The forthcoming community-based world
Coming back from a two-weeks trip in Japan, I want to share a few thoughts about the state of the digital & social media over there, while pursuing my articles on “Going social in Asia” and “Rise of the communities”.
As you know if you read me before, my take is that not only social media is – deeply – about community building and managing, but this trend, coming from California since the beginning of the Internet, is something more global for the coming century.
With backwarding and debt-burden states (at least in the West, but fast-greying Asian countries such as China or Japan will face the same issues), less influential religions and unions, growing number of single-person household (see chart from The Economist), increased migration of the world population, and what the American National Intelligence Agency calls “the liberation of the individual” (in their must-read prospective reports about 2030), people can find thanks our connecting technologies ways to renew their social circles and interactions. Let’s call it “community” to keep it short.
In this meaning, Japan appeared to me as an UFO, but a few observation and a conversation with a senior VP of a Japanese advertising agency helped to find no answers, but paths to follow on the discovery of this very singular market
A remote island with isolationist tendencies
This may sound naive, but the first phenomenon which struck me in Japan, is the feeling of being a complete stranger. Few speak English, even the few words that can help find a place or know a price before paying, even in Tokyo, even in places where you could expect it (airports, Starbucks, post offices, banks). Funny coincidence, a recent Quora question on where to find a place in our globalized world where to feel totally foreigner brought a lot of testimonials from Westerners who live or used to live in Japan, I recommend the reading of these answers.
If Japan managed successfully to export large areas of its culture (video games, mangas, walk-man or even more common goods such as cars), it seems to be a one-way journey, as few recent Western creation seems to have reached the country, except maybe for French luxury and American fast-foods. Again, it’s a very personal feeling from a first visit, so don’t take anything for granted, I’m at the beginning of my Japanese education 🙂
Â Very few foreigners can be seen in the main sightseeings, train stations or resorts in other cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, Nagano or Kobe. My host at the advertising agency seemed to confirm this trend, with also few Japanese working abroad and coming back home with a meaning of the “other”. Even French psycho-analyst Jacques Lacan, used to say Japanese people were in a completely language structure and hence could not be analyzed (see this great read on Freud, Lacan and Japan).
The nation of social gaming
For all these specifics, Japan of course is not disconnected form digital and social media, however it proves highly resistant to foreign social networking sites. Facebook just recently outpaced the until-then leading social network Mixi, and volumes are still relatively low, the country ranking #17 according to Social Bakers, with just 16M people registered.
Compare this with the roughly 71M Japanese people registered on social gaming sites, or even the 30M registered only on Bandai Namco platform, and you have a sense of the difference in scale. Japanese people are also ranking #1 as regards spending in Apple AppStore.
Some brands managed successfully to leverage this gaming addiction by offering campaigns were users could find the same gamification mechanics. Uniqlo celebrated its 26th birthday with a site rewarding every 26th user joining a virtual queue on its website, and Unilever’s Axe designed a wake-up call app providing girls on the desktop or mobile screen of fans, with the possibility to unlock special characters for the hardcore gamers.
How brands and agencies can jump into the social media train ?
Talking with my host proved very useful to try to compare the meaning of the community in Europe, Asia, and in the United States, then to check how it was “living” in these continents’ digital & social media. Japan agencies seem at first sight to be “lagging”, however the field itself is quite rich : Japanese people are a connected one, their smartphone have enhanced capabilities (QR code reader, NFC, integrated payment systems), there’s a strong indie & creative web (check the 2-chan “rebel” – and closed to non-Japanese IP posting – forum), video sharing is much more popular than in the surrounding countries, and blogging has long been a local fave.
Other features of social media in Japan might rebuke brands at 1st sight. An example given frequently is the fact that 95% of Japanese internet users have anonymous profiles, on which it is different (if not difficult) to build a new brand relationship. As a rule, people seldom put their own pictures, and most use nicknames or hide their true identity. A way to deal with it could be to play with the big data of smartphones, to be able in a first stage to “map” the social activity of Japanese communities in time and space.
Overall, agencies feel not ready to embrace the possibilities of social media, even with these specific features. New ways of thinking the business of communication and marketing have to be found, in a country where businesses have still a very traditional and hierarchical structure, and people are not extravert as it’s the case in Western countries, or even South-East Asia.