People in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand lead the world in instant messaging (IM), amid a sharp rise in its popularity globally over the past year, research has revealed.

Malaysia has emerged

as the leading user of IM, with 77% of people there using it every day. Singapore is hot on its heels with 76% using it daily, followed by Thailand with 74%.

In these three markets, IM has been adopted swiftly and used alongside social platforms, according to the Connected life study of more than 60,000 internet users across 50 countries, by global research consultancy TNS.

Instant messaging is typically a chat app which offers real-time text and rich media transmission over the internet. The primary use of IM platforms is to talk directly to other known users, in a closed and private space.

One reason Malaysia leads the world in the use of IM is because its smartphone penetration has grown significantly over the past few years, said Naveen Mishra, Frost & Sullivan’s Asia-Pacific (Apac) industry principal for ICT.

“In 2014, smartphone penetration reached 51.6% from 38% in 2013. More than 21 million people use smartphones and strong competition in the market has made affordable internet available. Malaysians are quite technology-savvy and people across all age groups adapt to instant messaging applications quickly,” he said.

“Instant messaging is an attractive alternative to SMS [short message service] for communication, enabling more than just texting and free to use once there is internet access. Telecom operators are also constantly bringing down the barriers with free basic internet access.”

In contrast, there is slower IM take-up in the less developed Asean economies, where data cost and Wi-Fi access may be issues. Markets such as Indonesia (48%) and the Philippines (35%) both lag behind, said Connected Life global director Joe Webb.

Besides the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries, other Apac countries see similarly high IM usage. The study showed that three out of five internet users in the region are now using IM every day, while 82% do so on a weekly basis.

Read more about Asean IT

Globally, more than half of internet users (55%) now use instant messaging every day, while 76% are using it on a weekly basis. IM is particularly dominant in emerging mobile-first markets, with high daily use in countries such as China (69%), Brazil (73%), and South Africa (64%). By contrast, some western markets are lagging behind, including the UK (39%) and the US (35%).

While users usually use IM for leisure purposes, workers may use it to connect with colleagues, forming groups to share information and communicate faster, as well as to engage customers, according to Mishra.

“As people’s online habits become ever more fragmented, brands need to tap into the growing popularity of IM and other emerging platforms. The need for a content-driven approach across IM, social and traditional channels has never been clearer,” said Webb.

He added that businesses need to produce content that speaks to the needs of each audience to be effective.

“The opportunity for businesses in Asean is much higher as many of the major platforms, such as WeChat and Line, allow businesses to build up followers and post content directly, as they can on Facebook in western markets,” said Webb.

“Starbucks recently ran a breakfast promotion campaign via WeChat, which triggered a morning alarm and rewarded customers with a half-price breakfast if they arrived at the store within the hour. This is a brilliant example of using IM to create positive word-of-mouth and build up customer loyalty.”