Facebook & Social in Japan

At the beginning of 2011 The New York Times wrote a piece with a headline “Facebook Wins Relatively Few Friends in Japan.” At the time, it seemed like Facebook had failed to ignite anything like the kind of addictive behaviour it had everywhere else in the developed world. Although Twitter had been growing strongly, for more involved interactions with their peers, Japanese seemed to be studiously ignoring Facebook in favour of locally developed platforms led by Mixi. What a difference a year or two makes. Fast-forward to the end of 2012, and Facebook appears to be catching on like wildfire, as it has in country after country around the world. So, Japan is not so different after all?

For some time, it appeared as if Japan was experiencing in social media the same “Galapagos Effect” it had undergone in the cellular phone category. This phenomenon refers to the technological equivalent of evolution that occurs without the influence of foreign species — a seemingly perfect analogy for large sections of the Japanese economy.

But of course it made sense, didn’t it, that Japanese are different and would not want to share their lives in an open way, even (or especially) with their friends. Mixi, which is a platform that allows the user to maintain anonymity, would continue to be the only place Japanese would genuinely engage with social media as it offered the safest outlet for sharing the personal details of one’s life. To be sure, Mixi is perfectly suited to the Japanese personality, which eschews public sharing of private information and is comfortable doing most things on-line under the veil of an avatar.

Perhaps we all weren’t counting on the sheer power of Dentsu, Japan’s (and the world’s largest advertising agency) to engineer receptivity to new ideas. In February 2011, not long after The New York Times wrote its piece, Dentsu and Facebook announced an agreement making Dentsu the official representative of Facebook’s advertising sales and marketing services in Japan. Earlier this year, Dentsu renewed its agreement and has exclusive rights to Facebook’s premium ad platform in Japan.

For marketers the involvement of Dentsu signals a move out of the periphery and into the limelight for social media. Every brand nowadays needs to have a strategy for social media, and the area is becoming a focal point of brand planning. Nevertheless every marketing director and strategic planner that I speak to readily says that social is the area that they understand the least about. There is no doubt that the people who manage brands are still more comfortable with traditional media, and it remains the case that television takes the lion’s share of overall media spend.

So, what are the challenges that those responsible for building brands find with social media? On the agency side there are big challenges because of the sheer amount of work involved in creating and managing content. TV ads are major undertakings and involve detailed planning and expensive execution, but once they are finished, they are put on air and involve next to no “conversations” with the market. They also usually only involve the production of a single execution. Social media campaigns demand a much more involved and dynamic level of input on the part of the agency. Further, the kind of talent that can create genuine engagement with consumers as well as understand the business imperatives behind the “tricks” is hard to come by. All in all, it is expensive to provide the creative and planning resources for complicated, multi-platform interactive campaigns and, considering the fees that agencies can generate for the work, it’s not always an attractive business for them.

Clients, on the other hand can, tend to see social media as basically “free” and are not prepared to put anything like the kind of money into campaigns into social that they will in traditional media. The relatively lower cost of producing social media campaigns has encouraged smaller, community-level businesses to compete for clicks and eyeballs with big brands. The reluctance to go “all-in” on the part of the big boys comes partly from a lack of reliable metrics that can be used to connect activity in social media to real-world outcomes for brands. While it’s true to say that this lack of data holds for traditional media, at least clients feel that they can understand the likely pay-offs of advertising in a proven magazine title or TV show. The commercial meaning of a “Like” on Facebook, a “Retweet” on Twitter or plays on YouTube is far from clear, and it is all too easy to manipulate these data.

These questions about ROI and accountability are pressing over the world, not just in Japan. What is encouraging is that because platforms like Facebook are becoming universal, the methodologies that are developed overseas may end up being just as useful here. Whilst the question of how far to localize campaigns for international brands remains, it is certainly a positive if global brands can use platforms like Facebook in Japan in similar ways they do overseas. It would definitely be a welcome change if, for once, when approaching the consumer, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

By: Dominic Carter (24th November 2012)

CarterJMRN is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients with consumers and businesses in Japan and beyond since 1989.

We believe that, although the terrain you face in building a successful marketing strategy and activation path sometimes seems obscure, the path to success is knowable and that the consumer is the guide who will show you the way.

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