In this edition of Spotlight Southeast Asia, WARC Asia Editor Gabey Goh looks at the social commerce opportunity in the region and what’s next for brands that want to take the conversation with consumers further.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on how brands can further leverage the social commerce opportunity in Southeast Asia.

There was never any doubt that social commerce would be popular in Southeast Asia. Close to 70% of the region’s 650 million population are active social media users and with more people scrolling feeds while being stuck at home due to COVID-19, the social commerce world has shifted considerably.

From being able to buy products directly from social media platforms to live selling via livestreaming videos and dealing directly with sellers on chat apps, how consumers engage with brands has increasing become more interactive. And depending on the market, the preference touchpoint can vary; in some markets, chat apps and chatbots rule while in others, live selling dominates.

Then there’s the growing trend of KOCs (key opinion consumers) – how should brands adjust their strategies as the biggest purchase influencers shift from high-profile personalities to everyday consumers, and smaller-scale networks? Do brands have a place in an influencer space driven purely by personal, unsolicited choices?

Social commerce is no longer a new phenomenon and the question now is: What’s next?

With the three-way tug of war happening right now between e-commerce marketplaces, online brand stores and social media platforms, how can brands develop seamless experiences through these digital gardens in the fight for shopper attention?

Social media is a battleground for purchasing opportunities

Data from research firm GWI shows that three-quarters (73%) of SEA consumers spend over an hour on social media on an average day and over a quarter (26%) follow brands they’re considering purchasing from.

To create the best chance of purchase, the online brand presence needs to be an ecosystem of connected channels as the majority (55%) visit the brand’s website, followed by 34% liking or following a brand on social media.

In addition, one-fifth of online purchases in the region come from social commerce, establishing its position as a key purchasing channel with room to grow.

Culture and community must be at the heart of any strategy

As marketers look into better leveraging social commerce as part of their overall e-commerce strategies, contributors for this Southeast Asia Spotlight edition all agree that innovation around new formats and the continuing shift toward online channels as the central mode of shopping will drive further growth.

However, one common theme in the insights and guidance offered is centred around the need for brands to not discount the human and cultural element in a space often dominated by data, algorithms and platform play.

  • Community as the vehicle: One of the biggest drivers of social commerce is the feeling of belonging and the rise of the micro-community, a community to ask for a review of your local hairdresser and check on the most advanced home automation systems, for instance.

    “Brands are currently just scratching the surface of utilising communities and influencers as media vehicles to activate campaigns. As the social commerce space matures, we will witness more brands investing in setting up and actively running these communities, with purpose as the lubricant to keep them going,” writes Neeraj Gulati, partner at Entropia.

  • The emergence of cultural commerce: The evolving role of social platforms like Instagram to be cultural discovery engines, linking directly to sales, presents a new way to build work for marketers. Brands can expedite branding into actual purchase by borrowing from both the principles of brand building and performance marketing to engage consumers and motivate them to buy at the same time.

    “We think that the brands that are ahead of the game in this space are the same ones that are experimenting with, embedding and transforming shopping experiences. With the right design and approach, brands can sell various categories in interesting ways via cultural commerce – and doing so by building their brand and driving sales at the same time,” writes Jasmine Wong, head of strategy – APAC Hub at Initiative.

  • Brands need to embrace “storyselling”: Consumers today are spoilt for choice, with the onus on brands to stand out amongst the crowd. Being present and relevant is important; it’s also about how marketers can fuel consideration and simplify the consumer’s journey. The challenge is to create that one thumb-stopping experience that enables purchases that are just a tap away.

    “As easy as it may sound, especially as marketers, you would know our thumbs seldom stop at advertisements today. The ones that truly stand out are the ones that appeal to our senses, those that can cultivate an emotion,” writes Raveena Udasi Mathew, digital director at OMD Thailand.

  • Seamless experience must be a key consideration: As multinational brands and micro merchants alike look to explore the social commerce space, it is important to bear in mind that seamlessness is an imperative. Businesses need to work towards establishing a multi-channel presence by ensuring that brand visibility is high and interacting with consumers along the non-linear purchase journey.

    “To succeed in this new era of omnichannel business driven by digital and technology, brands and businesses need to readily embrace the skills of scientists, strategists and storytellers to be successful across all channels,” writes Aniket Basu, senior director technology and e-commerce at Essence.

  • Don’t just focus on the “selling”; social engagement and authentic dialogue are key: These days, live selling has become a crucial component of most brands’ marketing campaigns, especially for mega sale campaigns or major product launches.

    “Shopping goes beyond the purely functional – it’s also a leisure activity. Collaborate with new emerging content creators to make the live selling experience as authentic and engaging as possible,” argues TBWA\SMP’s digital planner Jean Arboleda and strategic planning director RJ Paculan.

  • Better end-to-end infrastructure is critical for exponential growth: Platforms need to move beyond buy buttons and shoppable social posts. Social commerce needs to provide a seamless shopping experience – from adding products to the cart, up to checkout without leaving the app – and offer true convenience. In addition, enabling more payment methods that consumers would prefer, such as digital wallets.

    “Although local brands and consumers are already aware of the existence of social commerce, there are things these platforms have to improve on. For brands to get far-reaching impact and deliver what consumers really want, the key is to provide a better online shopping experience,” write romp Jakarta’s Jody Ridwan Juniarsyah and Gianinna Agustina.

It is clear that the potential of social commerce has yet to be fully seized in Southeast Asia. There are opportunities to be had in better incorporating new features and strategies in ways that resonate with consumers looking for more from their brands.

As the region continues its struggle to navigate safely out of a global pandemic, the desire for more personalised and engaging experiences will remain strong amongst shoppers turning to online channels to replace – albeit temporarily – the gap that the loss of in-store retail and freer travel has left behind.