Aug 31, 2009

Perspective... Facebook needs to learn from some of Asia's local social networking sites

It's been a hectic few weeks in Asia's social networking space.

Perspective... Facebook needs to learn from some of Asia's local social networking sites
First, there was the news that Friendster was up for sale, then in the past fortnight we’ve seen Facebook launch its ‘Lite’ version targeting emerging markets and Xiaonei, one of China’s leading networks, rebrand itself as

What to make of it all? The latest developments seem to reflect two key trends that will play themselves out over the next couple of years: the growing importance of emerging markets to the Western operators, and the friction between super-relevant local operators and multinational brands.

Of course, those two trends have been present in pretty much every other media channel, but they’re only now beginning to drive the social networking market. That’s because the space is so new, and it’s only in the past year or so that Asia’s consumers have begun to enjoy real choice.

Friendster had a huge first-mover advantage, but in its key Southeast Asian markets is now being pegged back by Facebook (comScore data out last week in Malaysia put Friendster’s lead at just 100,000). Its decision to sell may reflect a feeling that it has grown as far as it can as a sub-regional standalone operator - it lacks the scale of Facebook, or the big-money backing of Orkut or MySpace.

Facebook has found China a much tougher nut to crack. It launched there last year but has barely got off the ground. Xiaonei’s rebranding, designed to help it grow beyond its campus roots, shows a growing self-confidence among China’s social networks as their audience grows fast among white-collar workers (Xiaonei has 70 million users).

Hence Facebook Lite, a stripped-down version of the network aimed at markets dominated by mobile or low-bandwidth connections. China, India and Russia have been named as its targets - crack those markets and the sun would never set on Facebook’s empire. It is also relevant for Indonesia and the Philippines.

With China in particular, though, it needs to do more. It seems crazy to bet against Facebook, given that it’s been a hit pretty much everywhere it’s opened its doors. But China’s social networking space really is different. It’s far more entertainment-driven than in the West, for a start - you only need to look at the way networks such as Kaixin001 have been built on the back of games and applications. And its users are far more open to commercial involvement, something Facebook still creeps around in the West.

Adapting its interface, then, must only be the first step for Facebook. It has become the template for many of the growing army of local networks. But if Facebook really is to become the world’s social network, for users and advertisers, it now needs to learn from some of the local players.

Got a view?
Email [email protected]

This article was originally published in 27 August 2009 issue of Media.
Campaign Asia

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