Carousell and the South East Asia Localization Challenge

There is a reason why the economic integration of the 10 Asean countries is being closely watched. It is a USD 2.6 trillion market with over 600 million people. A Google-Temasek study estimates the e-commerce opportunity in this region at USD 88bn in 2017.

E-commerce sites, largely dominated by startups, are betting on a future in this highly diverse region with at least eight major languages: Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Lao, Malaysian, Indonesia, Tagalog.

Mobile classifieds marketplace Carousell, launched in 2010, is already present in four of these countries — Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, plus Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Australia.

Marcus Tan, Co-Founder and President of Carousell, told Slator in an email interview that the Carousell app is localized for each market in terms of language and content.

“As a startup based in Singapore, we grew up surrounded by these differences and knew that we had to go local to be global” — Marcus Tan, Co-Founder and President, Carousell

“As a startup based in Singapore, we grew up surrounded by these differences and knew that we had to go local to be global. We have local teams ​in functions like marketing and customer support. This ensures that everything we do is relevant and resonates with our users in that country,” he said.

The concept is quite unique: Carousell is a mobile classified marketplace that claims fast onboarding for sellers; they say it takes as little as 30 minutes to list an item for sale on an iOS or Android phone. Buyers can chat with the sellers to buy.

Because chat is an important component of the sale process, it is important to localize, according to Tan.

“Yes, Carousell is available in local language for most of our markets. Currently, it is available in six languages: English, Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Indonesian, Cantonese, Traditional Chinese,” he said.

Over the past five years, more than two billion messages and chats have been sent within the Carousell community. Tan said many chats between sellers will be in the local language or whichever is more comfortable for them to communicate with.

Investors seemed particularly impressed. To date, Carousell has received USD 41.8m in funding.

South-East Asia’s Diversity

“Even within the seven different countries, the cities are highly differentiated. ​We speak different languages and dialects, have different cultures and traditions, and transact in different currencies,” Tan disclosed.

Even the level of infrastructure for internet access and speed, smartphone penetration, transportation, and logistics, also vary widely across the region. “We are aware of these differences and do our best to address them,” he added.

Hence, the company headquartered in Singapore has big local teams on the ground in all its markets. Tan estimates that about 15% of its approximately 200 full-time employees with over 20 different nationalities are based in their local markets. “Diversity is a big part of our culture, and we want to bring in specialized talent as needed,” he said.

It’s localization process, however, is simple. “We just use simple translation tools, such as Google Translate before manually translating with the local teams,” Tan said, without elaborating on the process details. This should present an opportunity for any of the major app and web translation management providers.

It is more concerned with the “local experience.” Local teams, for example, feature collections such as “Sweldo Sale” in the Philippines or “Furniture Picks in Penang” to create content that is familiar to users.

“A big part of localization is about reaching out to local communities”

“A big part of localization is about reaching out to local communities. We learn new trends and behaviors in every local community that we’ve engaged, resulting in a more targeted consumer engagement in every market,” said Tan.

In Singapore and Malaysia, users buy and sell for the practical reason of earning extra cash from underused goods. There is also a demand for higher value items like cars, property and home and furniture items.

In Hong Kong, and consumers are more receptive to buying and selling “pre-loved” or previously owned items, especially luxury fashion items.

Meanwhile, he said 72% of Indonesians would buy pre-loved items so they can find cool stuff that might be out of stock.” In countries like Australia and Taiwan, we see a growing appetite for responsible consumption. ​People are interested to buy and sell secondhand goods as it is an eco-friendly option and does not add up to waste,” Tan added.

Tan, however, said that at its current stage, machine translation may not be advanced enough to provide a local experience, though it can help optimize some workflows. “Languages contain nuances such as tone, style, puns, and metaphors,” he said.

Chat-Reply Messaging

In March 2018, Carousell’s machine learning team launched a chat-reply functionality in Singapore which automatically crafts chat reply suggestions for customers.

“With buying as easy as chatting, Carousell users have grown used to dealing with one another through chats. However, for those selling multiple or popular items, typing out responses can be a huge hassle when you’re flooded with messages from interested buyers. It gets even more frustrating when you find yourself answering questions when details are already in the listing description,” Tan explained.

Chat-Reply features a pair of machine-learning models — one model suggests general replies, while the other determines if the message already has an answer within the listing’s description. Carousell believes that this makes buying and selling smarter and more intuitive for our users.

Currently rolled out only in Singapore in English, the new functionality will be introduced in other markets as well, according to Tan. “We are currently aggregating the data required to train our machine-learning model in the different languages,” he said.