Can digital advertising and marketing thrive in a nation that blocks Facebook? Entrepreneurs remain optimistic.
A woman carries a bamboo pole resting across her shoulders, hauling baskets full of fruit, eggs, flowers, or veggies, and hawking them to anyone stopping long enough to gawk in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam. Sidewalk cooks stir up pots of pho, serving up the aromatic soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner customers.
In contrast, thousands of other people zip around on their motor scooters. Some carry cargo, too, delicately balancing a flat screen TV, cases of Coca Cola, or even a spouse and two children.
Welcome to Vietnam, a nation with one foot planted in the past and another ready to race into the future.
While marketers say Vietnam's adoption of digital communications and advertising lags other countries, they expect that will change in coming years. Why? Vietnam is a young country with a large population. The median age in the world's 13th largest nation is 27.4; in China, the median age is 35.2, and Japan, 44.6.
And there's only room for growth. According to estimates, online advertising totaled $15 million in 2009, representing only about 2 percent of all spending in Vietnam. Online ad spending is expected by some industry analysts to double by 2012.
As Vietnamese under the age of 25 advance in their careers and earn more money, advertisers such as auto manufacturers and insurance carriers will follow that audience online, said Quan Nguyen, chief executive of Notch, a digital agency based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Vietnam's Facebook Ban
Vietnam's move to limit access to Facebook seems surprising for a nation that is working to develop a more open economy and enjoys diplomatic and trade relations with the United States. When I tried to log into my account from a Hanoi hotel in late July, I could not get through, either. Instead, I got this message: "Safari can't find the server www.facebook.com."
OpenNet Initiative, a consortium that tracks global Internet surveillance and censorship, has a theory about the lack of interest in Vietnam's Facebook ban. "Under the shadow of China, and its unpopular Internet policies, Vietnam has been lost in the crowd," Alex Fayette wrote for the OpenNet Initiative's blog. "But that can only last so long.
Still, some people are using workarounds to access Facebook in Vietnam. And others are turning to Vietnamese social networks such as Zing.vn, a Facebook look alike, and VietMee.com, that are not blocked.
OneVietnam.org, a social network based in the United States that launched in mid-July, aspires to connect Vietnamese-Americans and other expatriates with the culture and customs of their parents' and grandparents' homeland irregardless of the Facebook ban. It's available in Vietnamese and English; more languages are expected to be added.
When asked about the Vietnam government's stance toward Facebook and what that might mean for his startup, OneVietnam co-founder James H. Bao said: "It doesn't help us. It doesn't hurt us either…Facebook is a different entity…We are fairly transparent and don't have any other agenda."
OneVietnam is a not-for-profit organization; it received a grant of $100,000 from the Ford Foundation as part of an effort to educate the public about the crippling genetic effects of Agent Orange/dioxin, a herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. But it's not the single focus of the network, which also hosts discussions about film, fashion, and whatever else is on the minds of Vietnamese and their friends.
The social network may eventually look to advertising to maintain operations. "Advertising is one of the ways we can explore to becoming self-sustaining," Bao said.
Bao and Brian Luong, OneVietnam's chief editor, think the network will be attractive to advertisers interested in reaching its audience comprised of people ages 22 to 34 with an affinity for technology and Vietnamese food and culture.
In the United States alone, the number of Vietnamese immigrants in the United States totaled 1.1 million in 2006, making it the fifth largest immigrant group after Mexican, Filipino, Chinese, and Indian foreign born, according to the Migration Information Source based in Washington, DC.
While OneVietnam does not disclose the number of registered or active users, Bao and Luong said the network's server size had to be increased five times during the launch week because of demand. On Facebook, close to 7,000 people say they "like" the OneVietnam Network; there, the discussions center on anything from Vietnamese music to the picture of the day, like an "overload delivery."
A Push for Standards
Notch CEO Quan Nguyen is optimistic about online advertising's potential for growth in Vietnam. His agency's clients include global brands such as Nissan, Listerine, Wrigley, and local brands, VinaPhone, a telecom, and VietnamWorks, an employment service.
Yet, he's well aware of obstacles to the fledgling industry's growth in Vietnam.
"There are issues with transparency, measurement, there's no third-party tracking – everyone does their own tracking," he said in an interview via Skype this week from Vietnam. "There are no [ad] standards. Everyone wants to be on the homepage."
Nguyen, who received a B.A. in business administration from Seattle University in 1994, jumped into Internet software development during the dot-com boom in the United States. He worked at e-commerce company Fry Inc. in Ann Arbor, MI, before returning to Vietnam, working at VinaGame, co-founding Liquidline, an interactive experience studio and then, Notch.
To advance digital advertising in Vietnam, Nguyen has joined with two dozen other marketers to establish the Interactive Advertising Bureau Vietnam this past year. He serves on its steering committee along with Aryeh Sternberg, digital director for GroupM Interaction in Vietnam, and others.
While embracing global best practices, Nguyen recognizes they must be adapted for local audiences. For instance, he's learned that Vietnamese prefer simple websites and features. "People did not go to high school with [the Internet]. They are learning it at work. Simplicity is extremely important," he said, while discussing audiences over the age of 25.
"You cannot take what you learn from the outside and bring it to Vietnam," he said.
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Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.
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