Forward Momentum in the APAC Region: The Reinvention of Social Context

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It is well known that APAC consumers are “super-connected”, spending much of their time on their smartphones and social media. In the past year, social media usage in the region has surged even further as consumers retreated into their homes and turned to Facebook, Instagram, or other platforms to not only stay connected with family and friends, but to read news, shop, and play games as well.

Previously, popularity on social media had been an important metric for APAC consumers, especially younger generations, driven by conspicuous consumption and an impulse to overshare for external validation.

Thankfully, the pandemic has brought a cultural shift and raised the awareness of social issues such as mental health, equality, poverty, climate change, and local democracy, prompting many to engage in conversations on those issues on social platforms.


For instance, one of the much-discussed topics in a number of APAC markets has been that of the plight of migrant workers amidst lockdowns and social distancing measures. In Singapore, low-income foreign workers packed into bunk rooms that lack proper hygiene facilities had accounted for more than 90% of the Republic’s COVID cases.

To support the relocation of these workers to residential neighborhoods where they can safely practice social distancing, a group of Singaporean volunteers launched a social media campaign, #WelcomeInMyBackyard on Facebook and Instagram, encouraging residents to post notes of welcome as well as organizing virtual talks between residents and migrant workers.

At the same time, tech-savvy Asian consumers continue to adopt new social tools at lightning speed. Social commerce, which started out as shoppable ads less than five years ago, has now evolved to a potent mix of live-streaming and chatbots to engage and sell to customers at scale.

It was reported that the number of e-commerce live-streaming sessions in China topped 4 million in the first quarter of 2020 alone, with TaoBao Live, Kuaishou, and Pinduoduo all reporting a boom in live-streaming activity.


Retailers in Southeast Asia including Lazada and Shopee have also begun to successfully add live-stream commerce offerings to their platforms with Shopee reporting a 40 times increase in the number of live streams from brands and sellers in Singapore in the past year.

As the lines between social, video, and commerce platforms in APAC continue to blur, niche communities or more private groups are emerging out of those multi-functional platforms to enable better-shared experiences.

Similarly, Rooter is a sports-oriented social platform in India where users can consume and create sports content in their preferred language. It successfully pivoted to live-streaming of video games last year when sporting events were put on pause, tripling its daily active users and doubling its monthly active users.

In China, interest-based social networking platform Douban has also been thriving amongst office workers, artists, freelancers, and students who share common interests in arts, culture, and lifestyle. Social platforms aside, there has also been a rise of the Key Opinion Consumer or KOC in the market, who are both consumers of and experts in testing and reviewing products.

This new class of micro-influencers often play an important role in the decision-making process of their community followers through sharing highly reliable content, despite their limited reach.

Certainly, the boundaries of connection and community, along with the meaning of social interactions, are being stretched, segmented, and reinvented. Consumers are renegotiating the social context on their own terms, fluidly redefining the face they present to others depending on the group or community they are in the company of.

They are no longer generating content for the sole purpose of getting likes; they are now sharing content and opinions that can influence their social circles. In short, APAC consumers are embracing their multi-faceted role as users, creators, influencers across a myriad of platforms.

Whilst on the surface, this may appear to be an intimidating challenge for brands and advertisers, in reality, it presents an exciting opportunity for the industry as we will be able to use data about the context to target our messaging.

The smaller the group of people, the more they have in common, and the easier it is to forge a meaningful connection through advertising, branded content, or partnerships. Rather than using our data to solely target individuals, we can use it to target context, reaching communities within platforms.

This shift towards smaller online communities may have been inevitable after all. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar hypothesized that there is a hard limit to the number of people one can maintain stable social relationships with, which his research suggested to be around 150 people.

This rule of 150 was applicable for early hunter-gatherer societies as well as a surprising array of modern contexts such as offices, communes, factories, residential campsites, and so on. Exceeding 150 people, a network is unlikely to last long or cohere well. From this perspective, the past decade of unfettered growth on public-facing social platforms starts to look more like something we might remember as an anomaly.

As consumer technology continues to mature, we will gradually figure out the most natural and mutually beneficial ways to communicate, socialize, and connect with each other on digital channels. Brand marketers should strive to do the same.

Picture of Sharon Soh

Sharon Soh

Sharon is the Head Of Strategy APAC at UM and a contributor to Branding in Asia Magazine

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