Digital 2011: The Philippines
This may be surprising considering that only one third of Filipinos have access to the internet, but when you consider that more than 95% of these netizens use social networking sites - with more than 90% on Facebook alone - the rationale becomes a lot clearer.
Data from Alexa shows that Facebook is easily the most popular online destination in the country in late 2011, and Filipinos spend considerable amounts of time on the site despite a large volume of access coming from simple feature phones.
Indeed, at an average of 21.5 hours per week, Filipino netizens spend a lot of time on the internet in general, and are second only to Singaporeans in the Asian league of time spent online.
The average web user in the Philippines is just 23 years old, while almost 6 out of 10 social media users are below the age of 24.
However, it's important to put these ages into local context. During a recent trip to the Philippines, we learnt that Facebook is particularly popular amongst housewives – many of whom are in their early to mid-twenties – with this age group spending considerable amounts of time chatting on Facebook and posting simple updates about their daily activities.
Many of the women we spoke to stated that Facebook plays a central role in their lives, allowing them to stay in touch with friends and family, and providing a critical source of entertainment and relief from daily chores.
However, the world's favourite social network takes on particular importance in situations where family members are overseas, with Facebook providing a cheap but constant way to stay in touch with loved ones in distant lands.
This has particular relevance for marketers; roughly 12% of Filipinos live outside the country, and these Overseas Foreign Workers - or OFWs, as they're commonly known - provide a significant inflow of cash for those who remain at home. As a result, families supported by OFWs often have more disposable income than wholly domestic families, and therefore make an attractive audience for brands such as FMCG (CPG) products and telcos.
Social networking use is not restricted to the families of OFWs, however; many of the teenagers we spoke to talked about Facebook in similar ways to their Indonesian peers, and many said they'd happily sacrifice other luxuries to ensure they continued to enjoy access to Facebook.
This prioritisation of social connectivity is not a new phenomenon in the Philippines, however. Until recently, Filipinos were the world's greatest users of SMS, with the country's residents sending more than one billion messages per day. During those times, we'd often hear similar stories of families foregoing mealsin order to ensure their phone had sufficient credit (or 'load', as Filipinos call it) to be able to send SMSes.
However, these sacrifices should soon be a thing of the past, with Facebook introducing a whole series of initiatives to provide free access to its platform in The Philippines. The free ‘0.facebook.com’ service has been available in the country for almost 2 years now, and Facebook looks to be taking free access even further, partnering with hardware manufacturers to develop special chipsets to ensure that its platform is available to users regardless of which handset or telco they choose.
The commercial justification for this becomes clearer when we consider the fact that almost two thirds of Filipinos have interacted directly with a brand via social media in the past 12 months. Furthermore, almost three quarters indicate that they have expressed personal opinions about brands - good and bad - via social media in the past year as well.
The nation's love affair with social media seems to have propelled the internet into the top spot in terms of media preference, with Filipino web users spending almost twice as much time online as they do watching television.
Alongside chatting and sharing content, much of this time consists of gaming. More than half of the nation's web users play online games on a regular basis, and social gaming is particularly popular.
Social media growth doesn't show any signs of slowing either, with data from SocialBakers showing that Filipinos set up more than a quarter of a million new Facebook accounts in November 2011 alone.
Meanwhile, it seems Filipinos are taking advantage of other social networks to provide a more efficient answer to SMS, with Twitter in particular citing considerable opportunities in the country.
However, the available data may fail to portray a key reality in Filipino web users' behaviour.
The research we've found suggests that less than a quarter of the country's netizens use mobile devices to access the web, but our own experiences in the country suggest that this figure is likely to be far higher, with the majority of Facebook's users accessing at least some elements of the platform's services via mobile devices.
The reason for this discrepancy may lie in the way that people access these mobile services, and the way they talk about doing so.
A number of Filipino telcos offer 'free' dedicated access to Facebook as part of overall telephony bundles, many of which do not include any other form of internet (or even basic data) access. As a result, many research survey respondents state that they don't have internet access on their phones (technically true), even though they're accessing Facebook from their handsets multiple times each day.
However, as mobile broadband becomes more widely available in The Philippines, we expect to see an explosion in the number of people accessing multimedia content via mobile devices.
Videos and music are already hot favourites amongst 'fixed' internet users, and many of the younger people we spoke with transfer considerable amounts of this content to their mobile devices.
As a result, we anticipate that The Philippines, along with Indonesia, will see some of the most interesting developments in digital behaviour in the world over the coming months.
Stay tuned to find out what they might be.
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This article first appeared on the We Are Social Blog.