Myan­mar digital mar­ket­ing guru Sandi Sein Thein on har­ness­ing social me­dia’s po­ten­tial

When social me­dia first hit Myan­mar, Sandi Sein Thein saw it as a tool to eliminate out­dated, over­priced advertising meth­ods. She has since been named on Forbes’ pres­ti­gious 30 Un­der 30 Asia list and seen her mar­ket­ing com­pany Digital Kaway – which means

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - WORDS BY JANELLE RETKA PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY VIC­TO­RIA MILKO

When Digital Kaway be­gan do­ing busi­ness three years ago, it com­prised two found­ing em­ploy­ees, two com­put­ers and an in­ter­net con­nec­tion. The agency had one client: an in­fants' vi­ta­min and nu­tri­tion com­pany that Sandi Sein Thein won over at a net­work­ing event. Her pitch for a low-cost out­reach scheme was based around moth­ers sub­mit­ting pho­tos of their ba­bies to the client's Facebook page and shar­ing the link with friends in an at­tempt to gain ‘likes' and win a prod­uct. It worked.

“Mums re­ally love to do that. They re­ally want to post all their baby pho­tos,” said Sein Thein, the mar­ket­ing agency's CEO and co-founder. “So they shared a lot.”

The baby prod­ucts were sell­ing well, and Digital Kaway's first suc­cess­ful project meant that “we had the con­fi­dence that it's a good idea to start [mar­ket­ing] on Facebook”, the 29-year-old said. The social me­dia-fo­cused agency was ready to kick off and planned to use the in­ter­net's rel­a­tive in­fancy in Myan­mar and the firm's un­der­stand­ing of plat­forms such as Facebook and com­pany-spe­cific mo­bile apps as its lever­age in the mar­ket­ing in­dus­try.

“In Myan­mar, [com­pa­nies] spend re­ally huge on traditional mar­ket­ing, like news­pa­pers and bill­boards. They might in­vest $1,000 for [one ad],” she said.

If com­pa­nies were to shift gears to use social me­dia as a mar­ket­ing tool in­stead, Sein Thein was sure they could re­duce or eliminate the need to pay for ad­ver­tise­ments and take ad­van­tage of a grow­ing on­line au­di­ence. •

This con­cept was new to the coun­try. Less than a decade ago, the fin­ger­nail-sized piece of PVC that makes up a SIM card was go­ing for $2,000 in Myan­mar. Restric­tions on in­ter­net ac­cess were re­duced in late 2011, but us­age re­mained lim­ited in the face of high phone and in­ter­net costs. Then, sud­denly, SIM card prices dropped – dras­ti­cally. By 2014, the go­ing rate was $1.50 and the in­ter­net's pop­u­lar­ity surged.

As with many na­tions that have only re­cently em­braced the web, there was tun­nel vi­sion sur­round­ing Facebook, which had be­come syn­ony­mous with the in­ter­net as far as the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion was con­cerned – but few knew how to take full ad­van­tage of the plat­form.

At the time, Sein Thein was in Sin­ga­pore, work­ing at her sta­ble and lu­cra­tive job of five years recruiting stu­dents to at­tend Shel­ton Col­lege In­ter­na­tional us­ing social me­dia mar­ket­ing.

“That was a good time. The pay was re­ally good,” she said. “But my mind changed in 2014 when I saw some changes in my coun­try, like pol­i­tics and the econ­omy and ev­ery­thing.”

It was time to move on.

Within six months of re­turn­ing to Yangon, she and her busi­ness part­ner, Kaung Sitt, had used their per­sonal sav­ings, along with some money from a small in­vestor, to pre­pare a makeshift of­fice for Digital Kaway.

“Crony busi­nesses” owned by af­flu­ent lo­cals and small fam­ily busi­nesses would be their fo­cus. Sein Thein said they avoided cor­po­rate com­pa­nies and fo­cused on smaller firms be­cause Digital Kaway un­der­stood their needs best. The two founders were alert to how im­por­tant social me­dia would be­come with time, and it be­came a mat­ter of con­vinc­ing busi­ness own­ers of the im­por­tance of a me­dia plan.

“One thing some of them re­ally don't re­alise is you can't just post a photo and a cap­tion” on Facebook, she said. Com­pa­nies that use that ap­proach are “post­ing con­tent but not en­gag­ing the public and cus­tomer re­la­tions”.

Lo­cal social trends and com­men­tary – such as po­lit­i­cal jokes or trend­ing lingo – can be turned into catchy mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial so that com­pa­nies are not just post­ing about their prod­uct.

“Ev­ery two weeks there's some­thing new,” she said. “There's a say­ing that went vi­ral re­cently: ‘When the world is di­vided into two, I want to stay where you are.' So we re­worked it: ‘When the world is di­vided into two, I want to stay where – insert the name of a restau­rant – is,'” Sein Thein said, adding that this might be de­vel­oped in the form of a meme, a graphic or an an­i­ma­tion.

