Beyond the numbers: How YouTube shapes people’s lives in Thailand, Indonesia

Andrew Cheah / July 2017

The numbers tell a clear story: People in Thailand and Indonesia are watching more YouTube than ever. But what’s the story behind those millions of hours of watch time? What keeps people coming back for more? What is YouTube’s role in people’s everyday lives? To find out, we spent time with YouTube viewers in Jakarta and Bangkok.

YouTube is truly a part of the cultural fabric in Indonesia and Thailand. These countries have the highest proportion of online users who watch YouTube on mobile.1 And every year, people are going to the platform more and more often and spending more time once they get there.

To dive deeper into what YouTube means to people in these two Southeast Asian capitals, and how they use it in their daily lives, we partnered with research agency Studio Bruno Moynie and conducted in-depth ethnographic research. We identified ten respondents in Bangkok and Jakarta who regularly view and engage with two of the most popular video categories among YouTube fans: Consumer Electronics and Beauty.

With these respondents lined up, we settled in to spend some time with them. We talked to them about not only their YouTube usage, but also about their lives and what they care about. By shadowing them for an entire day—at home, at work, with their friends—we got a feel for how YouTube fits into their lives and why the platform matters so much to them. Based on our time spent with these and other avid YouTubers, a few themes emerged.

YouTube = “me time”

Quantitative research has shown that the top two reasons people in Southeast Asia visit YouTube are: 1. To relax and 2. To listen to music.1 Curious, we probed deeper into that number one reason. What does relaxing look like? And how is it done on YouTube?

What we found is that because people use YouTube for rest and relaxation, they form a personal connection with the platform and all that it represents. Multiple respondents described YouTube as “a friend” that keeps them company, whether at home or in public. Gan*, the 25-year-old online fashion retailer from Bangkok featured in the video below, characterized YouTube as a “friend that goes with you everywhere and keeps you from feeling lonely.” Meanwhile, Nan, 32, said that “YouTube is like a friend who tells me stories that I want to know and shows me new things I want to see.”

Several respondents shared that YouTube is a highly personal experience. What everyone chooses to watch is unique, and because of that, people tend to go to YouTube in moments of minimal social pressure. “I access YouTube when I feel relaxed so I can be free to laugh or cry, depending on the content,” said Angga, a 29-year-old office manager in Jakarta. For him, that means watching it at home when he’s alone.

Angga’s sentiments are reinforced by the fact that more than 90% of users watch YouTube at home1, where people feel they can be themselves and watch what they want, when they want. “I need to watch it attentively in a quiet place so that I can clearly listen to it and I can feel comfortable,” Angga said. For others, like Irene, the 24-year-old animal activist in Jakarta also featured in the video below, even commuting in a taxi can “feel like home” when it has YouTube, headphones, and snacks:

As an extension of the intimacy viewers feel on the platform, people also visit YouTube with their friends. Key to note is that it has to be a situation where they can feel like they won’t be judged for what they’re watching. Unsurprisingly, YouTube becomes a social activity when it revolves around shared interests. Picture two friends practicing applying makeup together while watching a tutorial from Cheryl Raissa. Or a daughter teaching her mother about applying beauty products with the help of Momay with You.

Above all else, the huge array of content on YouTube allows people to be themselves and carve out some “me time” in just about any spectrum of interests. Users feel that they can watch and engage with whatever they want, whenever they want.

People watch content that resonates with who they are—and who they want to be

For our respondents, watching videos on YouTube isn’t just a way to have fun; doing so allows them to dive deeper into their passions and brush up on new skills.

May, a 21-year-old chemistry student from Bangkok, laughs in the video below when recalling her early attempts at doing her own makeup. After being teased by her friends about using unsuitable colors, she turned to YouTube tutorials. Now, every morning as she gets ready for school, her phone now sits among her face brushes and various color palettes, streaming the latest videos from her favorite creators. “It’s good because it teaches you step by step; it feels like entertainment.”

