By colodio via flickr

With thriving Asian economies barely skipping a beat during the latest financial crisis, the region has emerged as the single biggest opportunity for travel marketers. And much of that opportunity lies in the digital space.

In the past we’ve faced the challenge of tailoring our marketing efforts to the nuances of different Asian markets. When it comes to digital, we need to be even more careful to not treat Asia as a homogenous lump.

Rules of Engagement

Overall, Asian netizens are highly active:

  • 85% are members of social networking sites; users spend an average of seven hours networking per week
  • 87% read blogs and three in five have started their own
  • 95% research products and services online

Digital’s secret weapon is engagement. The Internet allows marketers to deliver content that engages consumers in the experiential elements of a brand and sparks conversations—all in a cost effective manner. For a prime example, look no further than Tourism Queensland’s Best Job In The World campaign.

But consumers will only engage with content that speaks to them and their world. So recognising the differences in how Asian cultures interact in the digital sphere is vital.

Digital Relativism

Three broad factors influence the needs of a digital population:

1. Culture. Collectivist versus individualist cultures (e.g. Japan versus Australia) use digital media differently. Different cultures have different priorities. For example, in China personal life is stronger, while in India political engagement is.

2. Maturity of Internet penetration. A low penetration group is distinct in attitudes and demographics in a way that a larger population is not. For example, in India, Internet use skews heavily toward young men in urban areas who are early adopters of technology.

3. Digital infrastructure. Internet speed and availability of broadband connections define what we can do online.

By plotting the type of digital activity (blogging, online shopping, mobile use, etc.) against these factors, we can determine which media work better for each culture.

Typically, younger demographics in less mature markets will have a stronger need for recognition, so (as the chart below shows) individual blogs are more prevalent in China and India. Mobile Internet is also strong in these markets because this technology became available before traditional PC-based interactions were widely established.

On the other hand, in countries with high Internet penetration but a strong collectivist culture, digital habits tend to centre around acceptance. So in Korea, collaborative blogging is more common.

Here in Australia, the Internet is highly prevalent but a more individualistic culture (plus a higher degree of trust in public spaces) means that we look to digital technology for enrichment and entertainment. Australians enjoy researching and buying products online as well as watching movies, downloading music and playing games.

Airlines and Local Differences

To see these cultural differences in action, compare Jetstar’s digital branding strategy in Australia to Air Asia’s Malaysian campaign. Australians are mature travellers who value convenience. With this in mind, Jetstar is among the leaders in Asia in piloting tools like mobile phone boarding passes, alongside its traditional focus on the Internet as a sales distribution tool.

At Air Asia, digital marketing plays more of a supporting role. The company’s brand philosophy is built around the theme “Now anyone can fly.” So while you can buy an Air Asia ticket online, you can also buy one in your local convenience store.

In their own ways, both carriers serve the disparate needs of their target customers.

The Golden Rule

It’s an older story, but 10 years ago the fast take-off of SMS technology happened in stark contrast to the slow uptake of 3G. The technology gods thought we couldn’t wait to make video calls, but we didn’t know how, what it would cost or feel the need to. A great technology, it was not driven by consumer need like SMS and other successful innovations we see today—like iPhone apps.

Localising digital strategy is a lesson in the same philosophy: Don’t do unto your neighbour what you would have them do unto you. Their needs may differ.