What does the Facebook boycott mean for brands and marketers in Southeast Asia?

Surely you’ve heard the news by now: more than 400 companies, ranging from multinational giants like Unilever and Coca-Cola to early adopter apparel companies like Patagonia and The North Face, have vowed to halt advertising on Facebook over how it handles hate speech and other harmful content. While the boycott sprung from the US-based campaign Stop Hate for Profit, this is not just an issue in the West. Some companies have limited their boycott to the US market, but others – including some of Vero’s clients – have changed their policies worldwide.

For digital marketers, this begs a few questions. Namely, where will these brands shift their media spending? And how can we in Southeast Asia move away from Facebook, when it’s still culturally ubiquitous?

For over a decade, Facebook’s vast and diverse audience has made it the most essential digital advertising platform for businesses of all sizes around the world. Under the guise of a social network, it created the greatest digital advertising platform the world has ever seen, with an unparalleled ability to hyper-focus on specific audiences, which, as the graph below shows, attracts major ad spend. 

What does the Facebook boycott mean for brands and marketers in Southeast Asia?

However, there is a negative, anti-social side to Facebook that is baked into its DNA. Its emphasis on free speech and lax moderation has provided a platform for malicious actors — from everyday trolls to national governments — to spread disinformation, bigotry, and scams. Users see these posts alongside legitimate stories and photos of their distant cousin’s new baby, and Facebook treats them with a similarly light hand in terms of ensuring the veracity of their claims. As social media has overtaken mainstream media in importance, the barrier between news and opinion has blurred and the impetus to conduct editorial oversight and contribute to a shared perception of reality has fallen by the wayside. Enter the current boycott, which could be a game-changer for Facebook – and digital advertising as a whole.

Boycott participation is a net benefit – at least in the short term

As the brand response to the Black Lives Matter movement has shown, social media has created a new paradigm in which businesses are expected to take official stances on social issues and respond to societal crises. Somewhat counter-intuitively and in contrast to traditional PR wisdom, inaction has become riskier than making a response.

It’s under this paradigm that brands that joined the Facebook boycott early – and made a public announcement, naturally – have reaped the benefits of free PR thanks to social media shares and an overall boost in their brand reputations. Expert analysts have called it a ‘low-risk statement that results in positive publicity and marketing’ which is more cost-effective than paying for ads. This is undoubtedly the single biggest driver behind the virality of the boycott and the reason why brands across the world have banded together for it.

The boycott should also serve as a wake-up call to marketers that they can’t always rely on putting all their efforts into the ‘Facebook Basket,’ even if it seems to offer the best ROI. Rather, they would be wise to diversify their media spend across multiple lower-risk platforms. Decreased dependence on Facebook to distribute content could benefit both business and broader society – and in the long run, it may even help brands reach untapped audiences.

All that said, it’s possible that the Facebook boycott will be short-lived if Facebook enacts sufficient reforms to satisfy those who called for it. We can all hope that this crisis will push Facebook to be more accountable for its content, after which advertising can return to normal, only with fewer distractions and greater trust. However, Facebook has been stubbornly resistant in the past, refusing to make substantive policy changes until it was faced the threat of government regulations, so we shouldn’t count on them to make the fundamental changes that this would require. This could also be just the beginning of Facebook’s troubles, as it’s possible that the Facebook experience for advertisers has already peaked, with future ad spend delivering lesser results at higher prices.

Facebook alternatives for brands and marketers in Southeast Asia

While joining the Facebook boycott may be for good short-term PR, it’s nonetheless true that as it continues the participating brands will have to restrategize to continue to effectively reach their audiences. This is the time for those brands and marketers to explore the potential of platforms that have been previously overshadowed by Facebook (and its owned platforms Instagram and Whatsapp). Here are some other options:

Leverage Organic Search and SEO

The boycott presents a great opportunity for business to look inward and invest in owned media. Hire an SEO expert, conduct an SEO audit, and use tools to identify improvements and amendments that you can implement to make your website and brand appeal to search algorithms.

Coordinate with your paid media team to ensure you have the proper tracking codes in place to reap the benefits of retargeting campaigns, and optimize landing pages to build an audience list that lets you amplify your email marketing campaigns. Speaking of which…

Re-engage Audiences with Email Marketing Campaigns

Email marketing campaigns remain powerful for their ability to reach out to audiences and appeal to them directly as individuals. The power of email marketing is in how it lets you create audience segments and tailor your messaging and content specific to each segment, so taking the time to get to know your audience and craft engaging emails can result in killer conversion rates.

