The State of Social Media and Messaging in Asia: OTT Messaging More Important Than Ever

An emergent market for almost any industry, Asia shows particular promise in fields like telecommunications. That's especially true where over-the-top (OTT) messaging is involved.

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OTT messaging services allow communications independent of the network they're sent over. In this analysis, we'll explore the growth of OTT apps and messaging apps in Asia, as well as the services each individual app offers. To start, let's take a look at why these apps are the force they are in Asia's social landscape.

Why Asia Matters to the Global Social Market

In its 2020 Digital In report, We Are Social outlined the high-level numbers regarding OTT messaging in Asia:

  • The Asia-Pacific region boasts 2.14 billion active social media users — a jaw-dropping penetration rate of some 50%.
  • The region boasts twice that many mobile phone connections, each representing a potential opportunity for engagement.
  • More, these numbers are increasing rapidly: The first category, for instance, rose by 9.8% (totaling 190 million new active social media users) between April 2019 and January 2020; the second rose by 3.5% (151 million new mobile phone users).

Compared to other regions outlined in the study, these numbers are effectively all one needs to know about the dominance of OTT messaging apps in Asia. With so many connected social users utilizing so many devices, it's a given that network-agnostic messaging functionality will be of critical importance.

Data on specific social media platforms further illustrates the importance of OTT apps in the region. Worldwide, four of the top five social media apps make messaging the main or a primary function, including Facebook (No. 1), WhatsApp (No. 3), and WeChat (No. 5). The other, YouTube, is primarily video-focused but still has messaging capabilities that follow the account and work over any viable device.

The study also cements Facebook's status as a monolithic force in Asia. Every country on this list features at least one Facebook property (such as Messenger and WhatsApp), and many Asian countries on the list have at least two.

In all, these apps represent billions of social users globally and millions (if not more) across the Asian market — the reason businesses have focused on that corner of the globe so much. Insights from Vonage's 2020 Global Customer Engagement Report further reinforce the point: Consumers everywhere have moved from platforms that restrict them to a single point of access to services that allow them to go over the top of any network.

What Does This Mean for Brands?

First and most importantly, brands can monitor the platforms Asian users tend to prefer, then meet them there with tailored communications. This point may especially matter when considering the subtle but important differences between the various avenues. WhatsApp, for instance, is popular in countries like Indonesia and Hong Kong but may limit the outbound communications a brand can offer, relative to other services. This can be an important strategic consideration, and one that data-backed insights like the above can help with.

More, while these apps do offer OTT messaging as a benefit, many of the most popular apps in the Asia-Pacific region go beyond that, enabling brand communications and value-added services. They've positioned themselves as centralized platforms for users to access a variety of services, not just messaging. These platforms are moving the branded app and browser functionality into the messaging app itself, integrating themselves into every aspect of consumers' daily lives.

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WeChat: The Industry Pioneer

With a billion or more monthly China-based users, WeChat is the dominant force among messaging services in China. It started as a simple messaging app and has piled on value-added services for its many customers along the way. In doing so, WeChat pioneered the model of the messaging app as a gateway to all consumer services. From money transfers to movie tickets and more, WeChat essentially offers Chinese users anything they may need from their devices in the moment.

In addition to baseline utilities, WeChat further permits brands to create their own accounts and engage users directly via "Official Accounts," in contrast to the WhatsApp limitations mentioned above. This reveals a key difference in how Chinese consumers interact with brands compared to U.S.-based users; for Chinese users, it's normal to have a business in your list of WeChat chats and to receive messages from them. If a user isn't interested in a brand message, they simply ignore it and move on.

By contrast, most other markets on the global stage have yet to adopt this standard. In the U.S., for example, consumers aren't as receptive to direct brand communication, particularly in social and chat environments.

Of course, nobody wants to drown in a sea of messaging spam from anyone, let alone a business. To guard against this, WeChat limits how frequently account owners may broadcast unsolicited messages to a given number of times in a month. If a user interacts with a brand account, meanwhile, then the brand can message the user an unlimited number of times over the next 48 hours.

To satisfy businesses' needs for customer interaction, WeChat further offers "Subscription Accounts," which are held in a user's subscriptions folder. Unlike regular accounts, Subscription Accounts can send a single broadcast message per day, but the restriction is (again) lifted if the user initiates contact.

To be clear, while most major companies do offer services over WeChat, it isn't just for the major players. Small laundromats and other businesses in China also have Official Accounts, a lesson any organization wishing to enter the market would be wise to heed.

LINE: An Unbundled Approach

LINE, a major presence in countries such as Thailand, Taiwan, and Japan, represents another approach. Launched in 2011, the platform has similarities to WeChat in its barcode-based friend adding and brand-powered interactions.

Its main differentiator is its unbundled apps, which can be individually downloaded under the "LINE Family." These apps enable users to watch TV on mobile, for instance, or find the best shopping deals (relevant to the user's tastes, of course!).

LINE also takes a different approach from WeChat in terms of its brand interaction pricing structure. Official Accounts are free on WeChat for brands outside the Chinese market, but LINE charges organizations for its own take on the idea. Smaller businesses may also use email-protected apps and accounts to interact with customers, where they may otherwise lack the resources.

Users can add a branded LINE account to see new content and services offered by the brand in question. For one example, a brokerage firm known as SBI Security allows users to buy stock by messaging with a trader.

KakaoTalk: A Korean Social Messaging Leader

KakaoTalk, an app with immense popularity in the South Korean market, is largely a local phenomenon: Few users for the service exist outside of South Korea. Because of this, KakaoTalk will naturally be most relevant to those brands where South Korea is already a strategic target.

Facebook Messenger: The Global Leader

Facebook has been a vital customer service and engagement platform for a long time. Branded "Pages" have been the center of all customer engagement on Facebook. In 2014, Facebook disabled the Messenger feature in the mobile app, forcing users to download the standalone Messenger app. The unbundling of Messenger was the first step in establishing Messenger as a platform (like WeChat).

The company took another major step in March 2015. By launching Business on Messenger, a new set of functionalities, all offering deeper integration and customer engagement, the company primed itself as a go-between and a vital meeting space for people on both sides of the customer-brand transaction.

OTT Messaging Apps in Asia

Asia's social media landscape is dominated by messaging apps. Services such as LINE and WeChat have propagated their presence by providing access to other important services under the same umbrella. Expect services like Facebook to continue ramping up their business functionality with services that mirror, in some capacity, those offered by these Asia-Pacific leaders.

Whatever your company's strategy, it's critical to understand the differences in social media usage and capitalize on aspects that align with your vision. If you need help with communications platforms to help you do the job, reach out — you'll be glad you did.

Hugh Hopkins
Hugh Hopkins Messaging Product Manager

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