If there is one country that has the habit of behaving as if the rest of the world does not exist, it is Japan. This is particularly true of the social media scene here, where globetrotting networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been largely ignored until recently. Unique though this country is, there is much for others to learn from platforms that have allowed generations of Japanese to interact with one another, free from the awkwardness of meeting face to face.
There are three main reasons why Japan's social media scene is so different. The first is language. Japanese characters allow for more information to be communicated in less space and time than English, which means more space for lots of advertising. The second is culture. What is driving social media in Japan is not the desire by individuals to express themselves, as in the West. It is the desire for a communal space. Communities built online through social media are valued at least as much as those in the real world. Last, but not least, is the role of the keitai (mobile phone), which has made social networks accessible any time, anywhere.
All three factors have conspired to form a social media scene in which it is normal for people to assume different identities, using different names in different communities, rather than stick to a single profile on Facebook, as is typical of social spaces driven by the individual. In a world of multiple identities, privacy plays an important role in sorting out the extent to which a user engages with a platform. The more interested in a topic users become, the more willing they are to divulge information on themselves.
Social media, while still growing, is already showing signs of maturity. The number of social network users grew by 65 per cent between 2006 and 2008, and the medium as a whole, including blogs, is growing at twice the rate of the internet overall. Much of this growth is being driven by the mobile phone, which is used by 40 per cent of social networkers to access their favourite sites. It is also being driven by women, who make up the largest proportion of users of the top three social networking sites: Mixi, Mobage Town and Gree.
Global players such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are starting to make inroads, but with a combined market share of around 2 per cent, Japanese social circles are proving tricky to infiltrate. The most successful so far is Twitter, which amassed two million users in 2009 and expects to reach five million by December.
Twitter's success hints at an emerging passion among Japanese internet users: microblogging, which is likely to dominate social media in Japan for the next three years. Twitter knows this and has been tweaking its site for local tastes, while local rivals have responded by aping Twitter features.
So what can marketers learn from how Japan's social media sphere is changing? The first thing to note is that social media in Japan is becoming more granular. The typical Mixi user, a twentysomething woman on her mobile phone, is using more of the content she likes, bringing her circle of friends with similar interests with her. Unique spheres of influence are created, and then are amplified. Ads and tie-ups are ways to break into them, but there are cleverer routes in.
It's not banners, buttons or affiliate advertising that have made Gree and Mobage Town credible challengers to the market leader, Mixi, in revenue terms. It's games and avatars, which users pay to kit out in fashionable clothes. In fact, the growing volume of ads on social media has been turning users off. Traditional advertising has a long way to go to prove its effectiveness, considering how much money is being spent on it, and the more advertising interferes with the nature of the medium, the bigger the question mark over effectiveness becomes.
As in the UK, there aren't many great case studies of brands using social media well. Miia, a fashion brand, is a rare exception. Mixi users were enticed on to the Miia model Akina Minami's Mixi page, where Miia banners drove her fans to the miia.jp website, which also contains a link to Minami's Mixi account. The secret to its success (Minami added 18,500 followers in three days) was that it stuck to social media rules. The brand was present, but Minami was the star. The people the campaign connected with were those who were truly interested in Minami and saw the connection to the brand as part of the story of her success - not just the intention to sell.
Don't forget that the success of the internet over TV in Japan has a lot to do with the fact that commercial content can be more easily avoided online. The more we veer from the intention to sell and the more we look for natural, positive ways into the social stream, the better.
Doing social media well calls for a subtle approach that respects the rules and culture of the medium. Nowhere does this apply more than in Japan. Brand activation in the traditional sense will fail. Finding a less obvious route into the social circle that avoids the hard sell might just work.