Post from Thailand: How to join the conversation

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VRZO, Thailand's number 1 YouTube channel.
VRZO, Thailand's number 1 YouTube channel.

Brands are finding a warm welcome in Thailand, where smartphones and a culture of sharing drive some of Asia's most creative social media

BANGKOK — In recent years, a turbulent political landscape and periodic natural disasters have disturbed Thailand’s commercial activities. To those on the outside looking in, the country can seem less-than-ideal for business. But this depends on whether you know how to read the lines. 

With a population of 65 million, Thailand has incredible recuperative powers, and its dynamism can swallow the speed bumps placed in front of it. Booming industries like tourism and retail continue to open up — Bangkok was the world’s most visited city in 2013 — and Thai businesses have been quick to adopt content marketing and social media to promote services domestically and internationally. The five biggest industries (FMCG, e-commerce, fashion, electronics and retail food) have all experienced marked increases in consumer engagement on social media in recent years.

Thailand is the third-largest Facebook market in the world. It also has extremely high penetration on Instagram and is number one in the world for active users on Line. Mark Cochrane, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Thailand, cites the democratizing effect of smartphones in middle- to lower-income communities and an increase in 3G and 4G broadband as the major drivers to giving Thais the opportunity to consume and participate more than ever before. 

"For brands this is extremely liberating as it creates a live and real-time ecosystem to connect and participate with their customers and consumers more deeply," says Cochrane.

Capturing these opportunities, however, is something else entirely. On social media in Thailand, brands need to evolve quickly and much faster than in mature markets in order to be "leaders in sociability".  

Cochrane’s solution was to implement a ‘live creative newsroom’ that focuses on listening to the many sophisticated "mini-markets" and creating relevant content that makes brands a part of the conversation on the go. "It’s not about owning the conversation or building a command-and-control function," Cochrane notes.

The rise of secondary content channels

Long before social-media platforms like Facebook took off in Thailand, there was Pantip.com. It’s essentially a forum and is still one of the most influential places for trending sentiments, public opinions and discussion. If you’ve ever been wronged by a brand in Thailand, you’ll likely head to Pantip to post your experience and if it is one shared by many, it won’t be long before it rises and grows out onto other social platforms.

Websites like Pantip are the incubators of authentic Thai conversations for topics ranging from local shopping to Silicon Valley.

"The biggest trend for us right now is understanding the rise in secondary content channels," Cochrane says. You can’t just think of Facebook and YouTube as the places to be."

The challenge is to keep track of and understand the conversations happening there. Many global listening tools aren’t equipped to work in Thailand, especially due to language, tone and the power of web boards like Pantip. "You need to listen through a mix of international and local tools," Cochrane advises. 

Beyond Thailand’s regular social-media users who are responsible for skyrocketing destinations in Bangkok to "most Instagrammed place on the planet" there are a host of local influencers, celebrities and creators who are making their mark on social media in Thailand and impacting the brand space.

Thai content marketing in brief

  • Thai content by nature tends to be light, fun and uplifting, in part due to the country’s predominantly Buddhist culture. But Thais also like to be moved through a range of emotions, and content that begins humorously can sometimes end as a tearjerker
  • In terms of social media, it’s not about "managing a community" or taking over a conversation but being part of the conversation. Thais are particularly sensitive to this while being motivated to share even more via social channels than in many other markets
  • Secondary content channels and creators such as Pantip and VRZO are a major driving influence in Thailand. One of their most attractive features is their irreverence
  • Using a combination of global and local Thai listening tools is important for brands in capturing real local insights
  • Mobile games on socially integrated platforms such as Line and Facebook are amplified by Thai people’s tendency to game together with friends and communities

The VRZO YouTube channel started as a few guys getting together to make funny Thai-style videos. One of the founding members is Surabot Leekpai or "Pleum VRZO," who is the son of a former prime minister. Now, as it has grown to be the number one YouTube channel in Thailand, VRZO has over 600 million views and two million subscribers. 

The channel pioneers a type of long-form video that can’t be found anywhere else. While most VRZO episodes go for an hour, they still rack up millions of views, which means users are staying engaged for long periods and watching the channel like television. This concept runs counterintuitive to platforms like Vine.

Thor Santisiri, Thai creative veteran and chairman at Nude Communication, believes secondary channels like VRZO can talk about things that the traditional media cannot. "They’re powerful because they can take the piss out of people and talk about taboo topics in a funny way, which people are drawn to," he says.

Brands have been quick to capitalise on this, and now nearly all of VRZO’s content contains ads ranging from consumer goods to human services. However, all brand promotion is expressed in the ‘VRZO way’, and entire episodes can be dedicated to introducing products, services and creating brand awareness. It’s all part of entertainment from the VRZO hosts.

Dew Intapunya, business director at Ensemble, adds that brands need to be wary of simply placing products in celebrity’s hands and would do better to "use a brand idea to create a story," citing Ensemble’s work for Rexona during the Thailand’s Got Talent television series, in which the idea of ‘do more’ was explored as a narrative without showing the product overtly. "Even with channels like VRZO, people can become less excited if it’s too promotional," Intapunya says. "It needs to be done right."

