Back in September last year, I wrote about group-buying in Thailand for CNN Go, commenting that the industry was "set to take off in a major way".
Fast forward more than six months to today, the group-buying industry has arguably yet to gain the momentum I foresaw. Though there is a noticeable increase in content unique to sites, which was not the case back in September, and visitor numbers have gone up, Thailand's group-buying sites are still struggling for mainstream attention.
Ensogo continues to lead the pack with its advertising campaign cropping across Thai Web space and in traditional media, and making its presence felt even in the carriages of Bangkok's skytrain. For its endeavor and ad spend, Ensogo is, according to Google's DoubleClick traffic monitor, receiving an impressive (estimated) 3.9 million pageviews per month.
The competition is far less established and badly lagging Ensogo. I expected to see a greater force in Thai Web giant, Sanook's coupon service, which has 240,000 pageviews per month (pv/m). New sites Dealdidi.com (180,000 pv/m) and ncoupon.th (140,000 pv/m) lead the longtail of smaller services which include CouCafe (93,000 pv/pm) and TikTokThai (22,000 pv/pm).
To give some background on the growth of Thailand's vibrant online community--and the target customer base of these sites--Facebook has grown more than four-fold in the last year alone. Though such rapid growth is unlikely for these sites, Facebook's rise is testament to the increasing levels of sophistication and interest in new media in the country.
Facebook is also a key battleground for the sites.
A cursory look at Facebook Fan numbers sees Ensogo way out in front again (169,173 fans) with Sanook Coupon (15,466), CouCafe (33,376), Dealdidi (33,218) and TikTokThai (7,260) some way behind. By contrast, NCoupon uses a regular profile, rather than a fanpage, and has just 210 friends.
With group-buying standard bearer Groupon actively sizing up and acquiring services in developing markets, particularly those in Asia, rumors of an entry into Thailand have inevitably surfaced. What would the king of group-buying make of the potential in Thailand?
To make things simpler, we shall ignore the fact that Groupon's Asian partner, Tencent, is a major investor in Sanook and therefore the brand is less likely to step in and make an acquisition in the Thai market. Ensogo is clearly the largest player with an established service in the Philippines, where Groupon is already active, so an acquisition seems even less likely assuming that Groupon doesn't feel the need to double up its Philippines service and buy out a major rival.
The Bangkok Post recently wrote positively of the growth of services like Ensogo and DealDidi, claiming they "have become major destinations not only for online shoppers but also businesses looking for an effective new online marketing channel". Though undoubtedly there has been growth, I would suggest that these words come a little too soon for an industry which, Ensogo aside, has yet to realize its potential.
With social media sites growing phenomenally, as I blogged last month, group-buying is still very much a niche particularly when you consider the interest that many Thais (and fellow Asians) have in e-commerce and online shopping.
Ironically, it could be the Facebook that gives Thailand's group-buying landscape a jolt.
Facebook launched its Deals service back in January covering exactly the same ground as group-buying sites, but with the considerable weight of Facebook's reputation and huge presence which, at more than 8 million in Thailand, blows even Ensogo visitor statistics out of the water.
Deals has yet to launch in Thailand, and it may not be the great threat that it first appears to be. With its huge following in Thailand, Facebook Deals will raise the population's awareness and interest in group-buying which will inevitably trickle down to the local sites.
While Facebook will give business a platform to sell deals, it is likely to be a self-service, assuming that it follows in the footsteps of its ads platform and other business features that currently exist. Dedicated group-buying sites can go one step further and package services complete with account management, advice, hand-holding, etc.
Also on the horizon is the potential for location which, without wishing to sound like I'm repeating myself, could also be driven by Facebook as and when it introduces its Places service to Thailand.
Location-based social networks like Foursquare are finding greater traction in Asia than western markets, as I recently wrote at my Asian Correspondent blog, though they lack great visibility in the mainstream. But there is certainly huge potential.
Places could change all this when it brings the service to its Thai user base, many of whom may not be familiar with or interested in Foursquare right now but, if friends and family begin "checking in" on Facebook, then so they may begin using places and opening themselves up to location-based networks.
For Thailand's deals sites, location could be a major catalyst. With smartphone ownership continuing to rise alongside usage of Facebook and other social network, a potential, captive audience for location is emerging.
Were location to find greater adoption in Thailand--be it through Foursquare, Facebook or other services--rather than pushing adverts to Facebook groups, out via the Internet or through offline advertising, group-buying sites could find themselves able to offer deals direct to users via their mobiles in real-time, when they are close to a restaurant, shopping mall or even a competitor outlet.
Such a scenario is far more compelling for both consumer, business and group-buying sites, and it remains a possibility on the horizon with, in my opinion, Facebook playing a key role generating awareness and interest amongst the country's mainstream Internet user base.
But for now, the group-buying industry continues to grow at an incremental rate, just waiting for a spark to ignite its potential.