strategies to better make use of social platforms.

In conclusion, we can definitely see a growing market for marketers to use social media in Asia from general trends. Further, we can see the increasing power and role of virtual communities in Asia and how it serves as an effective complement to traditional forms of media that already exist. However, it would be unwise to jump onto the bandwagon without knowing the challenges that come along with it. Too often, many companies have invested much into the setup of online platforms but have ultimately failed in their marketing efforts due to a lack of understanding and strategy for the market. Hence, the takeaway for marketers in Asia would be first to develop a more holistic evaluation criteria to better understand the environment—this includes surveying the possible social ramifications that might ensue from an over-usage of social media. Marketers that unknowingly burden their participants through too many social media platforms may end up in a backlash and resentment towards product. Through this understanding, marketers can then develop better strategies based on frameworks such as the seven functional blocks of social marketing and actively maintain/employ social media platforms as needed without over using platforms. These platforms has to be seen as a consistent touch point to build relationships with consumers instead of a one-off “push” marketing function for a campaign.






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