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ByteDance’s shimmy to success (Deeper #4) – With Content

ByteDance's shimmy to success

According to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, TikTok crossed 2 billion all-time global downloads across iOS and Android devices in April 2020. The app saw a record 315 million installs in Q1 alone—the most downloads any app has ever seen in a single quarter. Thanks, COVID-19. (For reference, there are only 7.8 billion people on the planet right now).

ByteDance's shimmy to success

TikTok’s rise to mainstream culture isn’t as sudden as it seems. ByteDance, its parent company, has been preparing for years to become the most influential company in the world.

TL;DR: The company will impact entire countries and continents in much the same way its competitors—Apple, Google, Amazon, Alibaba, and Tencent—have.

  • ByteDance, a tech giant set to compete with the other greats
  • TikTok’s strategies for gaining revenue internationally
  • ByteDance’s recommendation engine can be applied to nearly any vertical
  • Three main obstacles: content moderation, data regulation laws, and anti-Chinese sentiment
  • ByteDance is selling innovation
  • Manifesting its destiny as a major tech giant, for better or worse

The key to ByteDance’s success is its machine learning, which squeezes insights out of the millions of data points it tracks across all its services. This results in a highly flexible, agile, and iterative company that grows and metamorphoses right alongside its user base.

ByteDance, a tech giant set to compete with the other greats

To understand TikTok, we first have to understand ByteDance, the Chinese multinational internet technology company that owns the app. ByteDance was founded by engineer Zhang Yiming in 2012, and it is currently worth over US$100 billion—making it one of the most valuable companies in the world. Much like Google, it operates multiple types of apps and platforms designed to one day interconnect and build off of each other—but more on that later.

ByteDance's shimmy to success

ByteDance announced plans to create 40,000 new jobs in 2020, and it looks like the Chinese startup is well on track to hit those numbers. At a time when other companies are furloughing or laying off staff, ByteDance is recruiting for 10,000 open positions—a third of which are high-level research or software coding jobs. This would bring its overall headcount to 100,000.

ByteDance's shimmy to success

The company’s core product—before TikTok, anyway—was Toutiao, a highly-diverse content platform that started off as a Chinese news aggregator. A machine-learning algorithm constantly feeds texts, images, question-and-answer posts, microblogs, news articles, and videos based on its analysis of your reading preferences.

But Toutiao wasn’t the only successful app in ByteDance’s portfolio at that time. Before TikTok ever appeared on the scene, ByteDance was already managing the successful Douyin app (basically the same thing as TikTok, but solely for China). A year after its September 2016 launch, Douyin had 100 million users and numerous collaborations with top Chinese stars—reportedly, users viewed a collective 1 billion videos a day.

Seeing the massive success in China, ByteDance launched TikTok for an international market in September 2017.

ByteDance was smart about international plans for expansion. The company spent up to $1 billion to purchase, an app that was mostly known for its cringe content of over-confident teenagers attempting sexy selfie karaoke.

ByteDance's shimmy to success

Despite its poor reputation among older users, had grown its user base to 90 million users in just two years—according to Alex Hofmann, president of North America, half of all American teenagers had the app installed in 2016. It reached number one on Apple’s App Store in 19 different countries. For ByteDance, which had set its sights on TikTok world domination from the beginning, the merger was a no-brainer.

TikTok’s strategies for gaining revenue internationally

TikTok gained even more users this year, so the company reduced its budget for marketing + growing the app’s user base. It’s spent much of its time exploring possible revenue sources instead.

Unlike US-based content companies, which have historically clung to the subscription model, ByteDance is willing to try many different ways of making its properties profitable.

Ecommerce integration in TikTok videos

Ecommerce integration–with links to shoppable products—has already been available in Douyin since 2018 (Taobao, JD, and TMall are all good). ByteDance may try to build partnerships with local ecommerce platforms like Shopee, Shopify, Lazada, or Tokopedia, or follow Instagram’s steps and introduce e-commerce stickers with links to shoppable websites.

Long-form video subscriptions on TikTok or a new app?

Concerts and music gatherings have been cancelled around the world thanks to COVID-19. As a result, many entertainment giants are attempting to foray into long-form video streaming.

Asian-American record label 88Rising hosted a live-streamed benefit concert on Youtube on May 7th, bringing Coachella stars and Kpop acts such as Rich Brian, Joji, and Loona to an audience of nearly 2 million people. The five-hour stream raised $28,706 through donations from viewers.

ByteDance's shimmy to success

Korean idol group BTS previously hosted an online Bang Bang Con in April, showing archival live footage from their concerts around the world to devoted fans. Their livestream gained more 50 million views and, at one point, 2 million concurrent viewers.

In response, Tiktok hosted two vertical, live-streamed benefit concerts of their own: TikTok Stage Live From Seoul (May 25) and TikTok Stage With HIPHOPPLAYA (May 27), with a lineup that included Kpop industry giants like Monsta X, iKon, Apink, Epik High, Jay Park, and Zico. According to one official statement, TikTok agreed to donate US$0.50 (S$0.70) for every viewer who tuned in, with all funds going towards COVID-19 charity efforts.

Recently, ByteDance also brought on Kevin Mayer, the ex-Head of Disney+, as its new COO / CEO of TikTok. Mayer grew Disney’s new subscription service to over 50 million users in less than a year and also led many of Disney’s acquisitions over the past decade, including Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, 21st Century Fox, and Club Penguin. He will be leading the music, gaming, and “emerging” businesses at the company.

Combined with its forays into online concerts and increased upload limits (from 15 seconds to 1 minute to 15 minutes), expect TikTok to place an increasing emphasis on all types of vertical video content—from original content to self-produced series to hosted vertical concerts. It might even go head to head with Netflix or Disney+ one day.

TikTok as a marketing platform

For now, many advertisers are still unsure of how much money to pour into TikTok. Jeremy Ong, founder of content marketing agency Hustlr, told Tech in Asia that TikTok’s machine-learning algorithm and user behavior-tracking capabilities were not yet as mature as those of Facebook and Google—so it may still be too early to look for measurable outcomes like sales, web and app conversions, in-store visits and lead generation.

Additionally, the app’s user base tends to skew young, which translates to limited buying power in the short term—41 percent of TikTok users are aged between 16 and 24.

On this end, it’s a wait-and-see game. For example, a recent increase in older users over the past several months may make the platform much more attractive to advertisers.

ByteDance's shimmy to success

After all, Douyin has been successful in China, making about 140 billion yuan ($19.8 billion) in advertising revenue in 2019.

Despite some pessimism, all signs seem to point to TikTok becoming a respectable ad platform.

“In many categories, it outstripped Tencent (TCEHY) and Baidu (BIDU) to become the #1 advertising platform” in China, said Greg Paull, a principal with R3. Its relatively high engagement rates are a positive indicator that it will be able to overtake other social media platforms to become the influencer platform of choice:

ByteDance's shimmy to success

If you’re looking to advertise on TikTok, we recommend waiting until it refines its advertisement platform and offers the measurable insights you need into campaigns. That’s a matter of how soon, not if.

ByteDance is selling innovation

ByteDance is a numbers-fueled, A/B-testing-based company that is hyper-tailored to user demands. Create an initial product, stalk the data, introduce new features, rinse-and-repeat—high-performing projects get more funding and more support, whereas the poor performers are scrapped. It’s innovation at the speed of light, and for a company of that size, completely impressive.

Rather than limiting users to friend networks or geographical boundaries, ByteDance seeks to turn the entire world into a captive audience by understanding their behavioral patterns and building apps to fit those needs perfectly.

All of this is made possible through the company’s research arm—led by former assistant managing director of Microsoft Research Asia Wei Ming Yi. The division studies areas such as natural language processing, machine learning, and speech and audio recognition, and the knowledge it gleans helps improve content recommendation algorithms. ByteDance is all about constant refinement.

ByteDance's shimmy to success

Innovation is even present in its company structure

According to a report by The Information, the company has a unique flat-corporate structure means product managers can report directly to Zhang.

Such an agile structure might seem like chaos for other companies relying on traditional hierarchy, but it seems to have worked well for Bytedance. As of November last year, the company has over 60,000 employees and serves over 150 markets. It also has offices in 126 cities around the planet, including Shanghai, New York, London, Paris, Mumbai, Singapore, Jakarta, Seoul, and Tokyo.

ByteDance's shimmy to success

The firm’s army of employees is becoming increasingly active in other spaces, like enterprise software, edtech, and gaming.

  • Launched enterprise communication platform Lark in Singapore and Japan last year (called Feishu in China) at slashed prices, hoping to refine the platform further based on user behavior.
  • Released Volcano Engine, an enterprise cloud services platform with nine functions including live video broadcasts, real-time communication, and video conferencing, in early 2020.
  • ByteDance’s “Combat of Hero” game topped download charts in Japan for four straight days, and should momentum grow, we can expect the firm to add more hires here as well.
  • Experimented with event ticketing by launching TikTok Tickets in Thailand. The temporary program ran throughout Q4 2019 and offered deals and discounts to users buying tickets to over 500 concerts, movies and other events. Lots of data on event preferences.
  • Released social music streaming app Resso in India and Indonesia earlier this year. Currently Resso has been downloaded up to 600,000 times in India, but if it can piggyback off TikTok’s success through direct links to Resso tracks, that number may go up significantly.
  • Across all of its apps in China and abroad, it has amassed around 1.5 billion monthly active users.

Each and every one of these products can be further refined and optimized based on insights gleaned from big data. Sure, it has some failures:

Duoshan, a video-based messaging app that ByteDance designed to compete with the WeChat messaging service in China, flopped after its rollout. And a failed digital payments app tried to gain market share from Tencent Holdings Ltd. ‘s WeChat Pay and Ant Financial Services Group’s Alipay and failed.

But it may not even matter—to ByteDance, it means that opportunity simply lies elsewhere.

Three main obstacles: content moderation, data regulation laws, and anti-Chinese sentiment

Content moderation

ByteDance’s algorithms amplify popular content, but often, what’s popular isn’t always good. The TikTok app has drawn ire in India after sexually explicit and vulgar videos advocating rape, animal cruelty, child abuse, domestic violence and misogyny gained traction on the platform, causing people to push for a total ban on the app.

Users flooded the app’s page with negative reviews, causing the rating to fall from 4.5 stars to 1.2. Even after Google removed millions of negative reviews (marked as spam abuse), the rating still hasn’t risen past the 2 star mark.

Moderation has always been an issue with social media platforms, with Facebook moderators being worked into the ground to keep negative content away from users and Instagram trying a variety of tactics to ban abusive or unhealthy content.

We could argue that the type of content gaining popularity in different regions is reflective of 1) the local attitudes towards contentious topics and 2) the desire to gain eyeballs no matter the cost. But regardless of why that type of content was created, its presence will continue to be a major problem for TikTok.

This poses an obstacle to its plans for expansion

Livestreaming works in China, but it’s had difficulty gaining traction in Southeast Asian markets. Top livestreaming app BIGO was blamed for fuelling a sugar daddy boom and even called a social media prostitution platform thanks to the high amount of sexually-suggestive content. It was temporarily banned in Indonesia out of fear that it was leading young viewers astray.

ByteDance's shimmy to success

Even alternative BeLive, which attempted to poach creators by promising a safer ecosystem, eventually pivoted from a consumer-focused live-streaming model to providing live video services for global e-commerce companies such as Rakuten, Loreal, Lazada, and Samsung. This barrier is a cultural one, and it won’t be easy to warm the rest of the world up to live streaming as a source of revenue.

Data regulation concerns

ByteDance’s obsession with data is creating regulatory problems in the countries where it hopes to expand. Its business activities have been banned or investigated in many countries—including China.

USA Senator Marco Rubio has asked regulators to review ByteDance’s $1 billion acquisition of, arguing that “Chinese-owned apps are increasingly being used to censor content.” The USA’s Committee on Foreign Investment has begun a national security review into the deal.

Concerns about data are bleeding into other countries. The Netherlands is conducting an investigation into the way TikTok handles children’s content; mounting pressure from Indian MPs has the company moving to store data locally instead.

Anti-Chinese, pro-local sentiment

In some countries, ByteDance’s main obstacle is anti-Chinese sentiment and a strong push for local alternatives. This is still the case in India, where Mitron—an Indian-made TikTok clone—gained 5 million downloads within just one month of its launch.

Other countries are taking a different approach. Indonesia’s president reportedly told the country’s Agency for Pancasila Ideology Education (BPIP) to promote the values of the state ideology, Pancasila, through TikTok. (Many Indonesians began to view the app in a more positive light after Indonesian song “Lathi” became a viral meme, gaining over 25 million views on the original video).

And the Vietnamese government’s catchy hand-washing PSA song sparked a global dance challenge under the #vudieuruatay hashtag, even catching the attention of American comedian John Oliver.

ByteDance's shimmy to success

In Southeast Asia, TikTok has tended to market itself as a facilitator for cultural exportation, so it avoids the criticism and negative sentiment it’s encountered in countries like the USA. In fact, it’s been greeted with open arms in the region (save for a week-long ban in Indonesia back in 2018). Elsewhere, Mayer’s presence on the team may help Western countries view ByteDance in a more positive light.

These obstacles are by no means insurmountable. We believe that, with ByteDance’s dedication to innovation (and the sheer size of its userbase), it will be able to make relatively easy work of these hurdles.

Manifesting its destiny as a major tech giant, for better or worse

ByteDance generated $17 billion in revenue for 2019 (compared to just $7.4 billion in 2018) and pulled in $3 billion in profits. Compared to other well-known giants it’s doing very well—last year, Twitter reported a net income of $1.47 billion last year, and Snapchat reported a net loss.

The company is currently sitting on at least US$6 billion in cash, and Bloomberg analysts expect the company to reach a market value of US$150 billion to US$180 billion in an initial public offering.

Given its experience in AI-powered algorithmic recommendation systems and robust data analysis capabilities, ByteDance seems to be well-poised to serve as the bridge between users and the corporations and organizations that seek their attention. Rather than forcing an external framework onto users or making assumptions about what will and won’t work, ByteDance’s MO is to stalk its audience and become an irreplaceable part of their lives.