She be­gan pitch­ing tai­lored me­dia plans re­lent­lessly to po­ten­tial clients. Sein Thein has lost track of how many mar­ket­ing pro­pos­als she has de­vel­oped over the past three years, but it's in the hun­dreds. Build­ing a port­fo­lio, she said, is es­sen­tial to gain­ing cred­i­bil­ity for a startup com­pany.

In one in­stance, in 2015, Digital Kaway de­vel­oped an app for an NGO hoping to ed­u­cate the pop­u­la­tion on po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates and their plat­forms in the gen­eral elec­tion. Il­lus­tra­tions of the can­di­dates were com­mis­sioned and her team de­vel­oped writ­ten copy that was easy for users to di­gest be­fore head­ing to the polls.

Brand­ing for com­pa­nies be­came a fo­cal point of the agency's work, while com­pany-to-con­sumer re­la­tion­ships were bol­stered by hands-on social me­dia mon­i­tor­ing in which Digital Kaway staff were the first to re­spond to on­line en­quiries or com­plaints – of­ten us­ing digital “stick­ers” to main­tain a cheer­ful tone. With these ser­vices, Sein Thein said, clients had es­tab­lished a re­li­able and en­gag­ing on­line pres­ence.

“We don’t re­ally have a lot of tech talent here in Myan­mar yet… We still need a lot more train­ing”

As Sein Thein grew her com­pany, she be­gan look­ing into op­por­tu­ni­ties to ad­vance tech lit­er­acy across Myan­mar, which she thought would in­ad­ver­tently boost social me­dia mar­ket­ing success. She founded the coun­try's chap­ter of Geek Girls, a women-in-tech ini­tia­tive, and be­gan train­ing tours through­out the coun­try.

“It's some­thing that pro­motes my busi­ness, too, be­cause I give guide­lines on how to use social me­dia… how to use Google, Wikipedia, YouTube,” she said.

Now, Sein Thein spends about a third of her time on Geek Girls tours, de­vot­ing the rest to her Digital Kaway of­fice in Yangon. She has be­come the first es­tab­lished en­tre­pre­neur in a long fam­ily line of cor­po­rate and govern­ment em­ploy­ees.

“My mum didn't like it – and she still doesn't like it – when I started this, be­cause when I worked in Sin­ga­pore for a cor­po­ra­tion my pay was re­ally good,” she said. “When I started the com­pany, things changed. Some­times I couldn't even af­ford a taxi fare af­ter pay­ing the salaries of em­ploy­ees, which is the first thing [em­ploy­ers need to pay out]… But now we are do­ing well.”

Tech lit­er­acy in the coun­try has grown dras­ti­cally in re­cent years, and about 90% of the pop­u­la­tion is now on­line. Ac­cord­ing to Sein Thein, con­tribut­ing to the tech en­vi­ron­ment sur­round­ing her com­pany has been key to the agency's success – even as com­pe­ti­tion has blos­somed in the mar­ket­ing sec­tor.

“We don't re­ally have a lot of [tech] talent here in Myan­mar yet, be­cause the coun­try is open­ing and grow­ing up,” she said. “We still need a lot more train­ing and vo­ca­tional train­ing, all these pro­fes­sional train­ings.”

In ad­di­tion to Geek Girls work­shops, Sein Thein in­vests time in train­ing her own em­ploy­ees – Digital Kaway cur­rently has a staff of 69 – and said that the com­pany's ex­per­tise and fo­cus on the lo­cal mar­ket pro­pels it past com­pe­ti­tion.

The young en­tre­pre­neur sees plenty of room for Digital Kaway to grow in this en­vi­ron­ment. The agency cur­rently pro­vides ser­vices to 34 com­pa­nies in Yangon, and in the next five years Sein Thein hopes her medium-sized com­pany will gain in­vestors and be­come a “big me­dia agency” that's es­tab­lished in other parts of Myan­mar, in­clud­ing Man­dalay. She also plans to turn the com­pany's at­ten­tion to Google, SEO man­age­ment and web­site copy edit­ing in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a fu­ture lull in social me­dia use in Myan­mar.

In­deed, it is pre­cisely the un­cer­tain­ties in the in­dus­try that evoke worry in her mum that have been a driv­ing fac­tor for Sein Thein in the growth of Digital Kaway, she said.

“I think with­out the risk there is no op­por­tu­nity to grow… It has taken a lot of com­po­nents to sur­vive for three years. That was a long jour­ney and it's still a long jour­ney,” she said. “When you start a busi­ness, you can see that some­times things will not hap­pen as you ex­pect, but this is my en­joy­ment in life.”

Sein Thein divides her time be­tween man­ag­ing Digital Kaway and the lo­cal chap­ter of Geek Girls, a women-in-tech ini­tia­tivePara­pher­na­lia on the shelves in Sein Thein's of­fice in Yangon

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