Column: Singapore as a glimpse of our mobile future

Why marketers need to watch this small-but-mighty country

Why marketers need to keep a close eye on this small-but-mighty country

Singapore may be a small island state, but it has global status and influence that is disproportionate to its size. Dwarfed by its closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore offers economic opportunities that make it second only to Switzerland in competitiveness, according to the World Economic Forum. Singapore is full of many wonders, including well-funded attractions vying for first-in-class status, such as the top-notch casino Marina Bay Sands, an observation wheel bigger than the London Eye and an airport voted the world’s finest, to name just a few.

But what is most remarkable from a marketer’s perspective is not the award-winning architecture or lavish malls. It’s the staggering number of people, no matter their age or socio-economic status, who own smartphones.

Since moving to Singapore earlier this year, Canadian ex-pat Stephanie Myers has paid close attention to mobile trends

Mobile penetration is at 149% with smartphone penetration at an astonishing 88%, according to Blackbox Research. Compare these statistics to Canada, where comScore reports 62% of mobile subscribers have smartphones. It’s easy to see why Singapore deserves extra scrutiny by the marketing industry. It offers a look at the future: the nation’s embrace of smartphones points to what the mobile channel will one day look like in other developed countries.

Singapore’s high rate of smartphone ownership is what happens when an affluent population has easy access to an outstanding high-speed broadband infrastructure and the latest in mobile technologies. On a per capita GDP basis, Singaporeans are a full 45% wealthier than Canadians, making smartphones a less significant purchase. Uptake is further spurred by a competitive telco industry, where entry-level plans feature a generous 2GB of data and 800 SMS for the equivalent of $32 per month. Two-year contracts make trading up to the next model easy.

How is consumer behaviour affected when almost nine out of ten consumers own a smartphone? Yes, the general use of apps, social networks, video and other smartphone functions are the same as in other developed markets, but the effect is markedly heightened.

A trip on Singapore’s state-of-the-art subway system offers a slice of everyday life. Even on tracks as deep as 11 stories underground, the vast majority of commuters are using their smartphones to take phone calls, listen to music, watch videos, play games, text and, of course, check the latest on Facebook – the social network of choice. From all appearances, consumers are inseparable from their mobile devices because virtually nothing interrupts their mobile experience.

ComScore found that Singapore leads the world for internet traffic coming from mobile devices – 11.9% of traffic versus Canada’s 6.5%. Consumers rely on their smartphones to bridge the gaps when they’re away from their PCs and tablets throughout the day, particularly during commuting. PCs and tablets have their place (at work and at home respectively), but the smartphone is the constant companion. The Mobile Marketing Association found that 43% of consumers in Singapore would choose a day without their friends over a day without their mobile phone.

The result of all this is that mobile and, by extension, social have become part of the fabric of life in Singapore. What is novel or noteworthy in Canada is commonplace here. Consumers juggle simultaneous conversations via e-mail, SMS and social. Television shows and movies are watched on the go by people of all ages. Bloggers are consulted before restaurant reservations are made. Neighbourhood conveniences are discovered by location-based apps like Show Nearby. Taxis are summoned via app.

In fact, services are the best example of how mobile has become ingrained in everyday living. Few wait at a bus stop without checking for the next arrivals on the public transit app. Banking through mobile is commonplace to the extent that banks automatically send account updates via SMS. Most impressively, telcos and financial institutions have banded together to offer NFC-powered apps that fuse the consumer’s credit and loyalty cards into a single mobile wallet. Shopping is as easy as waving a phone.

What this means for marketers is that Singapore has the potential to serve as a lab for experimenting with a truly mobile-centric approach to marketing. When the majority of consumers are carrying a personalized and localized communications/entertainment/news/shopping device, brands have untold opportunities to connect with their audiences in meaningful, relevant ways.

In one very important way, however, Singapore is similar to Canada: according to Experian Marketing Services, just 36% of marketers here have incorporated mobile as a regular channel. As elsewhere in the world, it seems that mobile technology and consumer behaviour are still one step ahead of the marketing industry.

Mobile is the channel that seems perpetually acknowledged as the next big thing for marketers and yet is still under-developed by most brands. It’s in Singapore that the channel’s potential could finally be realized. Marketers need to keep watching.

After thirteen years in Canada’s marketing industry and earning senior titles at Publicis and DraftFCB, Stephanie Myers is now the Engagement Director for Asia Pacific at Possible in Singapore.

Photo: Jaeden Ng

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