7 Key Market Insights About Developing and Deploying SEM Strategy in the ASEAN Markets

7 Key Market Insights About Developing and Deploying SEM Strategy in the ASEAN Markets

Understand these 7 market insights before investing in your company’s SEO/SEA in Southeast Asia

We can all agree on the fact that search engine optimization (and search engine advertising, for that matter) is an endeavor digital marketing agencies and professionals the world over can perform without ever having to leave the country – after all, most of the strategies that work for Western markets are applicable and scalable to most overseas markets.

However, the rules slightly change when we talk about strategizing for the ASEAN market. This region is comprised of some of the most diverse cultures and some of the most idiosyncratic market complexities that every marketer will need to take into consideration prior to deployment.

There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to understanding these market-specific complexities but learning them will make it all worthwhile – the market is, after all, one of the largest in terms of population, as well as being one of the markets that is constantly growing by the minute.

Let’s discuss seven key market insights and takeaways that will show you the absolute importance of developing a tailored SEM strategy befitting regional ASEAN market behavior and characteristics based on tangible, real-world experience.

1. Don’t get lost in translation

There are no ifs or buts about it – translation is an absolute necessity. Far too many businesses, organizations, and professionals working in SEO/SEA do not seem to pay enough attention to this – which throws their entire marketing strategy out of whack. The fact of the matter is that in order for you to be able to take advantage of the market that is the ASEAN region, you cannot do without translation.

This is primarily the case for Indonesia and Malaysia. Although Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia are mutually intelligible, you cannot simply expect content that was designed specifically for Indonesia to work as efficaciously in Malaysia, and vice-versa.

Language also plays a key part when you talk about search volume differences between English terms and terms translated in the local language. Take the case of “iPhone 8” as a search term in Thailand – a quick Google Trends comparison shows that almost half of the search terms in the country for this search are in the Thai language – remarkable considering the size and reputation of Apple as a global brand renowned all over the world.

Another example highlighting the importance of formulating a campaign suited to the subtleties of the market in Thailand is that of using “adidas shoes” as a search term compared to using the native Thai search term (“รองเท้า adidas”) – the key takeaway being that Thai search terms tend to be more consequent than English search terms, and the consequence of not using Thai terms is losing out on a lot of opportunities to market, leads, and most importantly sales.

Furthermore, it’s an excellent opportunity for you to lower your cost per conversion, or CPA, since there are much fewer competitors who market in the local language as there are who do SEM for English terms. It’s night and day – talk about isolating your target and focusing your marketing on that specific niche of people prior to deploying your SEM strategy, as opposed to working with a handicap (that of competing in an oversaturated environment) from the get-go.

This is precisely the reason why you need to translate your content into the language that your target country is using in order to create an environment conducive for its consumers to buy in.

It spells the difference between a successful search engine advertising campaign and a waste of time, money, and effort trying to plug a square peg into a round hole.

2. Consider your target demographic

It is conversely important to note, however, that your target audience will dictate what language you will use to communicate with them.

For instance, devising a localized, fully translated SEM strategy targeting the large demographic of millennials in the Philippines in Tagalog, the country’s national language spoken as a first language by a quarter of its population, may sound like a great idea considering the need to translate – and it is…for the lower to the middle-class markets.

But if you are trying to market towards the upper crust of that demographic – that is, the affluent, highly-educated urban elite who are abreast of all the latest trends and who have the money to spend – English will serve your campaign better.

What’s the key takeaway from this? Target the language that you use towards the demographic you’re trying to attract.

3. Factor in a wider array of socioeconomic levels

Southeast Asia can be quite tricky when it comes to marketing targeted towards income levels – despite being home to some of the fastest-growing economies and largest populations, socioeconomic inequality is a very real factor to consider.

The reason is that not all ASEAN countries have such a developed infrastructure or a strong economy like Singapore – certain aspects factors as internet speed, smartphone usage, roaming data access, and social media usage vary widely across the region. Even larger cities like Manila or Bangkok have connectivity problems that its local customers often struggle with, and not all smartphone users in these cities have postpaid data plans attached to their mobile subscription.

