This post originally appeared on the Y Combinator Blog here: http://blog.ycombinator.com/strategies-for-marketing-in-asia/
After a year and a half leading SurveyMonkey’s marketing efforts in Asia, I have gleaned insights about the Asian market that would’ve taken me much longer to learn from a distance in the US. SurveyMonkey is the world’s leading survey platform and before I arrived we already had a sizable user base across Asia. Nonetheless, the on the ground learning that individualized our marketing approach to this region has been able to accelerate growth by double digit percentages.
Typically, International SEO, SEM and social media can always be conducted without the need to be embedded in a local market; however, the ramp up time for a successful campaign is significantly shortened with hands-on exposure. If marketing in Asia is anywhere in your eventual roadmap, hopefully I can smooth your learning curve with what were, to me, eye-opening discoveries.
There are actually several Chinese languages that a Western audience simply defines as “Chinese”. Even within these multiple Chinese languages, there are distinct dialects that can even confuse speakers of the same language. Mandarin is the official Chinese language of China as well as Taiwan, Singapore (which also has three other official languages of Malay, English and Tamil), and Malaysia (in addition to Malay, Tamil and English). The manufacturing hub Guangzhou, the province of Guandong, as well the special regions of Hong Kong and Macau all speak Cantonese.
When marketing to a “Chinese” audience, it is critical to be mindful of your target market and contract native speakers to write for that market. A Beijinger should write for a Beijing audience, and a Taiwanese person should write for Taiwan.
There is No Catch-All Alphabet
Even within the Chinese language, there are two distinct different alphabets. China and Singapore (for the occasions that Chinese is used) officially use a simplified set of characters that have less strokes and are considered easier to write. Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan use traditional characters. While traditional Chinese readers can easily understand simplified characters, simplified readers might have a hard time understanding traditional characters. As a result, there is no catch-all alphabet that can be used when creating content for Chinese speakers.
Payments Methods Differ Vastly From The US
Unlike in the US or the Eurozone, there are myriad issues in Asia related to foreign currency and transacting cross-border business. In addition, there are vast amounts of wealthy potential customers that just do not have credit or debit cards which makes any kind of online transaction infinitely more challenging. To accommodate this reality, many companies create options to accept cash on delivery or utilize local convenience stores as locations where customers can pay in cash. Even for those that have credit cards, their cards may not even be approved for overseas use, so essentially, credit card adoption rates don’t even tell the full story of a potential customer base.
Don’t spend time only thinking about how to reach new customers across Asia, also consider how these customers will eventually pay for a product. Payment gateway solutions like Alipay or Paypal should be considered as these companies shoulder the burden of receiving the customer’s funds, but they are not a perfect fit for everyone.
Internet Access Methods Change as Income Increases
Economic standing has the greatest impact on the size of any product’s addressable market. While many in the media might tout smartphone ownership in Asia as evidence of the growth of the middle class, there are still many people that don’t earn enough in a month to buy even the cheapest smartphone. 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. Some people never purchase data plans and just rely on WiFi while others only have limited data packages. Understanding the income levels of a target market must be an important part of building a potential buyer persona. Lower income people cannot necessarily be reached online, but may be able to utilize an online service if they discover it through other means.
Build Apps For Android and Make Them Small
As most people are aware, Asia is mobile-first and Android is the dominant operating system. 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, developers should ensure that apps use as minimal data as possible (see above point) and don’t take up a lot of memory on the phone.
In the US and other more developed Internet economies, Google will demote less mobile-friendly websites; however, this does not seem to be the case in much of Asia, yet. Even so, it is worthwhile to optimize products and websites for a mobile user simply to have an enhanced experience for the majority of your potential user base.
Asia is a fascinating mishmash of cultures, history, and rapid growth. While it is far more challenging to figure out how to grow an audience base in Asia than it might be in Europe or the USA, it is well worth the effort. Beneath the unpredictability and business complexities, lies a tremendous amount of opportunity and potential. With the tips above as a head start, just leap in.