Thailand’s Digital Landscape

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Thailand? Thought about it? Now it’s my turn – I think of sandy white beaches, scuba-diving, amazing food (delicious green curries!), bustling Bangkok and, increasingly, digital marketing.

Why digital marketing? Well, quite apart from the fact that it’s my passion and the reason I write this column, I think that Thailand is a great example of how emerging economies react to the speed of technological innovation, and can teach us all a valuable lesson about how to engage with customers in these environments.

Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand is growing year-on-year. With a population of 67 million and median age of 32, the younger generation spends increasing amounts of time online. This behavior, be it online shopping, social media, or games, has had a strong impact on marketing budgets and hence the money is moving slowly but steadily from offline to digital marketing.

But the story doesn’t end there. Like in many other developing countries, it’s all about the infrastructure, and in particular the ability of the non-urban population to connect to cabled Internet. Just like in Indonesia, and despite availability of fibre broadband in Bangkok, only 7.76 percent of the population is connected to broadband Internet.

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When you compare this to the total number of Internet users, currently around 39 percent of the population, it all becomes clear. A massive 80 percent of Thais using the Internet, are using mobile phones (and more specifically smartphones) to access the Internet. In common with many of its neighbors, the average Thai has 1.49 devices (more than 100 million devices), with mobile growth rates of 5.41 percent. Interestingly, the vast majority (around 82 percent) are pre-paid users. With these statistics in mind, it is clear that the opportunities for digital marketing are very mobile, whether you’re talking about search, advertising, email, or of course m-commerce.

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Dig deeper and you begin to unearth a lot of useful information. For example, most smartphones in Thailand are lower-priced labels manufactured in China, and GFK estimated that in 2013 Android devices were 70 percent of the total market share, against just 18 percent only to iOS, the Bangkok Post reported. So, price is clearly a major factor.

Now let’s look at what they do while they’re online. Thais are ranked number one in Southeast Asia in terms of time spent online, with 27.2 hours a week (source: comScore). The table below tells us what they’re doing.

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What struck me straight away is how far down the list the actual act of buying something is! Thais clearly spend a lot more smartphone time entertaining or informing themselves than they do shopping. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Before we find out, let’s learn a little more about the Thai digital economy. Despite the relatively low connectivity rates I mentioned earlier, the sheer volume of mobile devices has compensated to the extent that a whopping 51 percent of Thais bought online in the past three months, and 55 percent of Thais compare prices on the mobile before proceeding to purchase in retail.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Information and Technology Communication found in a survey from 2013 that 93.8 percent of online buyers used social media, and half of them used social media to buy.

So, what do all these statistics tell me? Well, I struggled with this same question, until I read a survey recently conducted by the National Statistical Office of Thailand about the status of the e-commerce in Thailand, which showed that 61.9 percent of all e-commerce companies operate with both an online shop and a standard retail shop.

Then I read further: The main products sold by e-commerce in Thailand are travel (hotels/resorts and flights) with 24 percent of all business, fashion and accessories with 23.3 percent, and computers and electronic appliances coming in third. Slowly, a pattern began to emerge. If you leave air travel out of the equation – I mean, who goes to a travel agent to book a flight these days? – one thread emerges linking these three together: the opinions of other people. I know I never book a hotel online without reading all the reviews available; fashion is all about, well, fashion; and when you’re looking for electric appliances of any sort you want a reasonable lifetime guarantee and some value for money, which all comes from peer reviews. In other words, the Thai online is a world where people speak to each other, browse products, and compare experiences before committing to a decision. And once they do, they’re as likely to visit a store in person as to purchase online. So adapt your strategy accordingly.

Just last month I wrote about online-to-offline opportunities to engage your clients via their mobile devices, AKA engaging your clients digitally in your brick-and-mortar retail operations. This is truer than ever in Thailand.

It’s not good enough to have just multi-channel approach in place – you need to think multi-dimensionally. From what we have learned, your average Thais’ online purchases are heavily influenced by what their friends are saying in their social networks. Marketing to social media users in Thailand should be easier than marketing to users in other Southeast Asian countries, as most of the social networks are the global ones: Facebook, Google+, Line, Instagram, and Twitter being the most common networks. So this is a golden opportunity to hone your brand awareness tactics, using social media, apps, normal e-commerce, emails, and blogs in order to engage your clients and build a name for yourself.

And you won’t need to invest so much in a national distribution network. People still expect to do their shopping themselves, but are enjoying the fact that it’s no longer always necessary.

So what’s my point after all that? Just that you need to think where your marketing dollar is going to have the most impact. Sometimes this can be in straight online retail, sometimes in multi-channel customer engagement.

 
Right now, I believe that Thailand is a place where businesses can really build their brand locally with the online generation, while shopping is still a physical activity and one-click purchases are no longer a hygiene product. It’s also a chance to set trends and influence the way people shop in the next decade. Having said that, be patient and don’t rush it – it is Southeast Asia after all.
 
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