While Facebook has yet to establish itself as a truly dominant player in Japan, this year the U.S. social network has started to pick up some steam. Since the start of 2011, the number of registered users to the service has more than doubled to just over 4 million , the Facebook movie was a rare box office hit - foreign and not a Hollywood franchise - that topped the box office charts for a couple of weeks, and the fact that the service held up much better than the terrestrial mobile network during and after the March 11 earthquake created some favourable PR for the service.
After a number of early missteps and misreads of the market, Facebook has gone from a niche product exclusively for English-speaking Japanese students and returnees from abroad to something that's still niche, albeit with a little more room to grow.
The service will always be pushed in Japan as it lags behind incumbent SNS Mixi and social gaming focused platforms like Gree and Mobage, but a lot of Facebook's success to date in 2011 comes from how it has positioned itself as a non-incumbent, niche player.
How Facebook Differs From SNS
In Japan, Facebook is not a social networking service (SNS); it's about the 'real name' experience online.
Mixi, and to a much smaller extent social gaming platforms like Mobage and Gree have defined and set the manner in which Japanese interact in social networks - anonymously - which is an affront to the whole logic of social networks in the first place. As an example, despite the fact the service is built exclusively to take advantage of people's social graph, people on Mixi rarely identify themselves with real names and photos.
There is no one correct answer for why this is. But an overview of how Japanese interact online holds some clues: Japanese spend more time in the interest graph as compared to their social graph (i.e., Cookpad for food and recipes, Pixiv for drawing, et al), the cultural fear of exposing too much of oneself on the Internet and the fact that most of the online conversations in Japan (established by outlets like giant bulletin board 2ch) have been borderline inflammatory all had an impact on how the Japanese social web has evolved.
All of this has been a challenge for Facebook, given each of those points flies in the face of the service: it requires people to interact with one another openly using real names. However, instead of trying to adapt to local taste, Facebook has actually struck on a positioning that it them out of the SNS game altogether. In Japan, Facebook is now the only service that lets you enjoy the Internet using your real identity. The difference is subtle but very important; it's been a well-known fact that the SNS market in Japan had been stagnating; continuing to float in the 20 million to 25 million user range for a couple of years now. By defining their service outside of this context, it gave Facebook a new way to approach the large number of online Japanese who to this point had found no reason to start using a SNS like service.
A Professional, LinkedIn Kind of Feel
One thing that this decided lack of anonymity has encouraged is a different taste in who is now participating. In the West, Facebook started out as a place for college students to share their more 'social moments. By contrast, in Japan the mood has a far more professional feel in terms of who is using it and the type of content/communities that are popular. Before it was even announced that Dentsu, Japan's largest ad agency, was going to help brands get on Facebook, most of the organic groups within Facebook were connecting through interests that had a decidedly professional feel. An example is the Social Media Labs page, which has over 12,000 subscribers.
That said, the biggest change this has brought to the Japanese social web isn't necessarily that Facebook Japan feels like LinkedIn - the real impact is that for the longest time professionals, salary men and other groups of individuals that found no need to get online and socialise now seem to be utilising Facebook as a platform to interact using their social graph.
Though it seems that with more of the Japanese population now participating in social networking and certain parts of the population seem ready for a real-name Internet experience, we're starting to see local players make moves. Mixi's recent decision to add the ability to display real names to its service is the most obvious counter-offensive.
Facebook's new concept of using your real name to interact will also likely be eaten away and eroded over the next few months by a couple of other foreign, but locally entrenched players in 2011. Google+ will likely be able to easily activate those who have already signed up for its services, not to mention the fact that its messaging dissemination through 'circles' seems to have a real appeal locally. Digital Garage, the group that launched Twitter successfully in Japan, will also be bringing a localised LinkedIn to Japan in 2012 - further luring away those from Facebook's active user base.
Though they may benefit from it, however, the one thing that these services cannot claim is that they broke the code. Regardless of how far it takes them, for a country that doesn't change very easily or quickly, Facebook has pulled off one of the biggest changes in Japan's social media landscape to date.
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Jeff is the Digital Strategy Director for Havas Worldwide Digital Tokyo. His professional experience spans integrated communication planning, social media, branding, web strategy/online business development, and e-marketing in Japan and North America. A bicultural Canadian who is fluent in English and Japanese, he is a frequent speaker and blogger on the challenges of cross cultural communications and advertising Japan, where he consults local and global clients alike on the finer nuances of the market.
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