If the company can prove the efficacy of its moderation algorithm and overcome anti-China sentiment in its target markets, the company will be unstoppable. And it seems like it’s just a matter of when.



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#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurity (Deeper #5) – With Content

deeper tech newsletter southeast asia

A warm welcome to the Deeper newsletter, dear reader!

You’re reading this because, just like us, you’re tired of the non-stop tech and startup news cycle, where there seems to be something new and trendy to keep up with in Southeast Asia.

What you want to know about is the important stuff that matters—period.

And that’s what we’re bringing to you. Once a week, we dive deep into a trending topic in Southeast Asian tech.

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Without further ado, let’s dive in.


#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurityDigitalization has been a buzzword for the past few years, but many creaking, groaning businesses were resisting the transformation thanks to cost and culture concerns. But because it’s now illegal—or strongly discouraged—to gather in an office during the pandemic, companies have to digitalize—or face the possibility of dying.

Digitalization isn’t just changing the way companies create goods and services. It also revolutionizes the way companies run their internal operations.

Now that COVID-19 has forced millions of employees to work from home, some have posed the question: Is the #WorkFromHome movement introducing too many cybersecurity risks? Should we be going back to the old way of running a company once the pandemic ends?

Here’s our answer: it’s not that working from home is necessarily more dangerous. Rather, it simply coincides with a shift in the meta.

For years, cybersecurity used a “perimeter security model”. You could protect hardware and information by keeping them isolated (with locked physical server rooms, for example)—thus preventing them from being accessed from the “outside”. However, we’ve seen this status quo change slowly over the years with the advent of cloud software-as-a-service and infrastructure-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service solutions. This new way of managing internal operations inevitably changes the way we approach cybersecurity.

TL;DR: The #WorkFromHome movement is highlighting just how far behind ASEAN actors are—both companies and governments—when it comes to protecting stakeholders from cybersecurity threats.

  • Cloud tools are not all made equal—some are riskier than others
  • The ASEAN region lags behind the rest of the world in cybersecurity
  • Poorly-educated users pose a major business risk
  • A lack of government support against cybercrime will ultimately lead to billions in losses for ASEAN enterprises

An increasing reliance on the cloud and on digital services will require massive changes and rapid education in order to adequately approach and combat threats to cybersecurity.

The costs of poor cybersecurity are enormous, long-lasting, and increasingly difficult to measure

Cybersecurity has quickly become one of the most pressing business and governmental issues around the world. The Allianz Risk Barometer 2020 states that cyberattacks are ranked the top serious business risk in the world, and the World Economic Forum ranks data fraud and cyberattacks within the top ten global risks that we face in upcoming years.

#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurity

IBM’s most recent Cost of a Data Breach report states that the average global cost of a breach is $3.9m. However, the impact balloons the more records are lost. Incidents that leave over one million records compromised cost businesses $42m on average, and breaches of 50 million records cost $388m.

Let’s zoom in to ASEAN: an average data breach costs S$3.6 million (US$2.62 million) and compromises and compromises 22,500 records.

  • Approximately 96 percent of Singaporean businesses suffered a data breach from September 2018 and September 2019.
  • Between December 2015 to November 2016, Vietnam registered 1.68 million IP (Internet protocol) blocks designed to attack IoT devices and networks.
  • OceanLotus, which had been previously linked to the Vietnamese government, reportedly broke into the computers of ASEAN before a regional leader summit in Manila. They compromised dozens of government agency websites in Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines, and attempted to load the computers of high-ranking officials with malicious code.
  • Indonesia experiences more than 50,000 cyberattacks daily and is the second most targeted country for cyberattacks, following Vietnam.
  • An April 2020 data breach jeopardized over 15 million user accounts of Indonesian unicorn Tokopedia (and 7 million merchant accounts).

#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurity

Cybersecurity now bleeds into nearly every aspect of human life. We rarely identify data breaches in real time—it may take months or years—and it is impossible to clearly, definitively measure just how much damage a cyber breach does. Not only does poor cybersecurity cost billions in fraud—its impact on an enterprise’s reputation and infrastructure can last for years.

ASEAN organizations and governments lag behind in cybersecurity

The #WFH movement has governments realizing just how ill-prepared they are when it comes to cybersecurity—no surprise considering many of the countries in the region have only begun digitalizing relatively recently.

The region’s Internet penetration is low, but growing rapidly—meaning that millions of poorly-educated consumers will be coming online within the next few years. Compare numbers from 2017 to 2019:

#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurity

#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurity

This new digital population combined with the region’s lackadaisical attention to cybersecurity provides plenty of opportunities for criminals to strike.

Governments must do more to protect this increasingly digital population, especially as COVID-19 speeds up digitalization movements in business and industry. If these consumers aren’t properly educated about safe ways to access the Internet and do business, not only will the risks increase—socioeconomic divides may also deepen.

#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurity

Unfortunately, remedying such a situation is easier said than done. One Asia Centre report states that “many Southeast Asian countries lack a strategic mind-set, policy preparedness, and institutional oversight over cybersecurity” (Dobberstein, 2018).

It doesn’t help that roles aren’t often clearly defined—no one seems to be sure who should be in charge of cybersecurity (National police? The interior ministry? Telco industries? The military? The private sector?) or how collaborations (domestic and international) should take place.

Singapore is a good example of how countries can address cybersecurity within their borders. In 2015, the Cyber Security Agency (CSA) was formed to strengthen the national protection of cybersecurity. And after the SingHealth cyber attack in 2018—which compromised the personally-identifiable-information of over 1.5 million patients—the government then passed the Cybersecurity Bill (now the Cybersecurity Act) in 2018 as a framework to govern the licensing and regulation of cybersecurity service providers.

ASEAN governments need to get more involved

Governments need to acknowledge that cyberattacks can impact not only telcos or tech companies, but their entire population. As countries develop smart cities, business ecosystems, and increasingly-interconnected infrastructure, the impact of a single breach will only grow bigger. Perhaps most frightening is the possibility that hackers can cause political instability and disrupt essential government activities.

The best solution to this on a macro-level is the creation of international partnerships to further joint security initiatives and commitments. The Singapore-ASEAN Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence (ASCCE), launched in 2019, is one such organization.

The ASCCE will spend $30 million over five years on policy and technical programmes for its participants. Singapore hopes the centre can be a place for ASEAN member states to “strengthen strategy development among ASEAN states through training and research, enhance Southeast Asia’s resilience with more national Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, and promote open-source information sharing among these CERTs.”

Additionally, each government should establish its own domestic cybersecurity agency—responsible for driving domestic policy, educating the population, and protecting end-users.

Mark Thomas, Vice-President of Cybersecurity at Dimension Data, suggests that ASEAN member states will each need to spend between 0.35 and 0.61% of their GDPs (or US$171 billion collectively) on cybersecurity between 2017 to 2025 to ensure that they are well-protected.

#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurity

This will take a lot of effort considering ASEAN member states spent a measly cumulative US$1.9 billion (just 0.06 percent of the region’s gross domestic product) on cybersecurity in 2017.

#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurity

Data source: AT Kearney

There is a major gap on governments’ ends considering that, according to a new report by Juniper Research, the global cost of data breaches is expected to rise past $5 trillion by 2024.

A report by Gartner states that this year, 100% of large enterprises will be asked to report to their board of directors on cybersecurity and technology risks—a massive jump compared to the previous figure of just 40%. Digitalization is now a necessity for a majority of companies in the region. The first step enterprises must take in this process is to carefully vet the cloud tools they will use.

Cloud tools are not all made equal—some are riskier than others

Cybersecurity has become a major differentiator for cloud solution providers. Zoom’s massive explosion in popularity, for example, revealed ridiculously exploitable security flaws that put over 300 million users at risk.

Zoombombing trolls would regularly pop in unwanted and unannounced to derail meetings, and flaws in the Zoom installer made it possible for dedicated hackers to gain root access to computers. Despite Zoom’s claims that the calls were end-to-end encrypted, ex-NSA hacker Patrick Wardle discovered that the enterprise software company was lying.

In response, many governments and organizations banned Zoom entirely. Not a single Taiwan government agency is allowed to use the platform. Philippines-based ISP Smart Communications banned employees from using Zoom for internal purposes. And after Singapore saw issues with students being exposed to obscene images and online harassment during Zoom sessions, the government moved to suspend its use by all teachers in the country. In response to the security scandals, many turned to alternatives like Google Meets and Cisco Webex.

But the damage is done: over 500,000 user e-mail addresses have been leaked and sold on hacker forums. And we may not even know the true cost or impact of such a breach until much, much later.

Zoom is the most recent example of a high-profile enterprise software data leak, but we shouldn’t forget Teamviewer’s months-long fiasco in 2016, where an unknown number of accounts were hacked and funds from Paypal and banks drained. Though the hack seemed to mainly affect consumer accounts, around 90% of Fortune 500 companies use the service for remote access, making the risks to enterprise enormous.

And recently, VMWare’s popular Cloud Director software—which allows enterprises to bring offline data centers online—also faced a vulnerability that could potentially allow an attacker to control entire private clouds within an enterprise.

Businesses aren’t paying enough attention to security, either.

The Tokopedia hack shows that even the region’s largest unicorns aren’t paying enough attention to safe cyberpractices. This is one of the most dangerous byproducts of an ecosystem that focuses on growth at all costs—security (and many other factors) become afterthoughts, and we end up scrambling to try and salvage what remains.

Businesses and consumers are all increasingly turning to digital platforms for their daily needs and operations. The increased digital dependence has highlighted just how little attention we pay to cybersecurity, as organizations and as individuals. Companies must be security-obsessed as they build their platforms—and governments need to spend more money on the development of governing bodies that can hold stakeholders accountable for shoddy security practices.

Consumers must push their favorite online platforms and tools to be more security-minded, and companies must listen. The next step: companies pay more attention to the 3rd-party tools they are using to facilitate remote working and access to sensitive information.

The mobile workforce needs to be properly trained on proper security protocols

The final key to this puzzle—one no less difficult to deal with—is the workforce. Humans are inherently lazy. As much as 65% of people use the same passwords for all of their accounts, both work and personal. Some reports say that a majority of cyberattacks could have been easily prevented if only humans weren’t so careless and standards so lax.

One of the reasons why few end-users care about their personal data is because it is an intangible asset that can only be monitored or controlled to a limited degree. Though one IBM study found that 81% of consumers say they have become more concerned about how their data is used online, there is no real framework for data governance and data ownership.

These murky boundaries results in careless data and security practices. It’s cause for concern because, during the pandemic, cybersecurity risks are higher than ever. Google reported that the number of phishing websites increased from 149,000 to 522,000—a 350% increase within three months. Another report found that COVID-19-related email attacks increased by 667% in the span of one month; UN Under-Secretary-General Izumi Nakamitsu stated that approximately “one cyberattack takes place every 39 seconds.”

#WorkFromHome and the state of ASEAN cybersecurity

Ideally, employees would be trained on cybersecurity in the office, and do company work on company devices. But COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns have forced the workforce to go remote—in many cases, before their organizations were prepared.  A 2020 Kaspersky study shows that 62% of employees use personal devices for remote work, and 73% have not had proper security training before working from home. Even established companies with existing cybersecurity best practices have been disrupted.

Digital privacy expert Daniel Markuson, from NordVPN, says, “Personal laptops might lack the necessary security software, such as an antivirus, a business VPN, and others. On top of that, people tend to be more relaxed when using personal computers. They may download games, browse shady websites, and click suspicious links” while logged into their business accounts.

A Gartner, Inc. survey of 317 CFOs and Finance leaders on March 30, 2020 revealed that 74% of respondents are planning to move at least 5% of their previously on-site employees to permanently remote positions. Thanks to digitalization, remote work is here to stay—and rather than burying their heads in the sand, organizations must adapt, adapt, and adapt.

Security measures must be hard-coded into an organization’s operations. This means you must require difficult passwords, biometric logins when possible, facial recognition, and more. Understand that because humans will naturally take the path of least resistance, it falls to organizations to up their security standards and ensure that, on a human end, they’ve covered their bases. Additionally, we must put more pressure on stakeholders to properly define how end-user data is owned, shared, and sold.

The low digital literacy among the ASEAN population is arguably one of the greatest threats to the region’s socioeconomic growth. Take the digital payments sector, for example. Nearly every country in ASEAN has at least one digital finance player. But because users aren’t educated properly on how to safely access these services, they are leaving themselves open to hacking and getting fooled by simple phishing scams. This, in turn, leads to hundreds of reports of hacked and drained accounts from angry consumers.

Consumers are being burnt by their general lack of knowledge on how to protect themselves when accessing online services. Increased consumer doubt and suspicion then makes it harder for enterprises to drive adoption. If left unaddressed, pushes for digitalization—from private sectors and governments—may one day be met with hostility and anger, which in the long-term will slow the pace of regional socioeconomic growth.

How companies can address cybersecurity risks during COVID-19

The security/network perimeter of yore has all but vanished now that cloud is king. Users aren’t just connecting from within an organization’s building or network anymore. They’re reaching in from “outside”—from any location in the world—with personal mobile devices in order to access sensitive data.

Data is stored on clouds and SaaS platforms instead of physical servers that businesses can own and monitor. This offers immediate access, but requires even more vigilance to protect.

In order to address these changes, here are some of our humble recommendations:

  • Upgrade legacy cybersecurity systems
  • Update and maintain security patches for devices, systems, and software—routine maintenance and implementation of cybersecurity measures is imperative
  • Organizations in all industries are adopting IoT technologies. Device endpoints could be exploited to gain access to the rest of the system. Ensure that end users are properly educated on how their hardware should be protected.
  • Invest in cybersecurity—you will not be able to scale without it
  • Implement stronger authentication mechanisms, such as 2FA
  • Define clear access control policies to limit who can access information, and under what circumstances
  • Build relationships with your cloud service providers, and reach out when you have security concerns
  • Look into machine-learning-based cybersecurity solutions
  • Embed security services and features into devices and applications—such as encryption and antivirus protection
  • Randomize passwords.
  • Implement an Account Lockout Policy so that after multiple failed attempts to login to a system, the account can be blocked.
  • Microsoft recommends, “Utilize host firewalls to limit lateral movement and prevent endpoints from communicating on TCP port 445 for SMBs. This can significantly disrupt malicious activities.”