4. Prepare to deal with the variety of languages and dialects in the region

Your content and your SEM strategy should mirror the diversity of languages prevalent in the region. For instance, advertising copy or web content should be written in the language of the country, region, city, and demographic you are reaching out to.

Local copywriters have a pulse on the target demographic they are writing for – which is why you should make sure that a Filipino from Cebu writes copy in Bisaya for the Cebu region, or a Singaporean native to write copy in Mandarin for Singapore or in Malaysia.

That’s no different from hiring local SEM specialists who actually think in the language of their country – they will know exactly what terms, what language, and what demographics to target, all while conforming to Asia-specific values and norms.

5. The 3 L’s: Localization, Localization, and Localization

Translation may be one thing, but do not mistake it for localization. Translation is just one part of localizing your strategy to the target market by translating terms, content, and keywords, among others into the local language…but localization is taking into account not just your SEM strategy, but your sales, customer service, and your product offering to fit the zeitgeist of the local culture. Translation becomes transcreation, which goes beyond translating word for word, and is essentially creating relevant, targeted content for a totally different market.

Neglecting the importance of full localization can pose millions of dollars in lost business opportunities – localization will guarantee that your brand will get its message out in the market it is targeting. Localization, in essence, builds more doors for commercial opportunities.

6. Optimize for mobile use

The great majority of consumers in the ASEAN region use smartphones to access the internet and the region is predominantly composed of Android users.

You will thus want to have your mobile apps optimized for the best experience for its users, especially considering the fact that robust and responsive mobile interfaces for websites and apps are not yet as widespread as they are elsewhere in the world; prioritizing will nevertheless be an important factor in developing your strategy for penetrating the market as more users will access your content from smartphones than computers anyway.

7. Monitor country-specific search behavior and know your alternatives to Google

It’s one thing to know and understand which search engines are popular in the ASEAN region – we all know of Google’s dominance in the market – but it’s an altogether different thing when you talk about knowing how and in which cases certain search engines are used over the other.

Case in point – you’ll be surprised to know that a lot of smartphone users in Vietnam don’t even begin their search with Google but through other social media apps such as Facebook.

This is the reason why your SEM strategy should consider country-specific search engine usage and behaviors and to find alternatives to Google as necessary in order to adapt to the market’s preferences to get the most out of your strategy. This will in turn get you results to show for.

In Summary

A tailored, bespoke approach towards marketing in the ASEAN region should be developed by professionals and agencies as a priority in order for them to be able to penetrate this lucrative market that is growing larger and larger by the day.

Every country has its own specific set of positives, negatives, and idiosyncrasies, and can be difficult for even the most experienced SEO/SEA practitioners to navigate.

That being said, it is absolutely important for you to develop SEM strategies tailored to fit regional characteristics, translate and localize your content to the language of your demographics, and frame your message to best fit the zeitgeist of the commercial and socioeconomic temperament of your new potential market.

Damien Magnenat
[email protected]

Founder & CEO, ASEAN Digital Strategist



Our guarantees

Thanks to our Swiss origins and our team of Asian native experts, we combine Asian cultures with the Western highest professional and quality standards to deliver superior services and brand experiences in Southeast Asia

Data-driven & Results-oriented

With our purely data-driven approach, we continually assess the data we receive throughout the campaigns and improve our performances with full-time campaigns optimization. All our strategies and actions aim to generate sales, profits, and long-term business growth.

Absolute transparency & Privacy

We offer you full visibility on actions taken and results obtained and guarantee a total confidentiality of your data.

A close and available team

We focus on human relationships and work closely with your team.

Always at the forefront of technology

We have access to the entire online advertising inventory and use the most advanced programmatic technologies to ensure the success of your customer awareness, acquisition, loyalty, and retention campaigns.