Other respondents use YouTube to help them learn new skills. Nineteen-year-old New from Bangkok said, “YouTube is like a teacher who teaches you knowledge, things you need to survive everyday life.” Latte art is all the rage in most Asian cities, and David, 29, said he uses “YouTube to find videos that teach latte art so I can help in the restaurant.” An avid electronic music and wakeboarding fan, David turns to YouTube to connect with like-minded communities. From the cafe to the music studio to the lake, YouTube helps people grow and move outside their circumstances.

These functional needs are huge drivers of YouTube watch time, as are more aspirational ideas. May sees YouTube as a vehicle to broaden her experience of the world and said, “I dream of walking around London or New York, wearing nice clothes and makeup.” For some, YouTube serves as a portal to another world, and some users even dream about being in the videos themselves. “Maybe one day I can be one of the creators there,” Arif, a 20-year-old technical engineering student in Jakarta, said.

Special bond of trust between fans, YouTube creators

While the viewers in our study spoke about their personal experiences with YouTube, they also talked about feeling like they were part of a community—one that included their favorite YouTubers and their fellow fans. For many viewers, this feeling boiled down to one word: trust. Nan said, “A good beauty blogger is someone who tries stuff and tells us about the pros and cons, not just the pros. They really tell you the information: the truth.” May agreed. “Personally, I don’t think of them as sponsored videos. I feel like she’s a friend talking to me,” she said.

In the video below, Irene shares why she trusts creators. “Because [Michelle Phan] started from tutorials and isn’t sponsored, we don’t perceive her as an ad. We trust it because Michelle Phan said so.” Nurul, a 27-year-old language student in Jakarta, shared how it’s important for her to get a range of different viewpoints. “I look for reviews from common users—those who buy—not from developers.”

YouTube is a valued source of information—and it’s also a well of validation. “It’s good when I see a YouTuber and I can say ‘this guy agrees with me,’” New said.

Even simple unboxing videos can be a personal and engaging experience. Nan said, “Maybe it’s because I’m Thai, and we don’t have gift-giving holidays like other countries have Christmas with present unwrapping, but I enjoy watching people unboxing.” Gan agreed, “Unboxing videos are very special to me; it’s like I’m there for real but cannot touch it.”

Even if the viewers don’t have the product in their hands themselves, simply watching the videos makes them feel a shared connection with the YouTuber and the product. Several members of the study enjoyed seeing people like them using products for the first time and sharing their thoughts, because they find those videos more relatable than sponsored content.

Personal, authentic content is key for engaging viewers in APAC

From all the time we spent with these respondents, one thing was clear: YouTube is an ongoing presence in their daily lives. They turn to YouTube first thing when they wake up, at work, at home, in their cars, on the bus, and at night before bed. YouTube is an intimate part of their days, which provides brands with abundant opportunities to move closer and build more intimate relationships with consumers.

As you seek to create content that brings you closer to viewers in APAC, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Authenticity: The content that people engage with the most speaks to them personally, and from an authentic place. “Personal” and “authentic” can be tough asks from brands that are used to polished, unified messaging. So start asking: How can we make content that speaks to people personally in those “me time” moments? What can we create that will be funny, useful, and engaging to them?

2. Unique point of view: YouTube is the viewer’s window to the world, so find ways to inspire viewers and give them a sense of the world outside themselves. As they aspire to learn new skills and push themselves, how can your brand help them? What unique viewpoints or educational content can you offer?

3. Community: Even when they’re shopping for new products, viewers like to feel that they’re part of a shared community experience. From product discovery and purchase to packaging and delivery, there are tons of opportunities for brands to delight viewers with unique community building experiences.

4. Creators: Lastly, consider tapping into the power of YouTube creators’ engaging and entertaining personalities. Products promoted by trusted creators and celebrities can lead to lifts in trust and brand loyalty. Fostering a sense of community takes time, and requires the right mix of useful content and relatable creators. Brands can benefit from partnerships with those creators, but only if the videos stay true to what the community has come to expect: honesty and authenticity.

*All names have been changed to protect respondents’ privacy.

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