Expanding to new markets almost always involves an equal dosage of both excitement and trepidation prior to launch – particularly when you’re a small business or startup making the move. However, the beauty of online business is that international expansion now involves just a fraction of the risk previously associated with moves made by companies who function primarily offline.
Last year, we decided to take the leap and expand our online business to Southeast Asia – primarily Singapore, but also slowly making our mark in India, Malaysia and Indonesia too. Riding on the success we were experiencing as market leader in the European couponing world, we were interested to see how our ideas would translate to Asian soil.
Although we were understandably anxious about making this move in the beginning, and the process was not by any means without fault, launching in Asia quickly became one of the best decisions we’ve made in recent years. Therefore, we thought we’d take the time to share a few things we learned along the way that may be of use to any small businesses thinking of launching in Asia – particularly when their presence there is restricted to the online world!
1. Do your research
Seems like a no-brainer, but it cannot go without mentioning that taking the time to get to know your market thoroughly before making any moves is the most crucial piece of advice to consider when starting up in a new region. Making assumptions about the needs and trends of an unfamiliar market can be damaging, as errors could potentially alienate your market and affect the trust of your brand.
The most effective way to achieve the best results is naturally to recruit natives to the region – or at least those with a sound knowledge of Asian markets – but if this isn’t possible, consider hiring an independent agency for guidance.
Regardless of the fact that business and consumption patterns are becoming increasingly global, never assume that this means a global, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach will work for every region. It is still necessary to demonstrate a thorough understanding and appreciation of your market, regardless of how internationally-focussed they are. The more you get to know and respect local customs, traditions and celebrations, the more likely you are to win over your market.
For example, Singapore has an incredibly vibrant mall culture that inherently craves cross-channel services when it comes to online shopping. Our awareness that we needed to exist alongside this culture rather than attempt to compete with it proved important to how we progressed in the region.
When we first launched in Indonesia, we initially made the mistake of thinking that an English site could suffice for our users, as we struggled to source a native Indonesian to work with us. However, since improving resources and translating the whole site into Bahasa Indonesia, our ID traffic has more than doubled in four months.
3. Transparency goes a long way in Asia
One thing we really value about our experience with Asian markets is that being completely honest about what you have to offer is thoroughly appreciated. Research has shown that one of the only aspects Singaporeans view negatively about the online world is the fear of being scammed, meaning reservations concerning trust are still rife.
From what we’ve seen so far, however, it seems that consumers in the region are very open to the concept of new brands and online services, and are less sceptical than markets such as Australia and the US. As long as you have a good product, and you’re completely clear about your intentions, the launching process should progress quite quickly.
4. Get involved with online communities
Clients, bloggers, customers: It’s imperative that you have a solid online presence, particularly in order to compensate for lacking a physical one. Making yourself available for those who have questions about your company simply isn’t enough – get out there, make yourself known and get involved with online communities.
In Japan, blogging has become so thoroughly integrated in e-commerce brand promotion that the success of your site could rest on whether or not you choose to involve your company in Japan’s strong blogging community. A good online presence will also improve brand confidence and help eradicate any potential trust issues.
5. Ride trend waves
Online trends will invariably play a huge role in dictating the success of new businesses. Therefore, it’s essential that you keep an eye on local news, and stay up to date with new businesses launching in regions you’re active in so that you can ride the trend waves that relate to your business or product.
Japan’s Rakuten and SE Asia’s Lazada are two hugely successful e-commerce businesses that have recently launched in Singapore. By working in co-operation with such companies (both of these merchants have popular shop pages featured on Flipit Singapore), we have been able to jointly contribute to the increase in e-commerce popularity in the region over the last year or so.
6. Go mobile
Optimising your site or product for mobile is imperative for any business to succeed in Asia. As this infographic we made last year demonstrates, smartphone penetration in Singapore reached as high as 92% (and is estimated to have grown much higher since). Elias Ghanem, Paypal Asia’s managing director, interestingly observes that India and Malaysia have essentially skipped out the desktop phase, and moved straight onto mobile internet usage.
Japan is a little more complicated – despite being huge m-commerce consumers, smartphone penetration is comparatively low in this region. Interestingly, this is due to the fact that m-commerce began gaining popularity here prior to the smartphone craze, as the Japanese provided advanced mobile services that enabled customers to shop via ‘non-smartphone’ handsets. Therefore it’s important to avoid equating mobile optimization with smartphone optimization, as Japan has proven that this is not always the case.
More generally, the percentage of mobile-first users in Asia is astounding from a European perspective, and there is so much that businesses can learn from this kind of market. Mobile-first internet consumers expect a much richer mobile experience than a user who is used to switching from one browsing experience to another, meaning it’s incredibly important to make sure your site is as well-designed as it can possibly be.
Mobile-first Asian markets can teach you invaluable lessons about mobile usage that you cannot learn from markets anywhere else in the world. Therefore, begin analysing any data you can get your hands on concerning interaction with your website as soon as you go live, and utilize this information to help your company’s site reach its full potential.
Katie Paterson – Guest Contributor
Katie Paterson is Content Manager and Researcher for Flipit Singapore. A Scottish expat living in Amsterdam, with her professional brain virtually on South East Asian soil, Katie’s research focuses on global e-commerce trends, consumer behaviour, and the future of shopping in Asia.
Photo by: Wikipedia