The shift from traditional infrastructure to the cloud has been underway for the past few years, and remote working was bound to happen regardless of when. Still, COVID-19 has undeniably accelerated the digitalization process, causing companies to transform more in a single month than they have in entire years. An ideal security model for the future is focused on educating users, selecting the right, security-focused tools, and protecting device endpoints.

If you are a consumer-facing business, we recommend that you invest time and funds into educating your customers on how to use your digital services correctly. It is exhausting and costly to constantly have to mitigate and salvage preventable cybersecurity problems that arise as a result of poor consumer knowledge. It isn’t possible to wait for consumers to educate themselves—because we are the foremost drivers of digitalization in the region, the responsibility has fallen to us to educate other stakeholders.



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Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020 (Deeper #6) – With Content

deeper tech newsletter southeast asia

A warm welcome to the Deeper newsletter, dear reader!

You’re reading this because, just like us, you’re tired of the non-stop tech and startup news cycle, where there seems to be something new and trendy to keep up with in Southeast Asia.

What you want to know about is the important stuff that matters—period.

And that’s what we’re bringing to you. Once a week, we dive deep into a trending topic in Southeast Asian tech.

Sound compelling? Subscribe now, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox every Friday morning:

Without further ado, let’s dive in.


Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

Young people are facing a crisis. The International Labour Organization reported that more than one in six young people have stopped working since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and those who still have a job have had their working hours cut by about 23%.

Though countries are slowly plodding towards a new normal, the general pessimism among younger generations—which can be seen from their half-joking memes about the impossibility of car and home ownership—is deeply ingrained within the collective psyche.

Many tend to rag on millennials and Gen Z’ers for failing to save up money, for spending too much on avocado toast and Eggs Benedict—but this may be indicative of a deeper societal issue.

TL;DR: We need to equip young people with the skills they need, and encourage governments and businesses to believe in and invest in their talent.

  • Governments need to prepare social support programs now, before the crisis ends
  • Learning institutions are partnering with governments to provide help
  • Businesses are trying to commit to more hires + taking advantage of grants
  • Tips to share
    • Start a side hustle and leverage the power of your networks
    • Advocating for yourself
    • Invest in skills rather than shiny degrees
    • Try not to take too much boomer advice

The pandemic is a difficult time for everyone. But for younger workers, it’s an ideal time to learn new, in-demand skills, take advantage of local learning initiatives, and improve their employability.

Governments need to prepare social support programs now, before the crisis ends

A 2009 paper released by M. Ramesh, Professor of Social Policy at the University of Hong Kong says, “The steep deterioration in economic and social conditions triggered by the 1997–98 crisis could have been significantly avoided if there had been a social protection system in place to cushion the blow.”

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

Rather than scrambling to deal with catastrophes as they happen—and fumbling everything in the process—governments with these plans could mitigate much of the financial and social chaos.

(Basically, Professor Ramesh recommended Business Continuity Planning for governments.)

This is admittedly tough in Southeast Asia. The effects and benefits of this type of planning will not be felt until the next time a crisis happens, which makes it difficult for some governments to justify funding them in the first place. Varied responses among local governments means quick recovery for some, and lasting impacts for others.

Thailand was a good example of crisis management during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis: A 61.4 billion baht (roughly US$1.5 billion) plan that created or protected 1.5 million jobs focused on:

  • Ensuring that consumer products remained affordable
  • Maintaining employment levels in the industrial sector by reducing social security contributions and encouraging exports
  • Stricter laws against illegal immigration
  • Promotion of a rural, agriculture-based economy

These measures helped Thailand recover by 2001, and the country repaid its debts to the IMF in 2003, four years ahead of schedule. Countries like Indonesia weren’t so lucky—to this day, the rupiah has never recovered:

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

We can’t deny the governments’ role supporting the job market and encouraging businesses to reopen. It’s time to learn from the crisis and push for broader financial reforms, increased protection and support for fledgling SMEs, and learning opportunities for the newly unemployed when possible.

Learning institutions are partnering with governments to provide help

Countries around ASEAN have committed to various initiatives to help potential hires and the businesses who wish to employ them.

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled plans at the end of May 2020 to provide 21,000 traineeships for first-time jobseekers and another 4,000 for unemployed mid-career workers.

The country’s SGUnited Traineeships Programme is providing S$100 million to help fresh graduates acquire much-needed experience. Students can benefit from a 70% subsidy on courses offered by SkillsFuture Singapore, with the rest paid by their universities. And both NTU and SMU hosted virtual career fairs to try and help graduates get hired for several-hundred vacancies.

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

China launched a 100-day campaign that offered more subsidies for small businesses and expanded hiring for state-owned enterprises, schools and expanding army enlistment. Universities in Hong Kong set up relief funds to support and increase job offers, and drew on the power of their alumni networks to offer part-time jobs and internships to new graduates.

In the Philippines, the Department of Finance allocated around 2 billion pesos for wage subsidies and financial support for affected MSMEs. Another P1.2 billion has been directed to the Social Security System (SSS) to cover unemployment benefits. And just several days ago, the Philippine’s House of Representatives passed numerous funding bills totalling trillions of pesos, designed to relieve strain on educational systems and stimulate MSMEs.

Indonesia launched a trial of its Prakerja program to mixed results in April, smack in the middle of the pandemic. The pre-employment program acts as a social safety net for unemployed participants aged 18 years or above—both fresh graduates and those who have recently lost their jobs.

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

One key aspect of the program is the opportunity to participate in training courses; the government has partnered elsewhere with edtech companies to offer courses at reduced costs. Unfortunately, many have complained that the courses are overpriced (despite discounts of up to 50%) and don’t actually offer any real, relevant skills.

Governments need to actually talk to the fresh grads in question in order to offer them opportunities and support that will actually help. This is the risk that always comes with policymaking—without any actual insight from the community or group in question, there’s a big chance that any resulting policies will simply waste millions of dollars.

Businesses are trying to commit to more hires + taking advantage of grants

The situation has also made it difficult for businesses to make new full-time hires. Larger companies can do their part by following the footsteps of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, who have opted to continue their online summer programs and traineeships.

Businesses need to take initiative and seek out government subsidies and grants where necessary so they can continue to hire. We’re already facing a major skills gap, and we will have to invest in talent sooner or later.

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

Citi has guaranteed that participants who successfully complete summer intern programmes will be offered a full-time job next year as long as they fulfil minimum requirements. This kind of traineeship-to-full-time initiative would be incredibly meaningful for a desperate graduating class facing high competition for available jobs.

For small businesses, however, this kind of initiative isn’t so easy. MSMEs and startups don’t have as much runway as their corporate counterparts. The limited visibility on whether business and revenue will pick up in the next few months makes it difficult for them to commit to long-term, full-time hires. MSMEs will also need heightened support from their local governments to ensure that they can survive the year.

Tips to share with your younger connections

Start a side hustle and leverage the power of your networks

It’s so easy to get online nowadays, no matter where you’re from. This lowering barrier-to-entry to the digital world and a new shared online culture has increasingly global ramifications.

The United States’ #BlackLivesMatter movement on Twitter, for example, triggered unique domestic awareness movements in countries like Indonesia (#PapuanLivesMatter) and the Philippines (#JunkTerrorBill). Some fresh grads have chosen to devote their time to community service or social causes because they see this recession as a symptom of wider systemic issues.

No matter how old you are, it’s also possible to leverage your social media network to find new opportunities. Southeast Asians seem to be big on the “Twitter do your magic” trend, which has been used to bring awareness to those in need (PH), highlight new + trendy F&B joints (SG), and fill open positions at companies (ID). You can combine this with a side hustle and use the Internet to gain traction.

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

Side hustling is a big thing among millennials and Gen Z’ers. These income streams could be anything from catering businesses to influencing (you can roll your eyes, but top influencers make bank) to selling thrifted clothes to editing photos and videos to managing social media for your friends’ brands.

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

The key during the pandemic is to continue gaining knowledge and experience in any way possible, then leverage the power of their social networks to identify possible opportunities. Linda Teo, country manager at ManpowerGroup Singapore, shared that “employers will question candidates about employment gaps. It will not reflect well on fresh graduates if they are not doing anything to further their knowledge or career during this period.”

Sending out congenial Linkedin messages to recruiters or friendly cold emails to companies could be one way of gaining an internship or job during this time—taking initiative in such a way can help you differentiate from thousands of other jobseekers. (Don’t forget to make your social media profiles as interesting and respectable as possible if they follow up).

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

You can cultivate networks on social media at the same time you browse for memes, so there’s no reason not to build this base for the future. You never know—your next opportunity or big break could be from a fellow Twitter stan.

Advocate for yourself

In recent years, more and more people have brought attention to inexplicable wage gaps between people of different genders or races. This has led many to advocate for greater wage transparency.

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

It used to be taboo to talk about how much you were getting paid, especially with colleagues—but the fact is that you need to look out for yourself.

Too many people accept the numbers they’re offered without complaint, because they believe it’s all they deserve or all they can get. We see it all the time everywhere, from freelance art commissions to salaried positions to independent contractor roles. Few bosses care enough to proactively offer or raise a salary, and employees need to show more solidarity in advocating fairer wages for one another.

Of course, you can’t just strut into your manager’s office and say, “I demand more pay.” Amass skills and point out your worth.

Here are some of our tips:

  • Do research beforehand and gain information whenever possible
  • Share your desired salary
  • Point out your strengths, skills, and why you believe you deserve this amount
  • Continually upskill in fields you’re passionate about, without being told to by your boss (initiative + proactivity)
  • Show that you consistently hit your goals
  • In cases where you have no idea, ask your boss—what can I do to earn higher remuneration?

Remember, though, that in times of a pandemic, the salaries you will be offered for a job will most likely be significantly lower than what you expect.

If you are cash-strapped, then it may be better to just take the job and push for a higher wage once the job market has improved. For so many people in ASEAN, surviving is a choice of accepting unfair wages now or risk having zero income for the next few months. Having the ability to choose to move or quit is a privilege that we should always remain aware of.

Invest in skills rather than degrees

This point goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. I still remember how, in the 1990s and early 2000s, parents would stress to their kids about the importance of getting a college degree. Back then, any kind of degree was seen as proof that you were better and brighter, and thus deserving of better pay.

Oh, the good old days!

Now, more and more companies are looking for specific skill sets that they want to bring to their team rather than the sheen of a specific university’s degree. For example: because companies from all industries are digitalizing, hard skills like programming, data science, and UI/UX design are in huge demand.

Fortunately, there are many online courses available, and educational institutions are popping up to address this skills gap. There are vacancies in tech and finance fields, so it could be a good time to double down, learn some new skills, and apply ASAP.

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

CoderSchool, a coding bootcamp in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, offers free part-time courses like “iOS for Engineers”, “Ruby for Engineers”, “Android for Engineers”, and “Node.js for Engineers”. Throughout the course, students will work on a project that they can then showcase in their portfolio when applying to new jobs. For total beginners or younger students, a 12-week full-time courses on full-stack web development or machine learning engineering guarantees you a job upon completion.

The cost for these in-depth coding bootcamps aren’t always cheap—CoderSchool costs S$5700, similar Indonesian offerings cost S$2000, and Malaysian offerings from NextAcademy will run you about S$1000—but it’s significantly more affordable than a four-year degree, and with better long-term prospects. If you find yourself incapable of landing a job successfully, this type of upskilling could help you fill your time while also increasing your employability.

If, for whatever reason, you can’t learn programming or a tech-related skill, creative talents are also in high demand. For example, a shift to video means that more and more businesses are looking for qualified video editors. Increased focus on brand-based marketing means that online advertising is another valuable skill. You could also look into UI/UX/digital copywriting or Photoshop image editing.

Try not to take too much boomer advice

We know that the older generation has our best interests at heart, but asset ownership that was possible back then is now a pipe dream for many. Assets such as pricey cars, smartphones, and property are important, but in many cases, you don’t actually need to buy the best of what’s out there. Renting or saving with a budget option is completely valid.

Wei Choon and Ruiming of Singapore’s The Woke Salaryman shared, “It seems that for many, the mark of success is some proof of material wealth. Singapore’s prohibitively expensive car-ownership rules have resulted in this sort of strange dick measuring contest.”

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

I’ve heard this advice about purchasing a car from my Indonesian grandparents, too.

The reality is that for many of us, it’s just not necessary. Public transportation and ride-hailing are steadily improving, and a car will only bog you down as you try to save money and establish your footing in the job market. Also, we’ve all seen that online work is completely valid—so if you’re offered an online side hustle or position, why not take it and save on transportation costs?

Saving our unemployed and yet-to-be-employed from 2020

(The above image shows cost comparisons in Singapore between those who choose car ownership, ride-hailing, or a mix.)

Boomers may also try to tell you not to take “lowly” jobs like ride-hailing. But for too many fresh grads, reality is tough, and we must do what we can to survive. If you’ve grown exhausted of the application grind, you could focus on a side-hustle such as ride-hailing while learning new hard skills through a class or online video course on your off-hours before applying again.

Let’s be honest—things suck, but there’s a chance to get better

We aren’t going to pretend that the current job market doesn’t suck.

2020 has been a tumultuous year in terms of political events, markets and economies, and natural disasters. Getting out of this situation requires relying on the networks we’ve built and offering support for one another.

Together, we can make it through to better days.



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Defining “truth” in a digital, alterable world (Deeper #7) – With Content

deeper tech newsletter southeast asia

A warm welcome to the Deeper newsletter, dear reader!

You’re reading this because, just like us, you’re tired of the non-stop tech and startup news cycle, where there seems to be something new and trendy to keep up with in Southeast Asia.

What you want to know about is the important stuff that matters—period.

