Photo: Reuters / Regis Duvignau
Photo: Reuters / Regis Duvignau

Facebook is evangelizing to fledgling cyber entrepreneurs in Vietnam about the glories of doing business online, a bid to strengthen the social media giant’s already firm grip on the country’s digital market.

In recent months, the US company has gone on a hiring spree to scoop up Vietnamese talent. Working from its regional headquarters in Singapore, representatives frequently jet to Vietnam to meet small businesses and introduce them to Facebook tools for corporate accounts.

“In Vietnam, we do have a clear objective,” said Khoi Le, Facebook’s country head of client relationships, “that is to connect businesses to optimal opportunities in the market.”

Based in Singapore, Le was in Ho Chi Minh City last month to extol the virtues of commerce found not just online, but specifically on smartphones and tablets.

That’s because many Vietnamese arrived on the internet by leapfrogging over traditional computers and laptops through more affordable mobile devices.

Le reeled off a string of upbeat cyber data on Vietnam. For instance, among citizens surfing the web 92% have made an online purchase and 51% did so via their mobile phones.

While overall retail growth this year is already projected to hit 8.2%, a reflection of Vietnam’s fast expanding economy, annualized online retail will expand even faster at 22%, he said.

“It’s obvious from the numbers that e-commerce is growing, and it’s now a big part of the cake,” Le said at the Seamless e-commerce conference held last month in Ho Chi Minh City.

Facebook and Google have been dubbed the Big Two in internet advertising because they share about half of the market globally. Vietnam was once among the fastest-growing markets for Facebook, which has reached 53 million members in the communist nation of 92 million people.

As the social media site’s uptake rate matures, some locals are now watching online videos, some more tongue-in-cheek than others, about how to break their Facebook addictions. Bloggers in Vietnam are commonly known as “Facebookers.”

The user growth has come with certain pains in one-party Vietnam, which in March told domestic advertisers to boycott Google and Facebook for publishing clips and posts lambasting the ruling Communist Party and its leaders.

A representative for Google, which owns YouTube, said it has resolved the complaints with the government but declined to elaborate. Vietnam continues to crackdown harshly, including through long prison sentences on anti-state charges, on dissidents who use Facebook to post commentary critical of the government.

Vietnamese authorities previously tried to block Facebook, but now they engage directly with the company. In April, Facebook’s head of product policy, Monika Bickert, met with information ministry officials in Hanoi, after which Facebook promised to offer digital training to 2,600 small online businesses.

Facebook is now concentrating more on its mainstream customers than dissident users. A study the company released in May said that 59% of the online businesses it surveyed had expanded in the prior six months, while 56% had plans to do so in the coming six months.

Facebook’s focus on small businesses, it says, means more than just getting an organic soap maker to create his or her own fan page in the Vietnamese language.

The company is currently dispatching liaisons to conduct demos for local online business owners, showing them everything from chat bots that respond to customers over its mobile chat app, to video ads that attract more eyeballs than static ads.

The strategic shift coincides with similar public relations campaigns from free trade groupings like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has a chapter on small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation bloc, both of which Vietnam is a member.

“Although the internet has dramatically cut down the exporting costs for SMEs, especially in developed economies, businesses in the region are facing a number of challenges, and the benefits from international trade remain elusive,” said Lai Viet Anh, deputy director general at the Vietnam E-commerce and Information Technology Agency.