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People browse the internet at a café in Phnom Penh earlier this year.
People browse the internet at a café in Phnom Penh earlier this year. Hong Menea

Messengers in a digital world

A new study by global market research firm Kantar TNS has identified Cambodia as the highest-ranked country in the world for receptiveness to social media advertising and branded content, while it also ranked high on direct brand interactions via Facebook and the willingness to share commercial content.

According to the firm’s Connecting Life report, 59 percent of Cambodians show a positive response to reading or watching content from brands on social media, while 61 percent are openly willing to share brand content if offered proper incentives, such as discounts or rewards.

“In emerging markets such as Cambodia, where social and mobile dominate the internet experience, people are most likely to seek to engage with a brand through its Facebook page,” the report noted.

However, as social media advertising has become more sophisticated by using targeted algorithms that identify user behaviour, purchasing choices and search preferences, Cambodians scored lower than the global average in awareness of being digitally tracked, with only 22 percent aware that they were being actively followed by brands.

Lorena Banares, assistant dean of communication and media arts at Pannasastra University, said that given the generally limited scope of internet use by Cambodians, it was not surprising that they were unaware of targeted advertising.

“As long as consumers have the ability to access the internet, and in Cambodia the internet is Facebook, most are unaware that they are being targeted,” she said.

However, she was quick to point out that “this is not a bad thing”, as targeted advertising is more “interactive” and relatable to the audience.

“The sponsored and branded content model is what companies should ultimately use, but the message has to be consumer-oriented and have a positive impact,” she said, adding that it isn’t just about gaining the most “clicks”.

The number of internet subscribers in Cambodia topped 7.2 million as of the end of July, with 19.2 million mobile SIM cards in circulation, according to government statistics. Singaporean social media firm We Are Social put the number of Facebook users in Cambodia at 3.4 million as of May.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Tomas Pokorny, an adviser to WorldBridge Commerce, the local e-commerce venture behind the online shopping platform MAIO Mall, explained that social media generally provided the easiest avenue for market entrance into the Kingdom. However, experience has shown that Cambodians are particularly wary of companies that advertise heavily on social media.

“It is easy for small companies to advertise on Facebook and offer 70 to 80 percent discounts, which sounds great,” he said. “But many Cambodians don’t feel protected and are suspicious of fraud.”

He said, however, with proper marketing that takes into account “Cambodian viewing habits” it was easy to build trust with consumers and stay on top of the latest “cool and hip” trends.

Julian Rake, managing director of local public relations and digital media firm Quantum Media, explained that because Cambodia was currently enjoying a “honeymoon” period with social media, platforms like Facebook “offer brands a real opportunity to connect with a very desirable young, urban, tech-savvy audience”.

“Another appealing thing about reaching an audience through Facebook is that it comes with solid audience metrics – who is watching, where and in what numbers,” he said.

“[This] is data you just don’t get with television, newspapers or radio in Cambodia, where viewership and readership ratings are still quite basic and not wholly reliable.”

Rake added that for companies to be successful in publishing branded content, they must be adept at promoting a positive Cambodian narrative that hits on the points of pride, heritage and culture.

“At this stage in Cambodia’s development, Facebook and other social media sites offer a real platform to connect for a country whose recent narrative is one of quite severe disconnection,” he said.

Anthony Galliano, chairman of digital media firm Jump Digital Cambodia, said that for social media advertising to remain attractive, it needs to remain “subliminal” and unobtrusive. In this way it gains traction by not clouding up a users social media or internet experience.

“Forced advertising is very much the minority and in principle frustrates consumers,” he said, adding that marketing needs to “encourage interaction rather than alienation.”

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