And that’s what we’re bringing to you. Once a week, we dive deep into a trending topic in Southeast Asian tech.

Sound compelling? Subscribe now, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox every Friday morning:

Without further ado, let’s dive in.


Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Earlier this week, Maria Ressa and Rappler writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted of cyber libel in the Philippines.

Ressa, the CEO of Philippines-based social news network Rappler, is well-known for her open critique of the Duterte regime. On the site, you’ll find extensive coverage on the president’s extra-judicial killings as part of his promise to “end drug use in the Philippines within “three to six months” after being elected.

Duterte became President in 2016. There are still drugs; almost 30,000 are dead.

The case started in 2012 when Wilfredo Keng, a powerful businessman and known ally of Duterte, filed a complaint against Ressa for an article published in Rappler that implied he was involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling.

By some coincidence, the Cybercrime Prevention Act was signed into law soon after, which allowed Keng to file an official complaint accusing Ressa and Rappler writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos of cyber libel.

“We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” she says, implying that anyone who openly criticizes the government and all those in power will be next.

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Just before the finalization of Santos’ and Ressa’s guilt, ABS-CBN, another major news outlet in the Philippines, was shut down. The Philippine government is in the process of bringing another law to life that will allow the arrest of anyone who poses a threat of “terrorism”, with the definition of “terrorism” seeming to translate to “anyone who displeases the president.”

Considering the number of cases and deaths from Covid-19 are crawling well into the thousands mark and the local economy is coming to a standstill, this is a funny time to be prioritizing a cyber libel case and shutting down media outfits.

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Now, more than ever, truth and transparency are taking center stage in maintaining trust and loyalty in a world that’s constantly looking over your shoulder. As citizens and consumers, we need to demand honesty from those in power. And the big players—yes, brands and tech companies, that includes you—need to commit to openness.

People are becoming more demanding about what companies value and how their products and actions reflect those values. And if data shows you’re not all that’s cracked up to be, then it’s safe to say you’re out.

Especially now that we’re living in the midst of callout culture, we’re all just one tweet away from being “cancelled.” Immediately.

How can your brand navigate this new world? To understand that, we need to take a closer look at the role of transparency in all of this:

TL;DR: Truth and transparency are becoming increasingly important for businesses to maintain loyalty and trust these days.

  • Consumers have been wronged before by “trustworthy” brands, which highlights the need to be transparent
    • TikTok’s censorship
    • Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal
  • Self-interest and a lack of proper accounting can lead a startup to ruins and damage investor confidence
  • Social media and callout culture are the new weapons of an outspoken population
    • Reformation, Bon Appetit, CrossFit CEOs step down
    • Samsung’s faulty Galaxy Note 7

To satisfy consumers, businesses need to establish transparency not just in their marketing strategies but also in their actions. The internet, data, and social media all work to discredit companies that take stands on social issues or use ethics as a fad.

Consumer trust is not a toy

Transparency in a business sense refers to the process of being “open, honest, and straightforward about various company operations.” This means both employees and the public are privy to the business’ performance, revenue, pricing, etc.

It’s been lauded as a “top priority” for businesses for its ability to forge good relationships with both customers and employees, thereby increasing engagement, productivity, and sales. People love a brand that tells it how it is because there’s no reason to be suspicious or anxious about patronizing your business. In other words, they can trust you—and that makes you more money.

If your customers don’t trust you enough to recommend your products to other people, you’re going to have a hard time in Asia:

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Pretty clear, right?

But in spite of the benefits that transparency can provide, only a handful of startups actually put it into practice.

Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures believes that founders need to “suspend disbelief.” If employees see the company as a risky endeavor, it’s less likely they’ll stay. Asian founders say that the culture of secrecy stems from a fear of copycats—having someone else swoop in and steal your idea. This fear of openness is ingrained into operations and management from the very first day, eventually leading to an organization that’s caked in dishonesty.

The fact remains that the lack of transparency can lead people to believe that you’ve got something to hide. And maybe you do.

TikTok, for example, is notorious for its secretive tactics and promotion of censorship.

In 2018, the Chinese video-sharing app instructed moderators to put down posts by users deemed “too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.” Not only that, leaked documents revealed that TikTok explicitly instructed moderators to censor content that was deemed as “sensitive topics” for the Chinese Government and Community Party—the Hong Kong protests for democracy being one of them.

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

There were also rumors circulating that the company was funneling US data to China.

This is a frightening notion, and it brings back memories of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal that reportedly helped put Trump on the top seat.

In that scandal, Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of private Facebook accounts. People were unwittingly providing their data for research they didn’t agree to be part of, and that research was intended to manipulate their behavior in ways they may not have favored. All this happened on a platform they trusted.

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, user confidence in Facebook dropped by 66%, according to a survey by the Ponemon Institute.

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Respondents made it clear that they wanted Facebook to tell them when something happens to their data; 67% believe that Facebook has “an obligation” to protect them if their personal information is lost or stolen, and 66% believe that the company should compensate them in the event that happens.

Following the scandal, Facebook promised to make their privacy policies more transparent.

This drives home the point: transparency is relevant now precisely because consumers have been wronged in the past. People are suspicious because they have reason to be suspicious. And companies today need to work twice as hard to maintain consumer trust and loyalty.

Self-interest is the greatest barrier to consumer trust

Historically, businesses in Southeast Asia have been less than transparent. Just five years ago, the majority of countries in Southeast Asia did not have a transparent budgeting process in place, giving the public little to work with in terms of accountability and public engagement.

This makes it a risky endeavor for investors who have expressed legal concerns over Southeast Asian businesses.

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Lauri Lahi, the chairman of professional services company Emerhub, illustrated this point when he said: “Southeast Asian countries are becoming major economic centres with little to no transparency nowadays. Some concerns usually surface over a period of time: who owns this company? Is it even a legal entity? Do they have the right licenses? Are they paying their taxes?”

This might seem like a silly thing to be concerned about—I mean, of course you’d do your due diligence and do detailed background checks on potential investments, right?


Let’s jog your memory: Honestbee.

A Tech In Asia exposé titled “Honestbee founder’s biggest lie in a web of deceit” probably says it all.

The online grocery and food delivery startup was the rising star of its time, accruing over US$46 million in funding from investors while its competitors RedMart and Happy Fresh were struggling to stay afloat. And at the helm of it all was founder Joel Sng, a Harvard graduate, veteran investor, and the “great-grandson of Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen” (that was a lie).

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Honestbee, seemingly on its way to success, had everyone’s jaws dropping when it was cutting off partnerships and laying off staff out of the blue.

The company had no proper financial tracking management and didn’t tabulate monthly profit and loss statements in 2017. There were also a number of questionable transactions on Honestbee’s balance sheets, including a “spacious five-bedroom chalet” in a remote ski town in Hokkaido, Japan.

Even its shiny reputation as the new kid on the block couldn’t save it now. No fresh funds for the company came.

By 2019, the company owed US$1 million to 217 employees. Honestbee even filed legal action against former CEO Joel Sng and other employees who were said to have various “irregularities” in past transactions with the company.

Needless to say, the company lost a ton of consumer trust and has only Brian Koo as its lifeline. No need to point out the irony in the company’s name. Nope.

Social media, call-out culture, and the price of opacity

All the chaos around the world is serving to further highlight the urgency of transparency.

Let’s not forget that China withheld information in the early days of the pandemic, similar to how they initially covered up SARS in 2002. They only confirmed that the virus was contagious on January 20. And by that time, there were already confirmed cases reported outside of China, namely in Thailand, Japan, and South Korea.

Indonesia took this a step further by taking weeks to even admit that there miiiiight’ve been a few cases in the country. (The death toll in the country now sits at 2,339, the worst in ASEAN).

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Meanwhile, the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US is opening up a can of worms for top corporations. CEOs are stepping down left and right for reported discriminatory behavior against blacks and peoples of color (POCs).

Sustainable clothing retailer Reformation attempted to contact one of its former black employees in an effort to “do better.” But instead of taking the call, Elle Santiago didn’t want to risk giving Reformation the “opportunity to hear without listening” and shared her experience working for the brand.

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Following these claims, Reformation CEO Yael Aflalo admitted that she had failed as a leader and stepped down from the company. She now joins the ranks of former Bon Appetit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport and former CEO of CrossFit Greg Glassman in the growing list of disgraced leaders and companies.

This goes to show that protests don’t just happen on the streets, but online too. Social media has given rise to “callout culture” and “cancel culture,” which shames bigots, misogynists, and other alleged “wrongdoers.”

While callout culture runs the risk of being toxic, and, in some cases, does more harm than good, it does give everyday people a voice and a platform to be heard. And it’s precisely these callouts that make transparency two-sided, where companies usually have the upper hand with regard to what they disclose or what they don’t.

Callout culture has increased accountability for businesses and prompted them to continue “good behavior.”

Samsung, for example, stopped production of its Galaxy Note 7 back in 2016 when customers were sharing photos of faulty devices and damaged phones across the globe.

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

After some investigation, the South Korean tech company asked its partners to stop selling and exchanging the phone and asked consumers to power down their phones immediately. The phone’s battery was catching on fire.

Note that it is with great irony, to say the least, that the very platforms that give customers a channel to talk to brands and voice out their opinions are not so transparent themselves (going back to TikTok and the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal). These platforms can just as easily take away the freedoms that they have given their users all these years, and that’s something we all need to think about.

In an ideal world, the channels we use to disseminate information are partners in the transparency journey—that would probably help us mitigate the rapid spread of hoaxes and political-leaning content on social media. But for the time being, this will continue to be a major issue. Rather than focusing on the facts, content companies like Facbeook have been accused of being partial or of censoring certain points of view.

This again calls into question the role of a tech company in spreading truth and knowledge. Do they have a responsibility to remain impartial? If they are politically-leaning, should we demand that they make their opinions clear? Or, as members of the private sector, do they have a right to their own stances?

We should be actively considering the role of media companies, tech giants, and community-based social groups in discerning the truth, both domestically and internationally.

How can businesses be more transparent? By committing, despite the consequences

Unfortunately, calling out an unfair organization does not always result in justice. All around the world, journalists and everyday citizens continue to be silenced.

In Hong Kong, the country’s media outfits face similar threats from the Chinese government. In Indonesia, a young local comedian named Bintang Emon was accused of being a meth addict by paid government buzzers after he poked fun at the light sentencing of the two policemen involved in an acid attack against Novel Baswedan:

Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world

Translation: Bintang Emon is starting to get worried, he doesn’t want to take a urine test.. Bro, if you want to dope, don’t use meth. Your future is at stake.

He was forced to go to a hospital, take a drug test, and post the photo on his social media accounts to prove to everyone (including the paid buzzers) that he was clean.

Elsewhere, the world continues to struggle with transparency and honesty. In the US, the police continue to tear-gas protestors across the country and even shoot civilians who are simply trying to record videos. It’s kind of bad out there, folks.

So—what can you do?

As the world continues to fight the good fight, businesses can do their part by 👏🏼 actually 👏🏼 practicing 👏🏼 transparency.

To understand what we mean by that, you can refer to the definition: being “open, honest, and straightforward about various company operations.”

In other words, say what you mean; do what you say.

Take Ben & Jerry, one of the few major brands that has seen positive reception from #BLM protestors thanks to their clear stand on major human rights issues:

The traction they’ve received just goes to show: if your product is good and you are willing to take a stand for what’s right, consumers can justify your prices.

No, we don’t want your “star-studded singalong to ‘Imagine’” videos or “I’m with you” graphics flooding our socials. We want action; we want businesses to take a step in the right direction by pushing for systemic change, instead of just waxing poetic about it. No one’s going to steal your idea, and anyways, isn’t it best to just focus on creating the best product out there?

Some might argue that just because a business speaks up about a cause doesn’t mean they fully embrace it. But I say that’s ok. Why? Because that’s just the first step. It’s like how you have to smile even when you’re feeling crummy and sad inside—keep doing it long enough and you’ll eventually feel better.



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Who’s to blame for hoaxes and fake news? (Deeper #8) – With Content

deeper tech newsletter southeast asia

A warm welcome to the Deeper newsletter, dear reader!

You’re reading this because, just like us, you’re tired of the non-stop tech and startup news cycle, where there seems to be something new and trendy to keep up with in Southeast Asia.

What you want to know about is the important stuff that matters—period.

And that’s what we’re bringing to you. Once a week, we dive deep into a trending topic in Southeast Asian tech.

Sound compelling? Subscribe now, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox every Friday morning:

Without further ado, let’s dive in.


Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

We often talk about the importance of digital literacy in bringing ASEAN countries forward, but much of the discourse has been focused on hip younger generations—primary school students, the new workforce, and fresh graduates in metropolitan areas. What about the other players in the region? Surely we can’t leave the tech giants out of the discussion—not when they’ve been such efficient vectors for hoaxes and false news.

And what about the governments that have repeatedly encroached on the public’s right to gain knowledge, ask questions, and share criticism? Thanks to the tech giants’ laissez-faire attitude towards the content shared on their platforms, governments have justified increasingly greedy grabs for individual consumer data and Internet use.

TL;DR: Left unchecked, ASEAN governments will continue to use catastrophes and unrest to encroach on individual freedoms.

  • Tech giants and social media platforms need to be more committed to stopping hoaxes
  • Governments must stop conflating fair criticism with “fake news”, slander/libel, and hoaxes
  • Creating change through a multi-pronged approach that involves multiple stakeholders

To stop this change from happening—or prevent it from fully taking place—tech companies must acknowledge and take responsibility for the critical role they play in spreading information, and the power to voice opinions must be returned to the people.

Social media platforms need to be more committed to stopping hoaxes

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

Content-based platforms have been allowed to play in their sandboxes for much too long. They benefit from the viral content that users produce and taking money for paid ads without considering the veracity of the information being amplified.

Plenty of people argue that it’s not fair to demand social media platforms do the work of censoring: after all, they’re just facilitating a democratic platform where everyone can speak, right? The onus should fall on readers and consumers to be more careful about the content they consume.

The issue with this type of thinking is that these platforms have too much potential to do damage in the hands of people with funds.

