I recently attended a seminar organised by PR firm Hill and Knowlton in Sydney which featured a group of experts holding forth about the ‘recession hangover’ and how to cope with it. The two key takeaways for me were this: understand your customers better, and look at digital to provide a solution and (cost) effective brand building during the downturn. (Video footage at http://blogs2.hillandknowlton.com/ferguskibble/.)

It was interesting for me to hear this because we’ve just finished a large self-funded study across the Asia-Pacific region into consumer wants and needs when it comes to digital technology and media.

The internet has been commercially available for around 20 years, and there have been a number of innovations during this time that have had a considerable impact on consumer behaviour: search engines, music downloads, being able to book flights directly through an airline, online banking/shopping, etc.

Simon Sylvester of Y&R wrote in his 2006 paper My Brain Hurts, that technology was moving at such a rapid rate, consumers were struggling to keep up – making their ‘brain hurt’ as it were. While this may have been true a few short years ago, consumers have now adapted their behaviours and are catching up rapidly with technological advancements. They are more advanced than we realise. Behaviour is adapting in ways no one would have predicted.

From this, I’ve come to believe that it is not the consumer that is the tortoise, in a race against the hare when it comes to digital: it’s actually the brands that are turning out to be tortoises, and the consumers who are the hares. Brands have some serious catching up to do.

There are a few good digital campaigns – Barack Obama’s ‘get out and vote’ was stellar, but I feel that many companies just aren’t trying. Reading about a recent advertising awards ceremony I noted the lack of great digital ad campaigns being produced in Australia. What I saw were mostly web addresses tacked on to the end of a TVC – hardly great digital content. Contrast that with a phenomenally successful campaign for Pepsi in China whereby two-million people took photos of themselves with their mobile phones and emailed their photos via phone – in order to get themselves voted in as ‘the face’ of the soft drink company. The campaign attracted 144 million online votes.

But the digital evolution is creating limitless opportunities for marketing innovation – it truly is like starting with a blank piece of paper. A key benefit is that you can get your message out in a cost-effective manner.

To succeed, marketers need to understand the extent of change in consumer behaviour when it comes to digital and begin developing marketing strategies to meet the needs of the modern-day consumer.

Not surprisingly, we found there are big differences in online behaviour across the different markets. For example, Malaysia is the social networking hub of Asia (but its residents are the least likely to shop online); Koreans lead in online shopping; China is the world leader for blogging; Australians watch more traditional TV than other Asia Pacific countries and Singaporeans are responsible for the most emails and online gaming activities.

It’s crucial to understand the underlying needs driving consumer behaviour so brands can build their long-term strategies. In general, we found there are three underlying factors that drive consumer needs and behaviours:

The first factor is the internet penetration in each market. Internet penetration varies hugely in the Asia-Pacific region, from an estimated 79% in Australia down to just 0.3% in Bangladesh. The stage of internet development provides valuable insights into the typical internet user, their needs and their habits. Markets such as India and China are still very much in their infancy when it comes to internet penetration within the average household.

Those using the internet are considered pioneers and behave accordingly – they spend more time online than any other country in the region and doing things online than many westerners wouldn’t dream of, such as writing their daily blogs via their mobile phones.

In comparison, in mature internet markets like Australia and Singapore, the internet has infiltrated almost every household. The typical internet user couldn’t be more different than in India – the everyday person rather than the early adopter. The number of hours spent online is much lower and more driven by the need to relax and or maintain control, such as checking email, researching products/services or tapping into social network sites.

So, understanding what stage your country is at helps to define the degree of leadership consumers are looking to take when interacting with brands online.

The second factor is culture. The impact of different social and political histories on the way consumers use the internet cannot be underestimated and this is certainly no different in Asia. For example, in China, which has been under strict media control, the rules are different online. They are the biggest bloggers (some 80% of internet users claim to write a blog), but they blog about personal stuff rather than politics. Unlike the Indians who blog to show their expertise or to be recognised by other ‘netizens’, the Chinese want to express themselves.

In many ways the internet is simply an extension of cultural differences that may have been in place for thousands of years. By becoming sensitive to cultural differences, brands can gain insight into the suitable marketing strategies for each market.

The third factor affecting digital wants/needs is infrastructure. Large parts of Asia are still considered to be of third-world living standards and certainly the GDPs of many countries are still extremely low by western standards. Subsequently, the infrastructure required for fixed-line internet connections simply do not exist in places such as rural China or India. Contrast this with the high-speed connections available in Korea and Japan, and it again emphasises the diversity within the Asia region. Consumers are adapting, finding ways to exploit the technology available to them. Subsequently, the variation is infrastructure is helping to create a diversity (or fragmentation) of needs.

What does it mean? Understanding how your country is influenced by these three factors will give you guidance on where to start your digital strategy and give you an idea of the unique needs in each country.

We need to be able to delve deeper than simply understanding needs at a country level, which is why we have developed a Digital Needs Wheel. Any consumer group or segment, technology, media, or country can be plotted on this map to help define the ‘why?’, tapping into motivations, which marketers can leverage to define campaign strategies.

In my next few blogs, I’ll look at our framework in more detail and also discuss the various trends that are now underlying digital needs.