7 lessons to jump-start your digital marketing in Asia

Looking to expand your business to Asia and not sure what to expect? Contributor Eli Schwartz shares insights gleaned from living and working overseas.

About a year and a half ago, I relocated from California to Singapore to take on the challenge of marketing SurveyMonkey’s portfolio of products across Asia. Living and working in a new region, I’ve been learning new ways of marketing, communicating and relating to different cultures.

While my new role consisted of online marketing, offline promotions and some business development, my initial focus was on search engine marketing, since this was the area I knew best.

For the most part, international SEO/SEM is an effort that one can do without ever getting on a plane; however, my ramp-up time was incredibly accelerated by a total immersion in a new target market. If Asia is on your marketing roadmap or near-term horizon, I hope I can smooth  your learning curve with this list of my top seven eye-opening discoveries.

1. Hyperlocal language optimization may be necessary

Before arriving in Asia, I had known that both Indonesia and Malaysia speak a language that in English we called “Bahasa.” I had assumed this was a similar scenario to both Mexico and Argentina speaking Spanish. Instead, what I learned is that “Bahasa” is just a Sanskrit word for “language.”

While the Indonesian and Malaysian languages have similarities, they are absolutely not the same in vocabulary or pronunciation. Not realizing that, I created Indonesian content that was supposed to work for Malaysia and only discovered my error once this new content utterly failed in Malaysia.

Key lesson: If you are optimizing for Malaysia and Indonesia, you can’t get away with just Bahasa landing pages; you need to actually have different translations for each country.

2. When it comes to language targeting, know your demographic

After learning that I needed to target Malaysia independently of Indonesia, I created Malay-specific content. Once I did not see my desired growth from this content, I grilled Malaysian friends and contacts, only to discover that the demographic I sought (tech savvy and urban) possibly did not even speak Malay.

Malay is the official language, and it’s used in the halls of government and in Malay communities, but other ethnicities speak the languages of their own heritage, like Tamil and Mandarin Chinese. Additionally, Malaysia was a British colony until the Second World War, so as a result, English is widely spoken everywhere.

Key lesson: Depending on your desired demographics, you might be able to just skip Malay entirely for Malaysia and just use English content.

3. A single country can have many different languages and dialects

Multiple Chinese languages fall under the umbrella of what the Western world calls the language of Chinese. In fact, there are many dialects that divide speakers, even within the same language.

Mandarin is the official Chinese language of China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. The province of Guangdong, the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, and the special regions of Hong Kong and Macau speak Cantonese.

Petronas towers

Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Key lesson: When it comes to writing for landing pages or ad copy, there isn’t a tremendous amount of difference between the largest dialects, but always use a local copywriter. A Hong Konger should write Hong Kong-targeted copy, a Beijinger should write copy for Beijing and similar large metropolitan Chinese cities.

 4. Not everyone uses the same alphabet

Within the Chinese language, there are also two different sets of characters (or what we call the “alphabet” in English). China and Singapore use a simplified set of characters that have fewer strokes and are easier to write. Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan use traditional characters.

Readers of simplified Chinese characters might have a hard time understanding text written in traditional text. Think of it like an English speaker trying to read a Scandinavian language. It looks almost familiar, but you aren’t really sure how to pronounce the words.

When creating copy for Taiwan, I discovered that a Singaporean schooled in simplified characters could not really help with proofreading of traditional characters written for Taiwan.

Key lesson: You need to have different pages and ad copy to target regions that use different characters. One set of Chinese writing will not work for all Chinese readers.

5. Different payment options may be required for e-commerce

Aside from the obvious issues of foreign currency, selling goods or services online is completely different from the way it is done in the West.

There are vast amounts of wealthy potential customers who just do not have credit or debit cards. As a result, many companies create options for cash payments in convenience stores or accept Cash On Delivery. Additionally, not all credit cards are approved for overseas usage. As a result, the credit card penetration rates of a particular target country do not tell the full story on market size.

Luckily, I have both US and local credit cards, so I can usually navigate around e-commerce roadblocks, but it is amazing how many times I have run into an issue where a specific credit card is not accepted.

Key lesson: Carefully think through payment issues before marketing a product. An easy workaround is to use a payment gateway like PayPal or Alipay (Alibaba’s payment company) which add more options for accepting payments than just what you can get with implementing a payment gateway.

6. You must account for a wider range of income levels

Socioeconomic standing has a massive impact on the size of any product’s addressable market. For example, many people in Asia don’t earn enough in a month to buy even the cheapest smartphone, unlike in more developed countries where a basic smartphone could be bought for the amount of money earned with a week’s worth of minimum wage.

Furthermore, smartphone ownership in Asia is not a guarantee that there is actually a data plan attached to the phone due to affordability or cell reception. Many lower-income smartphone users only use the internet features on their phone when they get WiFi or have a need to purchase a time-limited data plan.

While Singapore has some of the fastest data speeds in the world, I have seen data speeds vary widely, even in large cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok and Jakarta, which rendered my smartphone and data plans worthless for actually using the web.

Key lesson: Take income levels of potential customers into account when considering how and where they might discover your websites or click on your ads.

7. Think “mobile-first” when building apps and websites

As has been much discussed, much of Asia is mobile-first, and Android is the dominant operating system simply because it is less expensive. When building campaigns and assets for Asia, always consider a mobile-first experience — and when you need to choose, build apps for Android. Given the limited data plans and sometimes even small memory space on lower end phones, apps should be as small as possible.

From my experience, responsive and mobile web experiences are not as commonplace in Asia as they are in other parts of the world, which actually gives you an advantage if you prioritize mobile experiences.

Key lesson: From my experience, Google’s mobile-friendly algorithm in Asia isn’t as prevalent as it is in the US; however, optimize for mobile anyway, since this is how users will access your sites.

Final thoughts

Most of the Asian marketing insights I gleaned over my time in Singapore, I might never have internalized (or, at a minimum, believed) if someone had shared them with me before moving overseas. I made and continue to make many missteps based on assumptions I had marketing to a culture without actually understanding it.

My actual list of lessons from Asia is endless, but hopefully, these high-level learnings can save you some wasted effort and misspent budgets.

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