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Why TikTok is Gen Z’s cultural playground in Southeast Asia

Why TikTok is Gen Z’s cultural playground in Southeast Asia

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For Southeast Asians, TikTok is not just a platform, it’s an expression of culture and creativity. In 2022, TikTok was the most downloaded social app in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand with hundreds of millions of users and businesses frequenting it monthly.

The region’s vibrant culture transformed TikTok from a social media platform to a cultural phenomenon, seamlessly interwoven with the digital realities of Gen Z. For one in five Southeast Asians who, like myself, make up this generation, TikTok is a means to build connections, learn new things, and interact firsthand with our favourite creators and brands.

This is why TikTok has turned to the ‘social media region’ in recent years, investing millions in the training and advertising of SMBs, underscored by the growing presence of the TikTok Shop. When at the height of the pandemic, TikTok helped demarcate Gen Z as its own generation, now Gen Zers are turning the tide as they influence what the platform can do.

So, what do businesses need to know about my generation, the Southeast Asian Gen Z?

SEA Gen Z look at the world through a nano lens

Over 500 million Southeast Asians spend 10 hours a week on social media and for them, influencers reign supreme. From #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt to #TikTokBudol, Gen Z has relied on the combined short-form power of TikTok and Instagram when checking the value of their purchases.

Accounts of celebrities and brands don’t do much for us. Any content posted by big names is seen as advertising—a huge turnoff. As social media specialist Andrea Penaranda puts it, “With influencers, they build their page organically unlike official brand accounts who mostly rely on paid media."

But in the influencer realm, size does matter, which is to say, the smaller the better. Nano- and micro-influencers are perceived as more credible than those with follower counts exceeding 50,000. Case in point: Linh Truong, a Vietnamese beauty influencer who rakes up to half a million views on a single video despite having less than 19,000 TikTok followers.

For Gen Z, these influencers’, limited reach is not a setback but something that makes their content authentic, niche, and dependable. Nano-influencers’ honest and unfiltered reviews are why more and more Singaporean brands have been tapping them for their social media strategies—from 62% in 2020 to 77% in 2022.

Shopee also got ahead of the curve by not just pulling in influencers but also encouraging all kinds of user-generated content. This led to #ShopeeFinds and the Shopee-sponsored #BudolFinds gaining a collective 16.4 billion TikTok views.

SEA Gen Z make interactive purchases

Convenience is not the only thing that makes Southeast Asians shop online. We also do it to be entertained and to find community through livestream shopping or “live selling.”

A blend of late-night watching of the Home Shopping Network and listening to salespeople in malls promote a revolutionary mop, live selling is "enticing the digital-savvy Gen Z market because it bridges the gap between online and offline shopping through a host who interacts with the audience,” says Marie Adriano, a Manila-based strategic planning director.

While still a nascent market in e-commerce, 31% of Southeast Asian online sellers are already revolutionising this trend. They livestream on regular schedules to entice both loyal viewers and new customers. Then, the sellers or their partner influencers display items in front of the camera. Items are reserved when viewers comment “mine.” The interaction excites Southeast Asian shoppers who tune in almost every week, with 63% purchasing at least one item in each stream. The mix of ecommerce, entertainment, and lifestyle creates what some call “shoppertainment.”

Discount offers, on-demand product showcases, real-time answers, and product discovery are some of the things that make livestream selling worthwhile for Gen Z. In fact, they embraced the TikTok Shop because they were already using TikTok to discover new items.

SEA Gen Z use short-form content as a gateway to binge-watching

TikTok has driven a wedge between Southeast Asians and other streaming platforms. While YouTube is still the most used video platform in the region, TikTok is quickly coming in close with a 70% rise in streaming minutes from 2021 to 2023. In fact, the social app caused VOD and SVOD platforms to flatline in the region.

On TikTok, full movies and episodes are available for free—spliced and posted in parts. With 81% of Asians overwhelmed with so many subscription services in the market, 82% of Indonesians decided to just stop paying for subscriptions altogether. This has led Southeast Asian Gen Zs to watch less TV or OTT and just opt for TikTok’s free access to bingeable videos.

Some use the platform to discover new content, passively watching from their 'For You' pages. If something piques their interest, they ask for details about the clip from the original poster or other users, then they watch the full content on another platform. The effect of spliced content drove the account of Filipino media company ABS-CBN to be the top TikTok entertainment account in Southeast Asia for H1 2023.

TikTok has taken notice of this Gen Z trend, leading to the release of the TikTok TV app, which the platform hopes can capture other generations who would sit with Gen Z in front of the TV during family time.

According to Penaranda, “TikTok’s advantage over SVOD platforms is that brands have easy access to metrics and analytics.” She says those who want to make the most out of TikTok’s cultural footprint on Gen Z “can develop their strategy by analysing audience behaviour, identifying patterns, peak engagement times, and popular content types to refine their strategy for long-term success.”

This article was written by Shom Mabaquiao, Analyst with Canvas8 Asia Pacific

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