  • By unscrupulously accepting payment from any organization with enough money to share their points of view, platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are actually contributing to heavily-skewed (and potentially false) narratives.
  • Content verification engines aren’t properly flagging spammy or possibly-inauthentic content, essentially allowing hoaxes to proliferate by giving them time to gain critical mass.
  • Because these platforms have not fulfilled their responsibility in managing fake content, governments have been able to justify censorship laws to regulate anything and everything they deem “fake news”.

If you think about it, many content-based social media platforms function as User-Generated Content (UGC) publishing companies—ones with far more power than newspapers in days of yore. This means they have a responsibility to filter the type of content that gains traction on their platform—not necessarily by taking a specific political stance, but by carefully discerning whether the paid content is truthful and taking a stand when it isn’t.

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

Ideally, platforms would take more responsibility to expose inauthentic content as it is created—before it has a chance to spread to messaging platforms like Whatsapp and Telegram.

A recommendation from the Yusof Ishak Institute says, “Global tech giants like Facebook and Google need to increase their public take-downs of content by fake news syndicates and reduce financial incentives for actors to produce disinformation.”

And Nathalie Maréchal, a researcher at Ranking Digital Rights, says, “For something this blatant—and related to what Facebook is saying is currently its top priority—[post-publication removal] is not acceptable. They should be aiming for a 99.99% hoax detection rate before the post ever goes up.”

The fact is tech giants nowadays are arguably more powerful than governments—their reach spans the entire world. They need to be responsible with their function as governors of flow of information about critical issues, and be more transparent about their processes.

Governments must stop conflating fair criticism with “fake news”, slander/libel, and hoaxes

Tech companies’ lackadaisical attitude towards the content they host has allowed governments to justify major civil rights violations against individuals. The issue with codifying punishments for fake news and hoaxes is that, too often, the definition of fake news is manipulated by interested parties who simply want to protect their own reputation.

James Gomez, board chair with the nonprofit human rights group Asia Centre in Bangkok, says that ASEAN government officials are trying to shut down social media activity that harms their reputation—even when the criticism is valid or fair.

Journalist freedom in ASEAN is completely terrible. In the Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries (1 being the most free, 180 being the least) not a single ASEAN country is ranked within the top 100. No matter which country you visit in the region, you’re bound to come face-to-face with vague, draconian rules or regulations that have been used to attack journalists and common people.


In 2017, popular Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) was imprisoned for nearly two years after being found guilty of violating Article 156a of the Criminal Code (KUHP), which criminalizes “blasphemy”.

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

Activists Dandhy Laksono and Ananda Badudu (former singer of popular indie band Banda Neira) were interrogated by police in September 2019 for criticizing certain aspects of incumbent president Joko Widodo’s policies and handling of specific civil rights issues.

And last week we mentioned how Indonesian comedian Bintang Emon became the target of a Twitter smear campaign from paid Twitter trolls after he jokingly criticized the unreasonably short sentence against two perpetrators of an acid attack that left the victim blind.


A Vietnamese law that took effect on January 1, 2019 made it mandatory for foreign and domestic internet services to hand over user data so that government authorities could probe the address and identity of anyone who wrote “suspicious” content.


Activisists, reporters, and other citizens who have criticized how the government has dealt with COVID-19—the country has the highest number of COVID-19-related arrests in the entire region—have been intimidated and arrested. In the wake of COVID-19, the Malaysian government has also  been accused of promoting fear and xenophobia against Rohingya refugees (which are not recognized as such and are instead termed illegal migrants).

Last year, human rights activists Sevan Doraisamy and Rama Ramanathan were taken in for questioning after criticizing Malaysian authorities on social media and through their writing. The police filed defamation charges against Doraisamy under Section 500 of the Penal Code and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act. Most investigations against activists and government critics have been based on these two aspects of the law.


Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

Even before the pandemic began, the Philippines has come under fire for the way it has treated government critics, protesters, and activists. Thousands of activists have disappeared in the country over the years, and a phenomenon called “red tagging”—where activists are falsely branded or accused of being communist insurgents—has also led to numerous disappearances and arrests.

Since the COVID-19 lockdown began, environmental defenders have been punished—one activist was gunned down by unknown assailants in Iloilo City—and over 120,000 people have been arrested for supposedly violating quarantine guidelines such as attending mass gatherings.

Peter Murphy, chair of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) says, “Filipino organizations who have been extending relief to those affected by the lockdown are being targeted, arrested and red-tagged by authorities”.


Thai social media users have been harassed and intimidated for criticizing the current government and monarchy. On 1 November 2019, one activist was arrested and interrogated by 10 police officers for some viral Tweets criticizing the monarchy.

This was made possible due to the Computer Crimes Act, which was expanded in 2016 to give authorities the license to monitor and suppress online content, and prosecute individuals for a wide variety of reasons, as well as Articles 326 to 333 of the Thai Criminal Code, which criminalize defamation.


Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

Cambodian authorities—like those in many other ASEAN countries—have used COVID-19 as a pretext to arbitrarily arrest government detractors. At least 30 people suspected of being opposition supporters and government critics by claiming that they have spread “fake news”.

And while people are panicking thanks to COVID-19, the government is pushing through a state of emergency law that allows the government to further repress the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.


In Singapore, journalists can be jailed for libel, threatening national security, or promoting “ill will” against religious or racial groups—incredibly vague and easy to take advantage of. Singapore is ranked 158 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

The sweeping Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was passed in October 2019 and allows government ministers to issue correction notices or even demand removal to media outlets. Earlier in 2020, Singaporean authorities also accused The States Times Review of spreading falsehoods (including about COVID-19).

Creating change through a multi-pronged approach that involves multiple stakeholders

There are a number of steps we need to take to combat hoaxes while protecting individual rights to freedoms of speech.

Tech giants need to be more responsible with their role as content distributors

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

The issue with allowing Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to remain as they are is this: they essentially become puppets in the hands of whomever has the most money to pay them advertising bucks.

Rather than supporting the people and helping individuals become more aware of the issues and topics that people care about, they are increasingly acting as loudspeakers for actors with the deepest pockets and biggest bot armies.

Tech giants and media companies who don’t tread carefully will continue to be vectors for governmental abusers and online trolls; it is critical that they halt the spread and creation of inauthentic, spammy content on their own platforms. Continuing to blindly accept payment so that people with means (money and bot armies) can manipulate facts to discredit certain groups or movements is what ultimately creates even further civil unrest.

Whatsapp’s unique role in hoax-spreading highlights the need for better digital literacy education

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

Private social networks such as WhatsApp are a little harder to police. Trigger-happy grannies and grandpas love to use the forward feature to share broadcasts; in my own family WhatsApp group, I’ll often receive over 20 messages a day claiming that some scientist in Egypt or China has discovered the cure to COVID-19.

This may sound funny, but WhatsApp misinformation has also caused more insidious harm. In 2018, two young Indian men were pulled out of their car and beaten to death by a mob after stopping to ask for directions late at night.

“The villagers got suspicious of the strangers as for the last three or four days messages were going around on WhatsApp, as well as through word of mouth, about child lifters roaming the area,” Mukesh Agrawal, a local police officer said. 45 other murders in India were linked to mass paranoia caused by WhatsApp forwards.

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption makes it difficult to halt the spread of content because no one can see what is being forwarded and sent. Ideally, the platform should continue to commit to punish bulk or automated messaging ( both of which have been violations of the app’s Terms of Service since 2019), introduce fact- and broadcast-verification tools, and educate users on how to spot fake news and hoaxes.

Most recently, the company announced a new forward limit where, if a user receives a frequently forwarded message (defined as one which has been forwarded more than five times), they can only forward it to one chat at a time. Introducing friction into the resharing process could help slow the spread of such falsehoods (the viral hoax that coronavirus is related to 5G led to the vandalization of more than 20 phone masts in the UK).

In the past, users had been able to forward a message to 250 groups at once. This was reduced to 20 a year in 2018, five in 2019, and one now, in 2020. WhatsApp says those measures reduced message forwarding by 25% globally.

Since the main players on platforms like WhatsApp are the users themselves, we do need to do much more work in educating the common person. Media literacy programs need to be targeted to people of all ages—not just the youngest generations who have just recently begun using smartphones and social media. One Indonesian study, for example, found that the vast majority of digital literacy programs are only hosted at university levels—alarming considering a vast majority of citizens have never attended a university class.

Digital literacy programs should be developed holistically by educators and media actors such as newspapers and social media platforms, and implemented with cooperation and collaboration from fact-checking organizations and governments. These don’t necessarily have to be paid courses or school classes.

In fact, we’d also argue that digital media and literacy programs should be disseminated in the same way hoaxes have: through simple, free, and easy-to-digest posts and broadcasts on social media platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook. Take a look at how The Asian Parent has shared tips and information through its Instagram account:

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

In too many cases, founders and well-intentioned movers create over-complicated solutions to simple problems, and in doing so, fail to actually help the people they’re trying to reach. Why not simply “dumb down” our approach and beat the hoax writers at their own game?

Lastly, aside from increasing friction in the resharing process, tech giants—and WhatsApp especially—need to partner with fact-checking organizations and help users access the verification tools they need.

Put more pressure on governments to stop abusing such vague laws

Seeing the wide range of human and civil rights abuses across Southeast Asia, it remains critical to put pressure on governments and halt the enactment of further laws designed to “protect the public peace” (which really only provide avenues for governments to prosecute naysayers).

This pressure can’t just come from inside a country’s borders. It also needs to come from involved citizens, journalists, activists, and governments of other countries, who could ideally step in to point out rights abuses from a specific government to its own people. Much of this is about taking the initiative to be an informed citizen, and agreeing to hold one another accountable in a shared business and social ecosystem.

In the face of serious health threats like COVID-19, it’s natural to expect governments to take action and restrict some rights, but these should be properly-designed to achieve a specific objective, and only active in times of a clear crisis. (South Korea has done well in this; authorities are allowed to access phone and location information in limited amounts to try and trace down possible carriers of the disease based on where they have been recently, and only during the pandemic).

Improve and increase Internet access instead of trying to limit it

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

Millions of Southeast Asians are coming online in the next few years, but many of them only access Facebook (Lite), Google, and WhatsApp. They mainly communicate with friends and close family members, and may not yet be aware of the enormous potential the Internet has.

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

This limited digital awareness means that they certainly won’t be verifying controversial content or trying to reverse-image-search to see whether the content they’re sharing is actually truthful. It’s important to widen Internet access and support rural communities in navigating the digital world responsibly and safely.

Create more spaces and increase support for transparent, objective, and fact-based media

Finally, the region needs to nurture online spaces where people can gather, communicate, and verify the creation of online content. We see a lot of activism among global youth, and a lot of righteous truth to power. We shouldn’t be punishing this generational push for more accountability from governments and businesses—digital media, when used correctly, can become a force for positive change.

Who's to blame for hoaxes and fake news?

One prime example of a fact-checking organization to support is the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which hosts the International Fact-Checking Network and also trains fact-checking initiatives around the world. Ideally, these media platforms, channels, and groups would be able to work directly with governments and businesses to more speedily identify harmful or false content.

Activist Angela Davis says that these times feel “very different” from anything she’s experienced before—entire generations are across the globe banding together to fight for what is right, and there is massive potential for us to significantly change for the better.

If you’re feeling intimidated by their passion for truth and fairness, then perhaps a look in the mirror is warranted. We all have a part to play in making this world a kinder, safer, truer place for one another.



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COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers (Deeper #9) – With Content

deeper tech newsletter southeast asia

A warm welcome to the Deeper newsletter, dear reader!

You’re reading this because, just like us, you’re tired of the non-stop tech and startup news cycle, where there seems to be something new and trendy to keep up with in Southeast Asia.

What you want to know about is the important stuff that matters—period.

And that’s what we’re bringing to you. Once a week, we dive deep into a trending topic in Southeast Asian tech.

Sound compelling? Subscribe now, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox every Friday morning:

Without further ado, let’s dive in.


COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

Hurtling faster towards a world full of better businesses

The pandemic has forced all of us to change. Now that so many of us are stuck at home, we’ve become increasingly reliant on our phones to get the products we need. In response to shifting consumer behavior, businesses have developed new features at the speed of light and shifted their strategies to win over millions of new users.

The rise of—and war between—ecommerce platforms during COVID-19 to innovate and woo customers is one of the effects caused by region-wide shifts in consumer behavior.

Ecommerce platforms like Shopee, Tokopedia, and Lazada are becoming even more customer-obsessed as more and more buyers get online through their mobile phones, and businesses across all industries will need to follow suit.

TL;DR: The COVID-19 pandemic has required businesses of all kinds to adopt a customer-centric approach and to truly empathize with their buyers to develop features and products that truly benefit them.

  • An increasingly large middle class is developing new buying habits
  • Ecommerce platforms are leading and driving business innovation in Southeast Asia
  • The power—and fickleness—of a growing middle class
  • Now more than ever, you need a customer-focused approach to succeed
  • A faster, more agile future

These changes signal a brighter future where brands will become more active partners in their customers’ journey for well-being and satisfaction.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

An increasingly large middle class is developing new buying habits

On the whole, ASEAN consumers are gaining more disposable income and getting better phones and Internet service, giving rise to a ballooning middle class. One report says that there will be over 50 million new consumers across Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam by 2022 with a collective $300 billion middle-class disposable income.

And according to Bain & Company report titled “Riding the Digital Wave: Southeast Asia’s Discovery Generation”, there will be over 310 million digital consumers in the region by 2025—compared to 250 million in 2018 and 90 million in 2015.

Though COVID-19 has “interrupted ASEAN’s path to middle-income status”, World Economic Forum analysts explain that “the long-term fundamentals of the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states are on the cusp of a tremendous leap forward in socio-economic progress.” Over the next decade, the region is expected to reach a US$4 trillion consumer market to become the world’s fourth largest economy. If anything, the pandemic has accelerated the consumer trend towards digitalization and online markets and products.

