Branding beyond borders


iMedia Connection

Understand the essence of social media

Social networks such as MySpace and Facebook aren’t a U.S.-only phenomenon; they are being adopted and promoted all around the world. For a savvy brand manager considering leveraging these new platforms, it is crucial to understand the impact of culture on the essence of social networking: communication. Failing to grasp how people interact in different places can lead to catastrophe. This article will explore the global nature of social networking and talk about some constraints imposed by language and culture. Then, by comparing Facebook to other prominent social networking sites around the world, we will discuss how cultural context shapes social networks, and outline a few key tools that can help global brands succeed when considering a campaign on social networks.

Social networks are not just for English speakers
In the beginning, Facebook and MySpace were developed for and delivered to an English-speaking audience. Given that the percentage of English-speaking users on the web hovers around 30 percent, this clearly did not meet needs around the world. As the social networking buzz spread across the globe, entrepreneurs realized that there was profit to be made in creating these applications for other languages. Mixi, a Japanese site, was launched in 2004, and has an IPO valuation of just under $1 billion U.S. dollars. Cyworld, a hugely popular Korean social networking platform, has about 20 million accounts in a country with a population of 50 million — 75 percent of all 18-25-year-olds have an account!

Social networking is a phenomenon that enables brands to engage users in conversations all around the world, and all over the demographic map. There is ample opportunity here, but there is a significant challenge if the enterprise does not carefully consider that a social networking campaign is entirely dependent on its resonance with the end user. It’s much more than foisting a brand message onto every banner ad in reach; it’s about creating space for a dialogue that users will be willing to adopt and sustain. To do this, an intimate understanding of the constraints imposed by language and culture is a key requirement.

Some of these considerations become clear when one compares Facebook, a popular U.S. social networking site, with other similar platforms around the world.  Facebook clones exist all around the world, from Germany to Turkey to Russia to India. Not all of these sites are targeted toward the youth demographic generally associated with social networking. For example, is intended for a much older audience and boasts membership in the hundreds of thousands.

So what?

Clearly, this matters for major global brands and poses important questions. For example, many brands have different voices around the world. Ensuring that they reconcile — and remain consistent — requires thought in any international campaign, regardless of channel.

But should brand stewards concern themselves with territories if their product or service isn’t available? In a nutshell, while it’s not a top priority, it does warrant consideration. Like it or not, the web is a global stage, and people will be looking at your content from all over the world. It’s a great opportunity to expand a brand’s reach and possibly create new channels. Consider that social networks map to cultural boundaries and are not delimited by geographic ones. So a brand with no reach in Asia may still do well with a campaign in Cyworld, if they are seeking to reach an Asian-American demographic; many Korean-American users are found on the Korean site.

Another reason global reach is so important is that brands do not always translate well from one culture to another. Despite its amazing popularity within the Korean market, the U.S. version of Cyworld has been less successful. Extensive primary research, a change in direction toward a younger user base and updates to the visual design to reflect an edgier and more diverse audience, were all intended to ensure adoption in the U.S.

Some argue that it was not well received due to the privacy structure inherent in Cyworld. Based on the “chon,” a Korean concept describing the distance between family members, it can be very tiered or nuanced, and perhaps cumbersome for a U.S. user. Brands that wish to reach out to social networks must understand and embrace the risks inherent in bridging cultural gaps.

Cyworld USA

Cultural context drives demographics

One important thing to understand is precisely who uses social networking sites, as it varies from country to country. The audience on Facebook skews toward a very young audience, with less representation in the older groups. These young adults are on the site to stay in contact with friends, play games and make plans with friends in the area. The advertising tends to be consumer brands oriented toward this demographic set, with very little being offered from the likes of banking or insurance.

Facebook ages from Quantcast

Nasza-Klasa ages from Quantcast

On the other hand, the Nasza-Klasa audience is coming from a very different background. The user distribution, while weighted toward younger kids, is spread out much more evenly than Facebook’s. Accordingly, the site draws interest from slightly more utilitarian brands, such as or financial institutions. There is a whole section of the site devoted to banking offers. Savvy brand managers will not only research the current metrics of the social networking site they are targeting, but will also try to understand where the users are and what is driving them to the application. By understanding who is coming to the site, brands can identify and act on appropriate co-branding or advertising opportunities.

