Social Commerce in 2021: East Meets West

December 17, 2020

I made a prediction recently in Ketchum’s 2021 Social, Influencer Marketing + Analytics Trends Report, that the year ahead will see social commerce come of age. This idea was partly based on accelerated demand for e-commerce and social media content born out of coronavirus lockdowns around the world. But, it also recognizes the increasing prevalence of online social influence on purchasing behaviour and the integration of that into e-commerce as the functionality of platforms diversify. As communicators and marketers, being successful in 2021 means knowing how to harness these ecosystems as they evolve.

E-commerce through the China lens

Asia, and Hong Kong specifically, has been my adoptive home for almost 20 years now, so all of my e-commerce experience is through a distinctly Chinese lens. Years ago, I saw the expansion of Alibaba’s Tmall Singles Day shopping promotion eclipse Black Friday. I’ve also seen it spawn similar festivals on other platforms, both here and in the West. I’ve seen the in-app payments like WeChat Pay grow and extend into physical-world transactions in restaurants and taxis. And I’ve seen the expansion of Alibaba’s platforms out of China, largely by acquisition, into southeast Asia.

Platforms such as Tmall and JD.com are more than just e-commerce platforms. They are digital ecosystems straddling chat, social media, payments, search and e-marketplaces. Such is their importance, the strategic planning work we do at Ketchum by necessity tends to use the full PESO spectrum to connect to a digital consumer journey that ultimately ends in a sale or repeat purchase.

Having lived, seen and worked through all of this, my view of e-commerce adoption in the U.S. during a recent trip abroad surprised me. After working in Asia for so long, the experience made me confront my deeply engrained belief that the fully integrated Chinese social commerce ecosystem (where innovation was initially driven through self-imposed internet isolation) was leading the world, but no one outside of Asia knew it yet. I now recognized that, while China’s ecosystems are good—very good, in fact—they aren’t completely outshining those elsewhere.

Cross fertilizing the social commerce incubator

This led me to a mini epiphany that, regardless of the social commerce ecosystem we’re working in, as communicators we can work out how to be more effective on them faster by learning the best from both the East and the West. A good example of this happened this year when the use of QVC-style shoppertainment livestreaming events really caught fire in China under the restrictions of COVID-19 and then started to be transplanted to the U.S.

We’re certainly taking a test-learn-share approach at Ketchum with ideas flowing both westbound and eastbound. Social commerce success requires best practices in measurement and analytics, influencer relations and content marketing to shorten the line from building brand value to purchase consideration and a sale. We learn from every engagement.

2021 won’t be the year that Alibaba dukes it out with Amazon for global e-commerce supremacy. That is a long way down the road if, indeed, it ever happens. But 2021 will be a year when we will see an acceleration of ideas on how to optimize social commerce strategies, and some of those strategies are going to be cross-fertilized from other regions.

New superapps and platforms emerging in Asia

Asia—not just China—will have an increasingly significant role to play in this incubator, thanks to its mobile-first population. Southeast Asia is also a fertile ground for social commerce development worth watching. For example, two new superapps—Indonesia’s gojek and Malaysia’s Grab—are already well established across the region. Both started as ride-hailing services, but by virtue of creating a third-party platform for developers (like WeChat did) now offer seamless access to chat and on-demand services across transport, payments, financial services, groceries, dining, logistics, healthcare services and lifestyle.

China, the birthplace of WeChat, continues to innovate, and new social commerce platforms are achieving stratospheric size. One such example is Pinduoduo which in just five years of existence has achieved the same Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) that Alibaba took 10 years to achieve. In the 12 months up to September 2020, Pinduouo’s GMV stood at US$214 billion. It achieved this by combining the interactivity of social media platforms with team buying, fun shopping games and value for money purchasing.

Each new platform has its unique characteristics, but they all follow the same genetic makeup of their predecessors and peers. We need to learn how to fully leverage brands across platforms such as these and many more which are yet to emerge. This will be a constantly evolving process, but 2021 will become the year when social commerce becomes an established discipline, just as media relations did decades before.

If you’d like to talk more about the rise of social commerce in Asia and its cross-pollination with the rest of the world, I’ll be happy to hear from you.

Dr. Simeon Mellalieu (麥善銘), Partner, Client Development APAC, is a communications specialist with almost 20 years of experience in PR consultancy in Europe and Asia. His expertise lies in corporate positioning and reputation management, brand building, consumer marketing and engagement and issues and crisis management.
Listed in the PRWeek Global Power Book 2016 and 2017, Simeon is Honorary Secretary of PR Hong Kong and served as Chairman from 2010-2013. He also sat on the Advisory Committee for the School of Communications at Hong Kong Baptist University from 2014-2016.
His business-to-business, business-to-consumer and crisis communications experience spans industry sectors as diverse as aerospace, automotive, food and beverage, finance and investment, gaming, healthcare, payment, petrochemical, retail, travel and technology. He has consulted for such clients as Bacardi, Boeing, Disney Channel, FedEx, Ford, Levi Strauss & Co., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Malaysia Airlines, Motorola, Nissan, Philips Semiconductors, Rolls-Royce, Shell and Visa.

Simeon is a steward of client relationships across all of Ketchum’s offices in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, rallying and coordinating specialist support across the region, upholding client care, best practices, and the introduction of new services. He provides senior counsel for local, regional and global clients at the highest boardroom level.
His work has gained recognition through multiple industry awards. In 2007, he received the David Drobis Award, Ketchum’s highest accolade rewarding excellence in client service.

Simeon is also a regular speaker, panelist and chair at industry events in the Asia Pacific region covering subject matter as diverse as social/digital communications trends, data and creativity, issues and crisis management, corporate affairs and agency management. Recent appearances include PR360 Asia 2017 (panelist), the Asia Pacific Corporate Affairs Forum 2015 and 2016 (panel chair) and Crisis and Reputation Management 2016 and 2017 (conference chair).
He is also a regular judge of industry awards including Public Affairs Asia Gold Standard Awards (2011 – 2017) and PRWeek Asia (2013).
Based in Hong Kong for 15 years he started his PR career in the UK before transferring to Asia. He joined Ketchum in 2004.
Simeon is British and was educated at University College London.