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What’s my ROI again?

Return on Investment.

The three words that anyone working in the digital marketing industry dreads hearing.

It usually comes right after the pitch, after a slight furrowing of the brow and signals the part of the conversation where the realisation dawns that your potential client hasn’t fully understood the sheer game changing magnificence of your digital vision.

You know exactly what they mean by that. It’s dollar value return on dollar spent. Selling brand extension and reputation building is not going to cut it.

And while it’s a familiar story around the world, nowhere is it more true than in the heart of the most switched on culture in the world.

Since moving to Asia last year, one of the things that has taken me by surprise is quite how traditional many of the businesses have remained.

Investing in social media, digital and mobile strategy is something that remains an afterthought, rather than a brother in arms with other mediums as part of an integrated strategy.

But it’s not that people just don’t get online here. They really do. Singaporeans spend the longest amount of time on Facebook in the world and Indonesia has the second largest number of active social media consumers on the planet.

The developed Asian cities have the fastest internet in the world, complete fibre broadband networks and mobile internet penetration levels that would make every US telco green with envy.

So if the consumer is here, then what’s stopping the bees from chasing the honey?

Well there are the usual suspects of cost (Great pitch, but our digital budget isn’t huge. So can you do this augmented reality campaign and accompanying brand minisite for $3,000?), fear of the unknown and of course brands not seeing the point in paying someone money to tell you how to use your Facebook page effectively.

But there are also some uniquely Asian traits which make this a far more unique mix.

First up is the fact that Asian businesses are still largely family run. Even the biggest Pan Asian companies over here are largely structured in a fairly patriarchal way, with a traditional businessman at the top making the key decisions and various members of his family sitting on the board along with key advisors.

Now there is nothing wrong with that model. And believe me it works incredibly effectively out here, but it does mean that decision making on new concepts is a slow burn process.

At the other end of the spectrum, another problem is that Asia is awash with young entrepeneurs. The region is full of thrusting young bucks who understand the needs but don’t usually have the means. Again, it’s a slow burn process in which you can hopefully grow with your client.

But probably the most important reason behind the lack of explosion in digital marketing lies at the very heart of Asian culture.

D&D. No not Design and Development or even Dungeons and Dragons, but Discount and Direct Sales. These, more than anything are the cornerstones of the Asian business mentality.

You see that stall holder in Thailand haggling for his life with you? Or the animated negotiations going on in Vietnam’s street markets? That’s actually a microcosmic snapshot of something that’s happening every single day in every single way at every single level.

We Asians love discounts (being Eurasian myself, I get the unique luxury of classifying myself in both camps) and if you spend any time here you’ll see that not paying full price is a way of life.

Flash sale websites are absolutely everywhere and doing record business (according to a friend who is Asian CEO of one global daily deal company), people hunt through credit cards to find the one that gives discount in a restaurant and even my apartment rental ended up as a negotiation of not only the rent, but the commission and the amount of furniture included.

Push this mentality to a business pitch and you see the problems. Pitch at a reasonable level and you get asked for a substantial discount, pitch at a discountable level and you get told you’re too expensive. It’s a problem almost every agency head I know grapples with.

But by far the biggest barrier is direct sales. Put simply, Asia was built on trading, on selling and on doing it quickly and better than anyone else.

From a business perspective, everything needs to have a dollar value RoI. It’s the language most people understand. Not the ideal environment for a business where leveraging human behaviour is our currency.

All of this wishy washy stuff about brand keys, primary and secondary messages and building awareness for future leveraging purposes just doesn’t wash. People have built their businesses on one thing. Selling hard and selling effectively.

My problem is that as much as I would love to ride in on a Western educated charger and lance that mentality with talk of Nielsen, eye-track, social conversations and sophisticated viral engagement, I can’t.

And it’s for the best reason on earth. Their way works.

Try telling the billionaire Chinese businessman that he’s getting it all wrong and he’ll laugh you out of his office. Mention the importance of your online brand message to the CEO whose company is posting triple digit growth and see what happens.

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Most companies in Asia are booming. They’ve grown fast and organically. So fast in fact that they’ve not even had one minute to stop and think about their brand strategy or structured growth let alone what their website design says about their public image. They see digital as something to do, but not something to build around. After all, they’ve been pretty damn successful without it.

The agency I am in business with went from 14 to 45 odd staff in the space of 18 months without stopping to pause for breath. It wasn’t deliberate or planned growth. It was just growth caused by great expertise and a booming lifestyle market that understands the importance of indirect return on investment.

It’s only now we’ve finally stopped to assess where our brand is, what the message should be and how we can move it forward.

Maybe I can sell myself a solid digital growth strategy in the process. If the price is right of course.


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