David Blecken
Aug 9, 2012

Growth of Facebook and Line signals new phase for Japanese social media

JAPAN - A change in mindset is leading to a realignment of the Japan's social-media hierarchy.

With over 10 million users, Facebook now presents a credible challenge to Mixi
With over 10 million users, Facebook now presents a credible challenge to Mixi

Catastrophe often acts as a catalyst for lasting societal change, and this was certainly true in Japan last year. For social networking services, the most important outcome of the 11 March disaster was that social-networking services shifted from being perceived as purely an enjoyable distraction to a serious means of communication and, in extreme cases, a lifeline that helped connect people in a time of emergency where other services failed them.

Critically, people began to shed their fear of revealing their true identities on social platforms. As recently as two years ago, few thought of Facebook was a real rival to the homegrown platform Mixi. Much has changed: after the earthquake, user numbers had doubled to around 3 million; today they stand at around 14 million, giving Facebook a 20 per cent reach, which is expected to rise to between 40 and 45 per cent over the next two years.

Andrew Miller, a senior creative at Wieden + Kennedy in Tokyo, points to a new generation that is keen to show its true personality online. Previously, “there was a scepticism toward technology that made most people hide their identities online behind avatars and pseudonyms,” he says. “This new generation grew up with the internet and feels freer to communicate as themselves.”

But it's not just younger citizens adopting social tools. “Facebook is beginning to establish its unique position as a platform that offers credible information,” explains Takeshi Magoori, chief producer in Dentsu’s digital media consulting department. Notably, Magoori says, Facebook, like Twitter, is succeeding in appealing to users in their 40s, who previously showed little interest in casual social-networking services. He says with conviction that Facebook is on its way to becoming Japan’s largest social platform.

Ryuji Mitsuishi, director of digital strategy at Beacon Communications, attributes Facebook’s growth in part to an acceptance of the value of ‘real’ relationships online, but also to a misguided strategy by Mixi. Having reduced privacy by making email addresses traceable and intercepting “underground” conversations, the site also discarded its grouping function and lowered the registration age to 12. Unsurprisingly, Mitsuishi says this has resulted in less satisfying conversations between users.

“Mixi made the platform very complicated,” agrees Kaz Maezawa, owner of Naked Communications in Tokyo. He adds that the site has also suffered due to its optimisation for Japan’s ‘Galapagos’ feature phones—once a strongpoint—and its sluggishness in adapting to cater to the growing number of smartphone users. 

As the saying goes: if you can’t beat them, join them—and reports in Japan have suggested that Mixi is considering collaboration with Facebook as a way of sharing the networks’ respective strengths. While that might sound improbable, it should be noted that Mixi has already partnered with Twitter as a means of integrating public conversation and information into its communities. The tie-up was again spurred by the earthquake and is designed to serve as an infrastructure enhancement to aid the flow of information in emergency situations.

Japan’s mobile culture has contributed to Twitter’s success, and although the platform partnered with Digital Garage several years ago in a move to develop an advertising model, straightforward commercial messaging has proven ineffective. Yet while people are sceptical of commercial voices on social platforms, Mitsuishi notes that there is room for ‘sponsored stories’ if the content is compelling enough, owing to the importance of 'neta', or having a constant flow of interesting information to impart. In one recent example, Naked Communications developed ‘Twitter novel’ as a means of launching Blux, a canned espresso, for Georgia coffee.

Social gaming, too, remains a big story for mobile, with the likes of Gree and Mobage Town having experienced phenomenal growth in a short span of time (both now have more than 20 million users). However, despite the eyeballs, the space yields relatively little opportunity for brand involvement beyond the sale of branded virtual items and a degree of product placement.

More interesting to watch is the rise of services such as Line. Having originated as a mobile messaging application akin to WhatsApp, it is now expanding aggressively and, according to Magoori, enhancing its position as a social network and platform for brand communications. Launched just over a year ago by NHN Japan, the service already has 20 million users in Japan, placing it ahead of Facebook and just behind Mixi. Uptake of the service surged following high-profile TV advertising, and brands such as Coca-Cola and Nisshin have initiated accounts offering branded ‘stamps’, which can be inserted into messages. Unusually for a Japanese social platform, Line is also seeing rapid uptake overseas due to its usability and English, Chinese and Korean language options.

Social pinboard Pinterest and its local equivalent Sumally have also seen positive uptake over the past year, with the former well positioned to move into the world of social commerce with Rakuten, which recently acquired a stake in the company. Another addition to the visual web is Pixiv, an illustration-sharing platform in the spirit of Instagram. There is also strong demand for social curation, and Naver’s Matome service has attracted a following of close to 10 million.

Beyond delivering information, Hideto Hara, SVP of BlueCurrent Japan, says improved listening potential is the most exciting aspect of Japan’s growing social world for marketers. “There are lots of data services, but marketers don’t need the data itself. What they need is to identify the trend of consumers’ needs and the reasons quickly.”

When interacting directly, it is important to provide some form of utility. Hara lists Coca-Cola, Lawson and Ito Ham as companies that are succeeding in building lasting relationships on social platforms, but does not believe that Japanese companies have taken full advantage of social media’s potential yet. “The first thing they need to do is to invest their efforts in developing core ideas that resonate with consumers’ concerns and values,” he says.

“People are not willing to broadcast just for the sake of broadcasting,” agrees Mitsuishi. “They share information that they think will be valuable to their group of friends. There is a culture of mixing information and building something on top of it. Any brand that can do that will build a strong base and reach more people.”

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