Use Locally-popular Social Messaging Apps like LINE

Originally created (and still massively popular) in Japan, LINE is an ever-growing platform in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Indonesia. Advertising on LINE is a great way to reach audiences directly using notifications. In 2019, LINE had a total of 44 million users in Thailand, where the total population is 69.2 million. When it comes to the power of LINE ads in the Thai market, the numbers don’t lie.

Creating a presence on LINE is a fairly simple procedure. Marketers can simply register for a LINE account, pay the $12 annual fee to create a unique handle, and start attracting audiences to join the brand’s LINE account. When your audience base grows, you can broadcast messages in fun creative formats such as cards, videos, and rich messages. You can even create stickers related to your brand for people to use. You can also deploy ads on the LINE platform using LINE Timeline and LINE Today, for which you can find a company that provides LINE Ad services in your market.

In Vietnam, LINE has given way to the local app Zalo, which plays a similar role.


With over 800 million monthly active users, TikTok is climbing up the ranks of social apps and shows no signs of slowing as an engaging social platform. If you’re looking for ways to reach a younger audience, you should definitely be thinking about advertising on TikTok, especially if you are selling consumer products.

TikTok’s ad platform is available in key regions in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore. For marketers that are already familiar with the Facebook Business Manager, the TikTok ad platform is fairly similar and will be a breeze to come to grips with.

For more information about TikTok, check out our article here.

Programmatic & Display Advertising

Running programmatic and display advertising retargets audiences that have previously engaged with your brand or website. Using the Google Display Network, or even experimenting with programmatic ad tech firms such as Taboola, you can maximize engagement by targeting those who have already taken an interest in you.

Google Search Ads

The Google Ads platform isn’t new to brands and marketers. If you have run Facebook ads, it is safe to assume you have also run Google Ads. Channeling media spend from Facebook to Google Ads is a great way to appear on the top of search results and target audiences who are actively searching for a product or service. Marketers should take the time to amplify and optimize their Google Search ad campaigns with updated features such as responsive ads, which use Google’s artificial intelligence to display variations of your ads based on the combination of keywords typed by a user.

LinkedIn Ads

For B2B, LinkedIn is the obvious choice to shift media buy spend, especially as the platform improves their ad tech and targeting functionalities. Even though LinkedIn ads are often more expensive than those on Facebook or other social media platforms, they can be a shortcut to targeting other businesses or highly sought-after urban professionals.

Direct Media Buys on Key Websites

Direct buying with relevant websites is a great way to establish a strong brand image and gain the attention of potential audiences. Direct media buys can guarantee premium ad placement and allow creativity in terms of content formats. Another advantage is that you are able to directly barter on price points, ad visibility, and timeline, unlike automated ad platforms.

YouTube Ads

With over 2 billion users, Youtube is an excellent channel to drive awareness. Advertising on Youtube can already be done easily through the Google Ads platform, and there are numerous targeting methods that can be implemented such as affinity targeting, in-market targeting, video remarketing, and similar audiences (lookalike) targeting.

Another way that Youtube is especially useful is influencer sponsorship, as having your promotion come in the voice of someone with trusting fans can grant you instant credibility. Take a look at Vero’s whitepapers on influencer marketing for a guide to doing it in each of our target countries.

Spotify and Podcast Ads

Major advertisers are purchasing fewer and fewer broadcast radio ads, but that doesn’t mean audio programming is fading. Podcast advertising is a growing marketing channel, with demonstrable returns for brands that know how to use it. Podcasts are swiftly gaining popularity in Southeast Asia with many of the demographics that marketers desire most i.e. more engaged and relevant audiences. These days, there is a podcast out there for almost any topic in the world, so most brands can find a relevant podcast to reach out to.

The average podcast has three slots for ads – a pre-roll, mid-roll and a post-roll, and hosts often improvise unique advertising messages or relate products to the theme of a show, making them seem like another segment instead of paid endorsements. And now that a growing number of podcasts have migrated to Spotify, the music streaming platform has an online ad platform called ‘Ad Studio’ that enables marketers and brands to create both audio and visual ads.