What will ASEAN’s new emerging middle class market do? Buy stuff. And businesses in the region will naturally evolve to target and please these new markets.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

This shift to a consumer-focused approach is being spearheaded by ecommerce platforms. Thousands of thousands of people turning to ecommerce platforms to get the necessities—medicine, groceries, low-value household items—they need. And in response, platforms are churning out feature after feature in a bid to find the right combination of tactics that will woo and retain users.

Ecommerce platforms are leading and driving business innovation in Southeast Asia

Ecommerce has been big for a while now in Southeast Asia. Five out of six Southeast Asian unicorns are ecommerce related:

  • Tokopedia
  • Sea (formerly Garena)
  • Lazada
  • Grab
  • GoJek

And ASEAN ecommerce is a highly vibrant, interesting sector. Back in 2015, the regional ecommerce sector amounted to just US$5.5 billion in value.  In 2017, ecommerce platforms accounted for nearly US$11 billion in gross merchandise value. This amount more than doubled again in the next year, exceeding US$23 billion in 2018. If you do the math, that’s a 62% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over four years.

An oft-cited joint report from Google and Temasek reports that Southeast Asia’s internet economy will surpass US$240 billion in worth by 2025, with ecommerce making up US$102 billion—or over 40%—of the internet economy’s total worth. (Those numbers may be even higher by the time the next report rolls around).

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

Last year, Shopee counted around 30 million downloads in the Philippines and nearly 500,000 active sellers on the platform. In Indonesia, Tokopedia’s 2019 GMV hit US$15.6 billion, equivalent to an entire 1.5% of Indonesian GDP.

Lazada’s 2019 11.11 Singles Day Sale—held in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam—hosted over 20 million cumulative shoppers. Lazada Malaysia explained that they surpassed their 2017 sales numbers just nine hours into the campaign, with a peak of 3,000 transactions per minute.

Why go out when you can stay at home and buy everything (and anything)?

With stories about how frightening COVID-19 symptoms and treatments are, it’s no wonder people are preferring to shop ‘til they drop—from home. In India, nearly six in 10 consumers are avoiding stores out of fears of infection. This is mirrored around the world. According to the research firm Technomic, 52% of global consumers are avoiding crowds and 32% are leaving their house less often thanks to the pandemic.

And Asian citizens are especially risk-adverse (with the exception of Indonesia…):

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

Thanks to the forced quarantines and lockdowns, consumers are spending significantly more time on their phones—worldwide, smartphone and mobile phone usage increased by 70%—and many of them have turned to online shopping for comfort.

  • Global retail platforms have seen an average 6% global traffic increase between January and March 2020. Overall, retail websites generated 14.34 billion visits in March 2020, up from 12.81 billion global visits in January 2020.
  • B2B, the local arm of China-based Alibaba, boasted over 10.2 million page visits in February 2020; Singapore-based Shopee recorded 1 million.
  • In Indonesia, management consulting company Redseer stated that 30% of respondents to their ecommerce survey said that the pandemic period was the first time they’d ever tried out online marketplaces; 40% of that slice said they’d continue using ecommerce even after the outbreak was over.

The power—and fickleness—of a growing middle class

Competition between the big ecommerce companies has been neck-and-neck for a while now, and there’s been a lot of growth during COVID-19 countermeasures. But not all platforms have found success during the pandemic.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

In fact, iPrice Group recently released a report revealing that three out of four ecommerce platforms in Vietnam—Tiki, Lazada Vietnam, and Sendo—saw an average 9% drop in website traffic throughout Q1 2020.

According to iPrice Group analysts, the reason for this drop was this: these platforms couldn’t keep up with fast-changing trends and unpredictable, ever-shifting demands of consumers.  At first, when COVID-19 first appeared, demand for hygiene products such as face masks and hand sanitizers shot up significantly. But as the months passed, online groceries became more and more sought out, and ecommerce platforms in Vietnam were not prepared for this need.

Fortunately, online groceries have popped up in Vietnam and elsewhere to deliver fresh fruits and veggies to buyers. Before the pandemic began, online grocery delivery was an underpenetrated market—but the sector has since grown nearly 300% this year. Among this year’s grocery buyers, at least 80% stated that they’d continue purchasing groceries online even after the pandemic has cleared up.

But change is now inevitable, and ecommerce platforms must laser in on their consumers’ needs in order to survive

The changes in consumer behavior—namely, the increasing reliance on digital platforms to get products they need and their determination to get it from the best source—is almost certainly going to stay for good.

What this means for businesses is that there probably will never be a full return to “normal” or the old way of doing things. It will be impossible for businesses to go back to offline-only methods; this coming decade is all about delivering omni-channel experiences to customers and beating competitors at user experience and satisfaction.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

The shift to online life is already happening, especially now that companies are releasing more and more options and features designed to make their user experience as complete and comprehensive as possible. Consumers have a lot of power to bend companies to their wills now, as evidenced by the Vietnamese ecommerce platforms’ failure to take advantage of the opportunities in COVID-19.

Consumer wants are always changing, and as a result tech businesses are still struggling to define their roles in the marketplace—most of the unicorns have their fingers in many, many pies, from digital payments to food delivery to ecommerce to travel bookings.

Tech giants are going through an identity crisis in their efforts to appeal to an increasingly agile and mobile consumer market

Lazada subsidary Redmart (online grocery store) saw a huge influx of orders during COVID-19, and the platform had to suspend new orders from April 2 to April 4 due to a massive increase in demand. Lazada launched an initiative in Indonesia to sell fresh produce supplied by thousands of farmers in West Java.

Around the same time, Shopee Indonesia and Tokopedia also began piloting ready-to-eat delivery services on their platform, putting them in competition with GrabFood and GoFood.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

Ecommerce platforms will continue to grow (and in some cases, compete) in tandem with the logistics platforms that power their deliveries—both ride-hailing ones like Grab and Go-Jek, and last-mile logistics like Ninja Van or J&T. As retail platforms expand and fight for leadership, ASEAN consumers will be able to enjoy the benefits: more choices, more value, and more convenience.

We can already see that ecommerce platforms are trying to either build their own delivery fleets or partner with local logistics companies to bring same-day delivery to every corner of every nation they’re operating in. Expect to see even more expansion from larger cities to smaller and smaller villages; more experimentation with business verticals; more small-scale “experiments” and tests as companies try to tease out the most significant customer demands.

Now more than ever, you need a customer-focused experience to succeed

The changes that COVID-19 is foisting upon ecommerce platforms—bigger, better, faster, more flexible¸—are applicable no matter what kind of company you’re running.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

Now that more and more users are connecting with mobile phones, businesses and organizations will need to prioritize an enjoyable, lightweight mobile experience—according to the PYMNTS’ 2020 Remote Payments Study, 72% of consumers are using mobile devices to shop for products.

Please customers with great mobile experiences

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

Millions of consumers stuck at home are spending more time on their mobile phones. They are developing new online buying behaviors and browsing habits. The massive increase in the number of users looking for entertainment and necessities from their phones is an ideal opportunity for companies to split-test, develop new features, and perfect their online experiences, mobile apps, websites, and omni-channel consumer touchpoints.

Stop skimping on security

As you develop your mobile presence and create promotions, new pricing, and new online systems for interacting with customers, you will collect more and more consumer data. This is vital stuff that you need to protect if you want consumers to keep coming to you.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

One solution to look into is AI-algorithm and machine-learning-based cybersecurity. These types of systems track user types, device specifics, IP risks, and millions of other data points to develop a smart bird’s eye view of your ecosystem.

AI algorithms can understand patterns of failed login attempts and fraudulent behavior much faster than humans can; applying them to your own tech stack can help improve user experience by banishing friction from the signup, onboarding, and purchasing processes.

Get digital and contactless payments if you haven’t already

The pandemic isn’t just changing the way consumers shop. It’s also changing how they pay for their products. Contactless payments have increased online and offline as buyers seek to avoid exchanging cash; ecommerce platforms have also taken the opportunity to push their own proprietary e-wallets.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

In the Philippines, for example, ecommerce and digital payments platforms had encountered difficulty gaining traction prior to COVID-19. Philippines is still heavily cash-based, and many necessities are bought from small sundries shops called sari-sari stores.

During the pandemic, however, payment aggregator companies and digitalization solution platforms Posible and True Money reported that they saw double-digit growth in transaction volume. These companies provide point-of-sale devices to sari-sari stores so they can process financial services like bill payments, e-wallet top-ups and local remittances.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

And GCash, which is currently the country’s largest digital payments solution (it’s backed by China’s largest fintech firm, Ant Financial) experienced similar growth. Reportedly, the e-wallet has enjoyed “double-digit” growth in new user sign-ups across all age groups since the quarantine period began in early April.

The pandemic is inducing a major shift in consumer habits across the entire region, and there’s hope that one day we may be as connected as China, leaping straight from a cash-based society to a cashless one.

Get the data

We talked about data aggregation in a previous edition of Deeper—mainly, about how TikTok was able to establish dominance by collecting and analyzing thousands of bytes of data to deliver the most viral, interesting content. Data analysis will be a major boon in the future for companies from all industries.

COVID-19, ecommerce, and learning to woo customers

According to a 2019 Bain & Company report, 67% of respondents said they do not know exactly what they want to purchase before they shop online. However, over 40% of respondents have tried an online store they have never heard of before. And in Singapore alone, 75% respondents said they are open to buying from new or multiple brands when shopping online.

This means that buyers are interested in product discovery, and to differentiate, companies should develop the ability to deliver relevant, timely purchase recommendations. This isn’t just about helping consumers buy what they need, but about showing them amazing stuff they didn’t even know they wanted. Knowing your customers better than your competitors is what will help you stand out.

A faster, more agile future

It sometimes seems like every industry is tossing around the same buzzwords these days: speed, agility, customer-centric, modularity, flexibility, and so on and so forth. Though they seem a bit stale after you hear them so many times, they truly are relevant: companies who adopt digitalization concepts and focus on speed and customer experience make more money and earn more customer loyalty.

As a business, one of your main prerogatives is to make money. You can’t survive without it. But we believe that there’s a lot of hope for the business ecosystem of the future. Brands are becoming more empathetic and more keyed-in to their consumers needs and hopes—take Philips, for example, which transitioned a few years ago from a simple consumer electronics brand to a company sincerely dedicated to helping and saving the lives of their customers.

In the future, expect a roiling ocean of near-constant updates and shifts in your industry, whether that’s tech or marketing or advertising or manufacturing. Gone are the days when you could take months or years to plan out a product or campaign; you need to iterate quickly if you want to keep up with the market. Be obsessed with your customers. Track data (ethically). Build real relationships with them.

In this all-out battle for market share, it’s heartening to know that there’s a future ahead where consumers can better enjoy and access the products they need—and where companies can take a step forward to become a little bit more human.



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Is democracy as we know it dying? (Deeper #10) – With Content

deeper tech newsletter southeast asia

A warm welcome to the Deeper newsletter, dear reader!

You’re reading this because, just like us, you’re tired of the non-stop tech and startup news cycle, where there seems to be something new and trendy to keep up with in Southeast Asia.

What you want to know about is the important stuff that matters—period.

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Is democracy as we know it dying?

Elections in a digital age

The use of technology in democratic elections isn’t new. Political parties and individuals have used radio and TV and newspapers for campaign advertising for decades, and voting machines and online voter registrations have become increasingly available over the past few years. But the increasingly online nature of politics and elections has us wondering how democracy will fare and change in a digital era.

Individuals and communities have the chance to become increasingly more involved in politics. It’s incredibly easy nowadays to create a social media account and begin interacting with politicians on Facebook and Twitter, and there’s proof people can instigate change simply by being politically active on the Internet.

Still, at the same time that political parties are reaching more voters than ever before, third parties are also gaining more access to digital tools and influencing elections in never-before-seen ways. There are concerns about bot armies, foreign influence, and social media manipulation—and whether or not “democracy” will fade into nothing but a pretty concept as the years pass.

TL;DR: Thanks to the increasing emergence of digital technologies, democracy is both closer and further than ever.

  • Digital campaigning
  • E-registration and the electoral process
  • Greater insight into voters
  • Anything you say can and will be used against you
  • Information can be more easily spread
  • Objective journalism is increasingly at risk
  • What’s the best outlet for discourse?
  • What is real on the Internet?

The way we approach the intersection of tech, government, and individual liberty will set a precedent for many years to come. This is a chance to bring knowledge and autonomy to previously-remote and virtually-inaccessible cohorts

Digital campaigning

Singapore’s GE2020 is being held today, and the results will come out by the end of tomorrow. For the very first time since Singapore’s independence in 1965, all 93 seats of Parliament—for the 14th Parliament of Singapore—are up for grabs.

Is democracy as we know it dying?

Seedly has done a great job of recapping some of the key points of each party’s campaign platform.

Election during COVID-19 has forced parties to innovate new styles of campaigning, and some are doing it better than others. Mass rallies have been banned, so candidates have turned to digital methods such as livestreaming rallies and taking advantage of increased airtime on national channels.

A quick look at their posters gives telling insights into the generational gap between party candidates:

Is democracy as we know it dying?


Some candidates have taken well to digital campaigning. Economist Jamus Lim—member of the opposition Workers’ Party—gained attention for a viral Facebook post thoroughly explaining his objections to an intended GST hike:

He explained the economic theory behind why a GST increase could actually prolong a recession, citing Japan and other countries as an example. The post was shared over 600 times and has actually given Lim a significant fanbase in Singapore.

This is the power of social media: it’s now possible for politicians to enjoy instant two-way communication with their constitutents. In the past, campaigning was very much a one-way flow of information through rallies, speeches, and quick village visits.  Now, a motivated candidate can host Instagram lives, run online Q+As for followers, and share more about their platform without having to wait for an official (and often exclusive) event.

It’s humbling and humanizing, and we hope to see more examples of those in power taking down barriers and creating more democratic ways for people to share their opinions.