Cultural context impacts churn on social networks

Age distribution can also impact usage statistics on social networking sites over the long term, depending on the culture in question. While performing primary research on social network users in the U.S., it became clear that younger users were happy on a platform until “uncool” family members showed up. Siblings were a deal breaker, and heaven forbid Mom gets an account. One user commented, “My little sister got onto MySpace, and I went to Facebook. Once she gets onto Facebook, I’ll go somewhere else.”

To a large part of this audience, Facebook is perceived as a means to communicate with friends, not family. This serves as a warning for ongoing churn within the social network as new people join and others leave as a result. In Poland, however, the culture is more family-oriented, and Nasza-Klasa provides a mechanism to support this. Users of all ages actively communicate, share photos and stay engaged with one another. While there are plenty of factors that drive churn within a social network, having the embarrassing Mom show up is much less likely to drive it in Poland. The best way to predict what is going to happen, and how to leverage nascent opportunities, is to perform in-depth ethnographic research, to understand how the culture embraces technology and what aspects of a given society might drive churn or other adverse behaviors.


Another factor that drives churn is the number of friends that one has on a network. Until friend lists are portable, using a platform like open social, it’s very tough to change from one platform to another, unless everyone makes a mass migration. This is a risk for a longer-term strategy involving outreach to a social networking platform in the U.S. In the next few years, who knows which system will be the most popular one?

Identifying other social networking platforms in a given linguistic or cultural space is very important as it will help round out any go-to market strategies. Interestingly, it is not always so straightforward to predict how many platforms a given linguistic group would have. For example, although the total population of Turkish speakers is relatively small, there are still more than four Facebook clones in operation. One network, Yonja, launched in 2003, claims up to a billion page views per month and nearly 5 million members.


Driven by functionality and social context

Essentially, social networks all do the same thing — help people stay in touch with each other. This is driven, in part, by what the network allows its users to do. However, it also depends on the larger cultural context. What is driving people to remain in touch? What aspects of their lives do they wish to share?

Facebook users perform a variety of tasks on the site, including posting photos, emailing friends, associating themselves with brands and arranging for parties and events. The Nasza-Klasa site provides a subset of this functionality, but for different reasons. A substantially higher percentage of the Polish user population is expatriate, living all around the world. These people are seeking out old friends from as far back as elementary school, to catch up and see where they are now. By recognizing the larger context, brand managers can understand how to best engage each specific audience in a relevant dialogue and provide tools to encourage conversations.

Different applications, tools, user needs

Ultimately, it’s the social networking application that determines how sophisticated a campaign can be. Facebook provides ample tools for advertisers to create and run their own campaigns, on a self-serve basis. More than just the ability to create a static page, brand managers can also research demographics and target very specific audiences. Despite this great entry point for brands aspiring for social networking greatness, it’s crucial to remember one key cultural point.

Nasza-Klasa does not have this level of sophistication, and advertising is not as heavily integrated into the user experience. Brands cannot create group or fan pages, and the advertising is placed in traditional locations. There are, however, some fun, contextually relevant banners for the visiting user. For example, Olay presents one return user with an ad asking her by name if she would like to be the youngest looking one from her class. Note that Nasza-Klasa has also allowed Olay to set the background image on the user’s profile page, something that Facebook would not allow. The best bet is to spend time on the network, looking at the feature set, and trying to observe what tools are used, and how. This should provide insight into how to best reach the consumer and stimulate interaction.


All around the world, users are logging on to social networks, and talking with their friends. It can be a great opportunity for a brand to propagate a message virally, reaching out to multiple audiences through well-planned campaigns. There are risks, though. While all social networks are founded on the same basic principles, the cultural and linguistic contexts in which they operate will impact a number of important factors. Why users visit a social network will differ based on their social background and sets context for which brands might be expected. Demographic bases will differ from place to place, which in turn can affect churn.

Finally, platforms in different places will provide for different levels of interaction with the audience. Ultimately, there are plenty of places around the world where a brand might consider dabbling in social networking. Before a brand reaches into a new space, however, it is critical to consider who is on the site, what they are using it for and how to best empower a dialogue that is relevant, positive and authentic.


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