The key insight however, is that brands must operate at the rate of culture as the consumer conversations change around them. 

"Content creators such as the VRZO guys are now mass entertainment so as marketers we need to understand how to be part of conversations around these types of secondary content worlds as well," says Cochrane. "These content channels and platforms that are dominating are really unique to Thailand and it’s where Thai people are living." 

Thai content beyond stereotypes

Thai content and storytelling is often associated with slapstick comedy, ridiculousness, oddly timed ‘boing’ sounds, the occasional token transvestite and a sense of humour that is deeply embedded in the language and its colloquialisms. 

There’s more to it than that though. Thailand’s Buddhist ideals make happiness, positivity and optimism at the heart of culture, which makes sharable content light, fun, and uplifting.

"We often talk about ‘social light’ content that is not complicated in its tone, messaging or user experience," says Cochrane.

Jay Narissara Uthaiwattanatorn, managing partner with Y&R Thailand Digital Advertising, elaborated on this further: "Most Thais love content about jokes and taking a look at the daily Facebook news feeds, you'll often see joke content with edited photos of well-known people and photos imprinted with quirky copy. They're shared across all popular social networks."

Contrasting this are tearjerkers and a variation that combines humour at the start and then flips completely to deliver a gutful of emotions. 

Recent examples would include Y&R Thailand’s "Power of Love" campaign for DTAC, which is about a new dad that struggles to stop his newborn from crying. The video garnered 8 million views in its first week on YouTube, and the Chinese version on Youku exceeded a million views. 

When asked what makes good Thai content, Intapunya added that content framed around "true stories" works well and can stir "strong calls to action."

According to Santisiri, Thai people’s love of "dramatic and sensationalist" content comes from reading Thairath, Thailand’s national newspaper, from a young age. "Thai’s don’t take things seriously and people like to talk about weird or funny stories." A recent Thairath news story featured a gecko with two heads.   

Considering Southeast Asia as a whole, people in Thailand spend the most time on social media each day—similar to the Philippines—averaging four hours. Ninety-seven percent of Internet and mobile users in Thailand have a social-media account, mostly Facebook, and 94 percent of smartphone users research products and services on their devices. 

Cochrane notes that it is "one big ecosystem of many conversations and communities all evolving in real-time", and strategies need to inspire live brand search and exploration. 

Thailand’s infatuation with sociability also means there’s been a surge in online and mobile gaming, particularly on Line and Facebook where there’s social integration and live scoreboards can be shared and talked about immediately within people’s communities. 

"Mobile gaming in social is mass here and is a great example of a long form of narrative," says Cochrane.

Intapunya believes it’s the "instant personalized nature" of Line and its expressive custom stickers that allow brands to connect with consumers' "day-to-day lives" and spread organically through networks.

Social-messaging platforms like Line have managed to tap into Thai user psychology. "It’s not just the scale of use that is staggering but the behaviour around it," says Cochrane, before further adding, "brands can’t just make a sticker and think the job is done. They need to evolve quickly as new stickers become popular and the conversation changes."  

A new breed of brands

Increasingly, Thai brands are merging with secondary content channels and lead the initiative themselves. There isn’t a better example than Tan Passakornnatee.

He founded Oishi Group in 1999 and built it up as the most successful beverage brand, dominating the ready-to-drink green-tea market in Thailand. In 2010 Tan sold the company and a week later founded Icitan, a direct competitor. 

At that time, he started a Facebook page that gained 7000 fans within the first 10 days. Today, Tan has over seven million fans— one of the most popular Facebook pages in Thailand—and his videos are branded-content hits. In his online and TVC campaigns, Tan flies around in a superhero outfit.

Known as the "fat superhero in a sailor hat and cape", Tan is the face of all Ichitan campaigns, content-marketing initiatives and is the powerhouse running the company’s social media. 

"Tan understands timing, digital and how to make the right content," says Santisiri. "He also has a very talented team behind him. Note Udom, Thailand’s most famous and legendary comedian is his adviser."

"Many people love him and he does a lot of charity work to help people in Thailand and this is tied to the brand," Intapunya adds.

Tan is famous for his bottle-cap contests where he used the idea of printing prize-winning numbers underneath caps to engage consumers. People who have the lucky numbers can then text message the company. Ichitan has been running contests in the past year in which a gold bar worth 1 million baht (about $30,000) was awarded every day for 30 days. 

Leading up to Ichitan’s IPO earlier this year, Tan drummed up the drama by awarding a Porsche once a month. Each time a person wins something, a human-interest story is created and Tan presents the prizes to the winner himself. One man in particular won the prize and could afford to have a wedding, which Tan then attended personally. 

"I love what Ichitan are doing; they move with the conversation and their content strategy is relevant. I also love their diversification strategies," says Cochrane. "They know their consumers and what products are right for them. It’s a great success story on being bold, creative and entrepreneurial against the more corporate competitors in their category.

"There is no cookie-cutter approach that wins, but in Thailand you do need to ensure your brand is ‘alive to thrive’ in conversation."

This story first appeared on campaignasia.com.

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