Speaking of “taking down barriers,” here’s an example of what happens when politicians and cops actually allow themselves to be criticized and let people say what they want to say:

The Los Angeles Police Department allowed citizens of the city to join a Zoom call and say anything they wanted for a limited period of time. The result was seven hours of criticism and advice from angry, disappointed citizens, with some even bringing up how using tear gas against civilians is against the Geneva Conventions:

Imagine if we had a chance to freely criticize our leaders and politicians like this all the time without being punished.

Though you might dismiss the Zoom session as being too direct or “not our style”, the fact is that it did have some effect: after the tirades, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti promised to cut the proposed LAPD budget by five percent (instead of raising it as initially intended). It’s far from what the protesters have been demanding, but it’s proof that constant pressure against those in power can produce change.

E-registration and the electoral process

Voters in GE2020 can register electronically on voting day; election officials will not have to strike out a voter’s info from a hardcopy register, theoretically making the voting process simpler and more straightforward.

Voting processes around the world are one of the most significant areas that could stand to improve from tech and improved security. According to New Mandela, a SEA-focused news and political analysis outlet hosted by the Australian National University—electoral integrity in Southeast Asia is the worst in the world, with reports of bought votes, fraudulent machines, and weak tech support for digital solutions. Could we push for tech-enabled solutions to ease the electoral process and get more accurate results out even faster?

For years, many, many people have shown up to polls only to discover that they have not been registered properly. Others suffer from day-long waits just to get registered. In Cambodia, almost 11% of eligible citizens are not correctly registered; in the Philippines, voting machine malfunctions left would-be voters waiting for hours.

Ideally, other Southeast Asian countries could follow Singapore’s footsteps with a clear voter process that ensures one, equal vote for every eligible individual.

Greater insight into voters

Now that political campaigns can be run online—through Twitter ads, Youtube channels, and Facebook Live—politicians and their parties can get granular data on voters and what they care about. In a sense, campaigning has always been about selling—developing, advertising, and marketing—a dream, and the advent of digital makes it significantly easier to learn what the populace wants to buy.

Ideally, political parties would use this insight to develop more nuanced strategies and laws that can serve the people. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of concern about the integrity of their motivations. Are actors entering politics in order to help their communities, or in order to amass power for themselves? Are they selling ethically, or are they playing dirty?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a prime example of how desperate campaigns can get in order to “win the race”. In early 2018, the personal data and browsing history of over 80 million Facebook users was harvested by Cambridge Analytica through a series of polls advertised as being “for academic use only”. Without their knowledge or consent, users’ information was actually sold to Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns for millions of dollars.

It’s reasonable for political parties to collect data about the performance of their digital campaigns and the users who knowingly interact with their posts and websites. But that is very different from mass-buying illegally-harvested data in order to get an edge on candidates.

Anything you say can and will be used against you

People—from everyday citizens to politicians to celebrities—are now being held accountable for comments and posts that they shared years ago. It’s interesting to think about how we’ll proceed in the future as our online identities become more and more defined; nowadays, is there really such a thing as anonymity?

Much of the information we share online can now be traced back to our real identities, which means we must be more and more careful about what we share and do online.

Is democracy as we know it dying?

This increased scrutiny is good if it’s directed at the right places: organizations, corporate giants, people in positions of power. But in too many cases, instead of pushing for democracy and opening channels for criticism, governments are using their increasing tech power to punish activists, protesters, and naysayers.

Workers’ Party (WP) Sengkang candidate Raeesah Khan was just recently accused of trying to instigate enmity between social groups, races, or classes with 2017 and 2018 social media posts criticizing Singapore law enforcement authorities for discriminating against specific minorities.

Is democracy as we know it dying?

It seems a bit odd that criticizing cops for possible racial bias could be punishable by law, but people did file two separate police reports against Raeesah Khan.

She eventually had to release an apology saying, “I apologise to any racial group or community who have been hurt by my comments. I feel really passionate about minority issues regardless of race, and in my passion I made improper remarks, and I have to be accountable for them. I will fully cooperate in any police investigations.”

The r/Singapore subreddit took the time to discuss the police reports, even creating memes to point out some controversial statements about race that other politicians said—and which didn’t receive nearly as much criticism.

Information can be more easily spread

In the era of digital—and more precisely, in the era of the family WhatsApp group—information can quickly spread around within days or even hours. Social media networks are on fire during election days, with each individual trying to keep track of the most correct count and sharing what they’ve learned with friends, followers, and family.

Is democracy as we know it dying?

The rise of digital makes it easier for everyone to become involved in politics, and politicians will have to adjust their language and messages to capture new voters. This is one of the great things about digital democracy: it broadens access for people who have historically been excluded from such processes.

For example, in the Philippines, marginalized sectors of society are incredibly important to political campaigners. During election season, politicians and members of their teams will go to far-flung villages just to campaign. and people will cross mountains, rivers to vote—either because they’ll receive money to do so or because they passionately believe in a candidate.

Journalism is increasingly at risk

The lack of formal education about digital literacy and the freedom of most social media platforms opens up their user bases to manipulation. People are becoming more and more politically active, but they may not necessarily be fact-checking. Ideally, journalism outlets would serve as a stronghold against viral clickbait and inflammatory posts, but this isn’t often the case.

Even many trusted journalism sources have been criticized for giving in to less-than-noble motivations. In an effort to garner page views and interactions, they may write controversial headlines; in other cases, they may be unintentionally biased.  A February 2020 Statista interview shows that around Asia, less than 40% of citizens trust news media.

We wonder whether objective journalism and truth will be able to survive in the future, and how we can best protect these establishments. It’s clear that the pay-per-click model will only further erode integrity; so far, outlets like Wikipedia and The Guardian have been trying to ask for optional donations or ad-whitelisting, but to limited success.

What’s the best outlet for discourse?

Political discourse now takes place on nearly every social media platform—from Twitter to Instagram to Reddit to Facebook. Each platform has its own pros and cons. Is thoughtful analysis and debate possible on the Internet as it stands today, or are these platforms simply serving as echo chambers for the most dominant voices?

Seedly’s Facebook group and the local r/Singapore subreddit have been hosting discussions about GE2020—these are two examples of places where people can go to safely discuss politics.

The key in fostering discussion seems to lie in responsible, objective moderation. An ideal platform for discourse will offer the freedom to share opposing opinions without being lambasted or doxxed, yet still have limits on hateful or instigating language.

What is real on the Internet?

Singapore’s public elections have me reminiscing about Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama’s fateful bid for reelection for the position of Jakarta’s governor back in 2016 and 2017. Back then, a man named Buni Yani uploaded a heavily-edited and incorrectly-subtitled video of Ahok, making it seem like he was criticizing the Qur-an for misleading the people.

Is democracy as we know it dying?

Yani’s video went viral and damaged Ahok’s reputation, even resulting in mass protests in the capital where tens of thousands of people gathered to call for his removal from office.

After Ahok was imprisoned for blasphemy because of that doctored video, Buni Yani himself was later criminally accused of defamation. Chief Comr. Agus Rohmat of the Jakarta Police’s legal team said that Yuni “had [altered the video intentionally] to go viral and discredit the governor”.

There are two issues here: first, it is becoming easier and easier for motivated individuals—even those with limited tech experience—to operate bot armies, editing software, and tools like deepfakes in order to discredit certain political candidates. In the future, we expect more and more elections to suffer from interference and manipulation.

Is democracy as we know it dying?

Secondly, an issue we’ve discussed often in previous editions of Deeper: how should the creators of fake news be punished? Should they be punished at all? Should we be investing more into punitive action against hoax-creators, or should we be focusing on preventing them from gaining power by 1) educating the people and 2) developing better tools to identify doctored or manipulated content?

Who gets to define “fake news” and the truth? Tread too far and we’ll find ourselves smack in the middle of Orwell’s 1984.

A lot of the experts are nervous about the future of democracy

A pretty bleak collection of quotes from global experts collated by Pew Research shows that we live in dangerous times. There’s a lot of risk of manipulation and increased surveillance that will pose a threat to democracy.

At the same time, there is so much hope. Thanks to this increasingly digital landscape we live in, citizens of all ages are becoming more aware, discussions are becoming more fruitful, and entirely new cohorts are engaging in the politics that shape their way of living.

It’s too soon to see the full effects of digital advances on the world we are living in, but suffice to say that things are changing. The world we find ourselves in in the future will depend on the causes—Truth? Freedom? Liberty? Profit?—that we choose to champion as a society.



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How to Write an Effective Case Study (+ Example)

Case studies are useful tools in a B2B company’s sales arsenal.

These documents show potential customers that other companies have faced similar problems, and are now in a better place because they have overcome their struggles (with your help, of course).

But the thought of case studies might bring to mind a formal document that describes in stiff language how a product solved a problem. Many business case studies are admittedly boring, and not very helpful.

So it’s refreshing to hear what Evan Tan, Chief of Staff at data analytics and business intelligence startup Holistics, has to say about this type of content.

The “Pain, Dream, Fix” Approach: How to Write an Effective Case Study (+ Example)

To Evan, case studies are a form of storytelling about their customers’ struggles and successes. “Focusing on the human element of the story is very important,” he says.

Painting this concrete picture is especially helpful for products that many companies have not used before—such as an end-to-end data analytics and business intelligence platform like Holistics.

Such a platform can have vast applications across different industries, but the target market might not even be aware that it exists, or that it can solve the challenges they’re facing.

That’s why case studies “are highly effective in taking your selling to the next level,” says Evan.

By that, he means the art of story-based selling.


Case studies are story-based sales tools

To understand story-based selling, Evan points us to Andy Raskin, a pitching coach famous for his article, “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen” (it has 92,000 claps on Medium as of this writing).

greatest sales deck zuora

In his post, Andy outlines the elements of a strategic narrative for sales pitches.

First, describe how the audience’s world has changed “in such a way that presents both great opportunity and great risk.”

Next, describe the Promised Land—the improvements and successes the audience will experience with your help.

Only after painting these pictures do you talk about your product or service. You’ll also need to provide evidence that you can deliver what you’re promising.

That’s where case studies come in.

Case studies are “in-depth investigations of a single person, group, event or community.” They typically involve interviews and, where possible, direct observation.

As a content marketing and sales tool, a case study tells the story of how some companies have attained the Promised Land, and describes the journey they took to get there (hint: it involves your product or service).

The “Pain, Dream, Fix” Approach: How to Write an Effective Case Study (+ Example)

Why do these stories work for sales?

They work because “people relate very well to stories,” says Evan.

Potential clients can see themselves in the narratives told by the case studies. If they can relate to the problems and aspire to the vision of success discussed in the case study, then chances are the proposed solution will resonate with them, too.

And by framing the narrative around the customer’s vision of success, companies can cut through the noise of other sales pitches that focus on the seller.

Craig Davis, a content strategist at Facebook and writer at Contently, even claims that “a good case study is arguably the most important piece of content you can create.”

“It arms sales teams with creative ammunition and provides proof for what you can do without the need for a hard sell,” writes Davis.


How to craft an effective case study

By now, it should be clear what makes a good case study—a clear and relatable narrative that depicts the subject’s pain and success, and how you helped them in their journey to the Promised Land.

In 2019, we worked with Holistics to create a series of case studies. Here are the steps we took.


1. Identify a client to feature based on certain criteria

As a B2B company, you’ll want to identify your existing clients who have interesting, unexpected, or niche use cases of your product or service. Be creative in using different channels to find these clients.

For Holistics, problems that clients described in their support tickets revealed the various ways they were using their business intelligence platform. Customer success calls were also another good source of information.

You can also identify verticals that you’re targeting and select clients operating in these spaces.

Or you might want to extend goodwill and gratitude to some of your oldest and most loyal clients by featuring them in a case study.

These are all legitimate criteria for choosing a client to feature in your case study.


2. Get multiple perspectives

Unless only one person in the client’s company uses and benefits from your product—a highly unlikely case—aim to have at least three interviewees with different job positions.

That’s because different stakeholders in the company use your solution in different ways. Each of them will have their own goals, challenges, successes, and tips to share.

For example, we featured to understand how they used Holistics to improve their chatbot product. While their Data Analyst talked about how they used Holistics to analyze conversational data, their Product Growth Lead shared that they also used the platform for tracking and measuring their own marketing campaigns.

The “Pain, Dream, Fix” Approach: How to Write an Effective Case Study (+ Example)

By talking to people from different teams, we discovered the various ways they used Holistics within

At times, the client you’re featuring might not be willing or comfortable to provide multiple interviewees. Try to dig deeper to learn why. If the reason is that there really is just a single user of the product, find out which departments benefit from that person’s work, and see if you can talk to people from those teams.

But if the client still says no—perhaps due to a lack of time—don’t push it.

Perhaps you can postpone the case study, as they might be more ready to share their stories and results a few months later. Or if they can only provide one interviewee, make sure you get sufficient information and ask questions about how other teams are using or benefiting from the product.

Another thing you can do is to support the case study with data from official sources from within the organization being featured, and even from third-party sources. If you’re analyzing an event instead of a person or organisation, this step is crucial.

For instance, we investigated how Klook’s travel blog ranked for 80,000+ keywords for a case study on With Content’s own blog. We interviewed their Marketing Manager (Content) SEA and supplemented this with data from Ahrefs, an online SEO tool that lets you audit websites.

The “Pain, Dream, Fix” Approach: How to Write an Effective Case Study (+ Example)

An excerpt from our case study on Klook’s travel blog.


3. Decide how you want to structure the case study: Pain, Dream, Fix

Even before you conduct the interviews, you should already have a rough structure in mind. This will help you craft your interview questions because it will reveal the types of information you need to get.

For instance, Holistics uses a “Pain, Dream, Fix” approach to structure its case study narratives.

“Pain, Dream, Fix” is a copywriting model that is almost parallel to Andy Raskin’s strategic narrative framework. It gets the audience to see themselves in an advertisement and promises that their pain can be fixed and their dream fulfilled with the help of the advertised product.

