Online Food Communities in South-East Asia—Opportunities Abound

The presence of online communities in South-East Asia has centred on review websites, blogs, and recipe websites. As food, and the activities surrounding the preparation and presentation of it, gained attention, restaurant review websites, individual contributor blogs, and recipe websites have equally mushroomed.

An online community is a virtual community whose members share common interests and values and interact with each other primarily via the internet. A community may be built by individuals or by corporates around a brand, a common interest, or a shared values. Examples of online communities include review websites, lifestyle websites, blogs, and recipe websites. For more on the general benefits of online communities, see Online Food Communities: Joining the conversation.

Online Food Communities in South-East Asia

Review websites and blogs

MasterChef, its regional variations, and numerous other domestic cooking shows, spurred consumer interest in cooking and critiquing food through the medium of blogs and review websites.

Review websites have emerged to be extremely influential because peer reviews are considered highly credible and trustworthy. For example, peer review websites in the region, such as HungryGoWhere (Singapore, Malaysia), Qraved (Indonesia), Openrice (Singapore), Zomato (regional), Foody (Vietnam), and Pantip (Thailand) are now seen by consumers as the handbook to consult prior to making a decision on where to eat.

While peer review websites provide the breadth, blogs provide the depth in the consumer’s decision-making process. For example, blogs such as LadyIronChef, Anakjajan, KampungboyCitygal, SevenPie, ThePickiestEater are replete with photographs, descriptions, and prices that take consumers on the journey. It is common for food and foodservice companies to work with these bloggers and profile and promote their products on the blog.

Recipe websites

The dilution of knowledge of cooking techniques, more women entering the workforce, growing internet access, and the considerable ease of text and video blogging has all contributed to the growth of recipe websites in the region.

Recipe websites in SEA tend to focus on national cuisines, be it Indonesian, Thai, Filipino, Malaysian, or Vietnamese. Visitors to the website however tend to be international in nature as these websites are considered more authentic than aggregator recipe websites covering a range of cuisines. The comments section on these websites encourages consumers who may not know each other to come together and bond over a common cause of recipe discovery. The participants feel part of a larger ‘family’ who they ‘know’, encouraging the members in the process to frequently revisit their ‘homes’.

Brand-led communities

Brand-led communities are yet to emerge in SEA, as consumers in the region are yet to feel a strong connection to a brand to develop a community organically. Corporate marketing activities on the other hand have primarily focused on traditional media and where digital is involved, these have mainly involved online videos, social media, sponsoring a handful of bloggers, and display advertisements.

The rationale to invest

As smartphone and internet penetration increases in a young SEA population, companies operating in the region are encouraged to make use of online food communities as an additional means of consumer engagement. Consumers in SEA spend an average of 3.3 hours per day on the internet with social media accounting for majority of that time – there were an estimated 208 million social media users in the region in 2017. Macro-considerations aside, the need for more ways to engage consumers is also necessitated by the 2018 announcement by Facebook to deprioritise content from brands and businesses from the newsfeed that users see.

How to get involved?

There are three ways in which food and foodservice producers can get involved. The easiest and most straightforward is to support and partner bloggers and recipe websites by providing information and insights, and by advertising.

Buying a community is a second option with SingTel’s purchase of HungryGoWhere in 2012 and SEA Ltd’s acquisition of Foody in 2017 as examples. These communities can be further developed and integrated to the core business of the acquiring company. For example, Whirlpool, which acquired the recipe website Yummly in May 2017, launched the Yummly 2.0 App in January 2018, which, while retaining the core function of recipe search integrates these recipes to work with its smart kitchen appliances and also uses image and voice recognition to facilitate cooking.

Finally, the most challenging means of getting involved is for a business to start its own brand communities. While fan communities tend to be more successful than business-led ones, in the absence of fan-led communities in SEA, businesses may have to take the lead in developing a cult around their brand. A business-led community however needs to remember that the primary purpose of online communities is to emotionally bond with consumers and not to sell to them; word-of-mouth, advertising, co-creation, market research, and idea generation should be seen as positive consequences of that relationship.

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