The Avatar concept has become a runaway success for Yahoo! because of its huge appeal with Japanese youths. Avatar creates virtual characters for recent sign-ups to Yahoo!. Visitors choose a character, then personalise them with their own features, hairstyle, clothes and so on. Their look can be constantly updated to ensure the characters keep up with the latest fashions and styles. They can even get a virtual pet to keep them company.
More than half of Tokyo and Osaka's 18- to 24-year-olds use mobile phones to access the internet (according to MindShare Japan's 3D survey), encouraged by hi-tech handsets and web access platforms such as NTT DoCoMo's i-mode.
So, it's no surprise that Avatar users increasingly use their mobile phones to chat to fellow users and update their profiles.
Advertisers use the site to reach the 1.25 million-plus registered users who visit every month, clocking up more than 41 million page views. While the largest user segment is made up of twentysomething females, ads can be personalised to fit the profile and interests of each Avatar character, whether it's for travel, fashion magazines or personal loans - categories currently prominent on the site.
In urban Japan, the keys to moving vast numbers of people from A to B are the super-efficient train and subway systems. More than 70 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds use the system to take them to work or study every day (MindShare's 3D survey) and Omron, a technology company, teamed up with the private transport owner Odakyu Electric Railway to give advertisers a chance to reach them.
Goopas, short for Good Pass-gate, is a system that links a passenger's travel (when they pass a ticket gate at a train station) to advertising messages via their mobile phone. After a trial in 2001 with 10,000 users, it began full operations in February 2003 and is expected to grow its registered members to more than one million in just two years.
Advertising is personalised by matching messages to the profile of registered users, who must give their age, gender, interests, boarding and destination train stations and, of course, their mobile phone number. As soon as the Goopas- registered member passes the ticket gate, he or she receives a vibrate message and opens it to view the advertiser's offer. It may be a discount for takeaway food or an ad for offers at nearby convenience stores. According to the leading Japanese business magazine Toyo Keizai, the response rate is 10 per cent. The profile of users is varied but consists of mainly teens and people in their twenties.
3G MOBILE TECHNOLOGY
Much of third-generation mobile technology's touted benefits remain illusive to Europeans and Americans. But Japanese mobile telephone users are a demanding bunch, especially the youth who are early adopters of the world's most sophisticated mobile technology.
DoCoMo arguably leads the race with its 3G service dubbed FOMA (Freedom Of Mobile Multimedia Access). Launched in October 2001 in Tokyo, it is quickly spreading to Osaka and Nagoya. Industry pundits predict that it will attract more than one million subscribers each month throughout 2004.
Mobile web access is 40 times as fast as regular connections. This, and the ability to transmit and receive images and motion graphics, spells huge potential not only for content providers, but advertisers too. Forget low-tech pixilated ads. Soon full-motion commercials and branded content will become standard fare. In a country where young people especially are spending less and less time in the home, the ubiquitous keitai (mobile telephone) is now so much more than a communication device. It is increasingly the most important link to information and entertainment content.
The love affair between Japan's youth and all things hi-tech, plus heavy ad spending by NTT and its rivals such as J-Phone/Vodafone and KDDI/AU, is likely to make 2004 the year of 3G in Japan.
Until recently, electronic games were all about man versus machine. Now, thanks to "networking", they're more about man versus man - or rather teen versus teen.
Japanese youths battle it out in several ways, but mostly via the internet or across local area networks in special games cafes. Companies such as Yahoo! and Infoseek offer networked games to registered subscribers, who can play them for free, but these tend to be games such as poker.
For more involved escapism, companies such as Hangame and Gungho offer role-playing, action or simulation titles to subscribers who compete against other players on the web.
Additionally, many young men are crowding into noisy games centres run by the likes of Namco to play the latest 3D shoot-'em-up action games.
Networked games are attracting youngsters in their droves. Yahoo! Games has more than 3.4 million unique users who tend to be males in their twenties. The biggest segments are office workers and students, attracting online advertisers such as ISPs, content providers and games companies.
As any visitor to Times Square or Piccadilly Circus will tell you, electronic billboards are not unique to Japan's cities. What is interesting in Japan is their ubiquity as an outdoor advertising channel. Even regional cities such as Sapporo have several massive outdoor screens, airing TV commercials and information.
A casual visitor to Shibuya Crossing, an area favoured by Tokyo's hip youth crowd, would be forgiven for thinking it was a special occasion.
In fact, it's simply the spectacle of more than 1,500 people crossing the road every time the pedestrian lights change. Shibuya Crossing has been the site of many high-impact campaigns, such as MindShare's work for Smirnoff Ice where several huge electronic billboards screened Smirnoff Ice ads all at the same time.
Martin Hadley is a director at MindShare Japan.