Here’s how Holistics did it:

  • Provide context. Talk about the featured company’s background and industry, the pain points they’re trying to solve for their customers, and their data sources.
  • Paint the before-and-after scenario. This is where the “Pain” and “Dream” parts come in. How did they try to solve the problem before they began using Holistics, and what alternatives did they consider? How did they implement Holistics as a solution, and how did this change the way they work?
  • Understand how your solution helped. What benefits did the company get from adopting Holistics? How important is it now in their daily work? If they would describe or recommend Holistics to other companies, what would they say?
  • Look towards the future. Where does the company want to go, now that it has solved its problems? What does the future of data in their company look like?


4. Share interview questions in advance

Many of us aren’t as articulate and spontaneous as we’d like to be. For some people, participating in a case study might be their first experience of being interviewed.

To help your interviewees prepare themselves, share interview questions in advance. This also allows the interviewees to obtain the necessary data or to gather feedback and stories from their teammates that they can share with you.


5. Be personal and human when conducting the interview

The “Pain, Dream, Fix” Approach: How to Write an Effective Case Study (+ Example)

Evan cautions against simply going through a checklist of questions during an interview.

He explains that the prepared interview questions help provide a structure to the interview—they’re not a script you need to stick to. But if the interviewee mentions something interesting or confusing, don’t hesitate to ask them to share more or clarify.

Try to tease out the stories behind the answers. “Why” and “how” questions are particularly useful for doing so. You can also ask directly for examples and anecdotes.

If, for example, the client says that the product helps them generate sales reports, you could ask:

  • Why is it important that the product generates sales reports?
  • How does the product’s method of generating sales reports differ from your previous method?
  • How does this benefit you?
  • Can you share examples of sales reports the product generated, and how you used these reports?

“Don’t shy away from being personal […] I think an authentic voice makes all the difference,” says Evan.

For that reason, face-to-face interviews are ideal. But if it’s not possible or feasible to meet up physically, the next best thing would be to have a video call.


6. Get concrete, hard facts

Since a case study is about demonstrating and proving that you can solve a problem, get the interviewees to provide specific results.

For example, in a case study featuring peer-to-peer marketplace Airfrov, an interviewee shared the following:

  • “Before, if I wanted to make a promotion, I’d need three hours to see the data. [With] Holistics, I need [less than] 10 minutes to see and extract data.”
  • “Around 90% of marketers in the company now use data regularly to make marketing decisions.”

The “Pain, Dream, Fix” Approach: How to Write an Effective Case Study (+ Example)

When you pair this hard evidence with the concrete examples and anecdotes you get during the interview, you make a stronger case for why your product is the solution. You’re able to share both quantitative and qualitative facts that support your proposed “Fix” that bridges the “Pain” and the “Dream”.


7. Put a face to the name

If they’re willing, ask the interviewees to provide their pictures. By showing photos of users of their product, Holistics humanizes the case studies.

The appearance of a friendly face makes the featured client more relatable. It drives home the point that it’s not an abstract entity that’s using the product, but rather, real people with real problems.


8. Share, share, share

What use is a piece of content if no one reads it?

Don’t just let your case study sit on your website, gathering virtual cobwebs. Share it on social media and tag the client you featured. You can even distribute it through your newsletter, if you have one.

And of course, share it with your sales team so they can give copies to potential clients.


Bonus round: the unexpected benefits of case studies

After publishing a series of case studies last year, Holistics found that the benefits of publishing case studies went beyond having a story for salespeople to tell.

The case studies allowed them to improve their understanding of the ways customers were using the Holistics platform, as well as the struggles and triumphs that users had. A few times, a case study interview revealed ways the Holistics team could help improve the users’ workflow on the platform, resulting in a follow-up demo call.

At times, the interviews also helped the Holistics team discover potential gaps in their marketing communications and improve the way they shared information about new features.

“There’s really no replacing these deep-dive conversations,” shares Evan. Without doing the case studies, some of these gaps may not have surfaced. Even on a customer success call, you’d usually talk only to the main user of the product, not the various stakeholders.

The “Pain, Dream, Fix” Approach: How to Write an Effective Case Study (+ Example)

In fact, the various customer use cases unearthed through their case studies were instrumental in writing an analytics guidebook. One of the praises for the book was about how it provided real-world case studies.


Go and unearth those stories

“Case studies have proven to be a very effective tool in our arsenal because they’re able to communicate the value and results that can be produced,” says Evan.

So find a place for case studies in your content marketing strategy. Work with your customer service and sales teams to identify existing clients you can feature, and unearth the stories that will help you sell your product in a compelling, relatable, and human way.

Or let us help you unearth, craft, and publish customer stories that will win you even more customers – just like we did with Holistics.



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Bagaimana The Woke Gaji Menjadi Pemain “Tidak Dapat Dipungkiri” dalam Konten Keuangan Pribadi

“Lima bulan kemudian, kami memiliki pos sponsor pertama kami. Mereka menjangkau kami melalui email, dan saat itulah kami menyadari bahwa mungkin The Woke Salaryman dapat secara langsung dimonetisasi dengan cara yang berkelanjutan dan bertanggung jawab, ”kata Ruiming.

“Kami pikir kami harus mendekati klien, tetapi ternyata upaya kami berubah menjadi contoh sempurna dari kekuatan pemasaran inbound.”

Kunci keberhasilan The Woke Salaryman

Didukung oleh rasa saling menghormati dan persahabatan

Ruiming dan Wei Choon bercanda bahwa mereka mungkin berbicara lebih banyak satu sama lain daripada kebanyakan orang lain dalam hidup mereka. Mereka selalu berkomunikasi, hari demi hari, di Facebook Messenger dan Google Documents.

“Apa yang Ruiming tidak akan katakan, tetapi yang saya percaya, adalah bahwa dia adalah copywriter yang sangat baik,” kata Wei Choon. “Dia tahu cara menulis dengan cara yang membuat hal-hal dapat diakses, dia tahu bagaimana membuat hal-hal menjadi populer, dia menulis kalimat yang akan tetap bersamamu.”

Kemampuan Ruiming untuk menulis dalam “cara yang sangat singkat tapi sangat efektif,” dikombinasikan dengan kemampuan Wei Choon untuk memvisualisasikan hal-hal dan kemudian menambahkan elemen bercerita, mungkin merupakan alasan utama mengapa mereka membuat tim yang begitu baik, tambahnya.

Proses kolaborasi berulang mereka biasanya melibatkan melompat ke dokumen Google untuk bangkit konsep dan mendiskusikan eksekusi. Keduanya mengakui bahwa “kita masing-masing sendiri tidak selalu memiliki ide terbaik […] Lebih baik bersikap terbuka dan melihat apa yang terbaik untuk penonton. “

Memberikan kebenaran dengan cara yang menarik dan menyenangkan yang dipedulikan pembaca

Meskipun The Woke Salaryman pada awalnya dimaksudkan untuk menjadi bagian portofolio, mereka tahu memenangkan merek tidak akan mudah.

“Kami ingin menjual bengkel pada awalnya. Misalnya, tiga jam dengan perusahaan dan mengajari mereka cara mendekati konten untuk era baru, ”kata Ruiming. “Kami tentu tidak berharap itu lepas landas seperti itu.”

Setelah melihat traksi, mereka memutuskan untuk menggandakan The Woke Salaryman sebagai produknya sendiri. Mereka mencoba memposting setidaknya sebulan sekali di Facebook, menerapkan apa yang telah mereka pelajari tentang budaya Internet ke komik mereka sendiri.

Bagaimana The Woke Gaji menjadi "tidak bisa disangkal" pemain dalam konten keuangan pribadi

Memproduksi konten secara konsisten sangat penting dalam membantu mereka meningkatkan pemirsa. Internet memungkinkan siapa pun memposting apa pun dengan segera — dan segera setelah itu, siapa pun dapat merespons. Internet meme dan tren juga terjadi dalam sekejap, berubah setiap hari.

Karena itu, tidak mungkin untuk mengembangkan kampanye digital dengan siklus proses periklanan tradisional. Itu tidak akan ditayangkan tepat waktu, dan pada saat konten dirilis, momen telah berlalu.

Woke Salaryman sekarang bertujuan memposting seminggu sekali, atau setidaknya tiga kali sebulan. Untuk mencapai ini, mereka bekerja setiap hari untuk menghasilkan konten keuangan. Dan kalau-kalau jadwal produksi mereka mengalami masalah, mereka memiliki stok dua hingga tiga posting yang dapat mereka bagikan pada hari hujan.

Menempatkan pembaca terlebih dahulu

Dalam pekerjaan kantor sebelumnya, Ruiming menemukan bahwa, ketika mengkritik kampanye, klien dan atasannya akan lebih fokus pada selera pribadi mereka sendiri daripada kebutuhan pelanggan mereka.

“Banyak yang akan mencoba mengatakan bahwa konten tersebut tidak mencerminkan suara merek mereka, tetapi yang sebenarnya mereka maksudkan adalah bahwa mereka tidak menyukai konten tersebut atau memahaminya,” jelasnya.

Saat membuat konten, Ruiming percaya bahwa pemasar perlu peduli dengan tujuan kampanye dan pembaca. “Anda harus memberikan nilai nyata kepada mereka,” katanya.

Masalah lain yang sering dialami Ruiming ketika berkonsultasi dengan merek adalah ketakutan mereka bahwa, dengan menyebutkan pesaing, mereka akan kehilangan pelanggan potensial. Ini juga mengorbankan kualitas konten, katanya, dan menempatkan fokus pada peningkatan merek daripada pada benar-benar membantu pembaca.

“Kadang-kadang Anda perlu menyebutkan merek lain, atau tautan ke pesaing lain karena itulah yang paling berguna,” tambah Ruiming.

Perbandingan sangat membantu, dan mencoba menulis konten dalam ruang hampa mengancam itu. “Jika Anda melakukan itu terlalu banyak, apa yang Anda dapatkan pada akhirnya adalah artikel promosi yang membosankan dengan nol keunggulan kompetitif yang dapat Anda tunjukkan karena Anda tidak ingin berbicara tentang pesaing Anda,” ia mengingatkan.

Bagaimana The Woke Gaji menjadi "tidak bisa disangkal" pemain dalam konten keuangan pribadi

Saat ini, The Woke Salaryman bekerja dengan maksimal dua merek per bulan. Pasangan ini menekankan pentingnya selektif ketika memilih klien, menjelaskan bahwa klien buruk yang tidak dapat menerima pendekatan pemasaran konten memberikan nilai dapat memiliki dampak yang sangat negatif pada audiens.

Ketepatan waktu otentik (alias, trendjacking)

Daripada membidik virality, penting untuk fokus pada keaslian dan ketepatan waktu. Duo menyebut trendjacking ini. Dengan menjaga apa yang dibicarakan dan ditanggapi oleh pengguna dan pembaca, dimungkinkan untuk membuat konten yang lebih khusus yang lebih mungkin dibagikan oleh audiens.

Dengan bergabung dengan tren atau tantangan media sosial populer (mulai dari Ice Bucket Challenge hingga tantangan TikTok #WipeItDown), pembuat konten memiliki kesempatan untuk mendapatkan pandangan dan pengikut yang terhubung dengan nilai yang mereka buat. Ini juga cara yang bagus untuk terhubung dengan audiens di luar lingkungan yang sangat profesional.

Wei Choon baru-baru ini menjadi tuan rumah streaming langsung di halaman Facebook The Woke Salaryman, berbicara kepada pemirsa sambil menerima tantangan redor Sailor Moon:

Bagaimana The Woke Gaji menjadi "tidak bisa disangkal" pemain dalam konten keuangan pribadi

Ini membawa kita ke poin berikutnya: terbuka untuk bereksperimen.

Terus menjalankan eksperimen

Sekali-sekali, pasangan ini menjalankan eksperimen promosi media sosial berbayar — menjatuhkan seratus dolar, misalnya, untuk meningkatkan posisi IG yang sangat populer — hanya untuk melihat apakah mereka berkonversi atau tidak.

(Dari pengalaman mereka, Instagram cenderung sedikit lebih baik daripada Facebook)

Tetapi ketika datang ke ide-ide baru, mereka cenderung lebih fokus pada percobaan konten keuangan. “Saya terus-menerus mencoba cara-cara mendongeng baru yang tidak hanya berfokus pada aspek teknis keuangan,” kata Wei Choon. “Dan saya melakukan ini dengan menggunakan waktu ekstra saya sendiri — waktu saya tidak menghabiskan untuk konten yang disponsori atau konten editorial biasa.”

Bagi Wei Choon dan Ruiming, bereksperimen adalah bagian penting dari perjalanan mereka menuju keberlanjutan diri:

“Sangat penting untuk mencoba hal-hal baru dan kadang-kadang membutuhkan banyak hal atas nama pembelajaran. Kami telah melihat banyak materi iklan brilian dan berbakat membatasi diri karena mereka pikir tidak ada yang tersisa untuk dipelajari. Itu adalah sesuatu yang kami berdua ingin hindari. Juga, baru selalu menyenangkan. “

Mereka percaya semua perusahaan — dari yang baru hingga yang sudah mapan — harus mengambil pendekatan yang lebih fleksibel terhadap konten mengingat seberapa cepat tren berkembang dewasa ini. Anda tidak pernah tahu: percobaan konten yang Anda sukai dapat menghasilkan arahan yang tidak terduga atau ide-ide baru yang menakjubkan.

Sebagai contoh, satu jabatan yang Wei Choon kerjakan — tentang seorang pekerja kaya yang bekerja keras sepanjang hidupnya tetapi meninggal sebelum mendapat kesempatan untuk menuai kekayaan — adalah sumber kecemasan utama baginya.

Sebelumnya, The Woke Salaryman tidak menghasilkan banyak komik dengan narasi definitif, dan Wei Choon khawatir bahwa plotnya akan terlalu klise dan dapat diprediksi.

“Sehari sebelum saya mempostingnya, saya sangat gelisah,” kenangnya sambil tertawa. “Saya hampir tidak mempostingnya karena sangat berbeda dari semua yang kami lakukan […] Saya sangat takut itu akan menyedot, dan tepat sebelum saya mempostingnya saya berkata pada diri sendiri, oh man, ini omong kosong. “

“Tapi entah bagaimana orang benar-benar menyukainya. Ia memiliki ribuan saham sekarang. ”

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