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September 07, 2009

In Japan and Korea, consumers embrace social technology faster than marketers

By Josh Bernoff

I'm just back from three and a half days in Tokyo and two and a half in Seoul. I am always struck, like all travelers, by both what’s similar in other cultures and what’s different. I want to be careful about making generalizations from such a short exposure, but I’d also like to share some impressions with those who might want to look at Asia through my eyes. If you’re Japanese or Korean, or feel you have a good understanding of what’s really going on those countries, I’d welcome your perspective.

Japan data 2009 I spent my days in Japan speaking with reporters, working with companies, and giving a speech at Ad:Tech’s inaugural Tokyo event (1000 people) and an smaller executive event for Google Japan. As you can see from our recently published data, Japanese consumers are active in social networks and in creating social content, so I expected to see a lot of activity among Japanese companies as well. But in truth, I saw very little corporate activity on these networks. (If you have examples, by all means share them, because I have very few.)

From talking to executives and the 30 or so social media enthusiasts who braved a typhoon to meet me at a Tweetup, I have a theory on why the level of activity is low. Japanese companies are famous for their tendency to look for strong agreement before moving forward, but social applications generate a fair amount of discomfort for companies. In other words, social activity by companies includes risk, and the individuals in Japan who are comfortable with these risks – mostly younger individuals – don’t have much power.

One exception came from Coca-Cola Japan's Shoko Suzuki, a senior marketer who spoke along with me at the Google Japan event. Suzuki-san’s description of Coca-Cola’s online and mobile activities in Japan demonstrated a willingness to try new interactive marketing strategies. Some at the Tweetup suggested that challenges from companies based outside Japan, like Coca-Cola, may get the Japanese marketing executives moving in the social world.

In Seoul, my Forrester colleagues crammed my two days in Seoul with meetings, including my first-ever Groundswell workshop with a non-English speaking group. I was delighted to see such innovation from this Korean company, whose staff included some enthusiastic young women (I saw far more women in positions of influence in Korea than in Japan). These workers embraced the concepts of the groundswell and generated some great ideas – just as I have seen in many workshops in the US and the UK. In my meetings with other Korean companies I saw a real willingness to embrace social applications for business goals, and in my speech to 300 mostly young and enthusiastic Koreans I got some excellent questions about social technologies in non-profits, sponsored conversation, and how to hire social media experts.

Korea data 2009 Why the embrace of these ideas in South Korea? This nation has the highest rates of broadband penetration anywhere in the world, and an extremely active online population, as you can see from our profile of online South Koreans. The CyWorld online community is the dominant social network, and Naver, the leading Korean search engine, has social elements. I saw many Korean businesspeople willing to challenge authority, and open to taking risks. (Many also speak good English – one young guy said “like” every other sentence; and sure enough, he had spent a couple years in high school in California.) Even in a breakfast talk to a more senior bunch of Korean executives, I saw heads nodding and fielded some excellent questions that indicated real interest.

One other trend I saw in both places: people are discouraged from using the Internet for personal purposes at work. And job-hopping isn’t common, especially in Japan. As a result, work-based social activities (like LinkedIn) just haven’t caught on in these locations. In talking to companies about B2B social networking, I got looks that revealed that they wondered if I came from another planet. This aspect of social applications, at least, is going to get started faster in the US and Europe.

KISA photo At the last minute, I was invited to spend part of Saturday morning with Kim Hee-Jung the President and CEO of KISA, the Korean government agency in charge of promoting and protecting its Internet infrastructure. I was once again impressed that a woman in her thirties, clearly bright and inquisitive, had risen to such an important government position. As we spoke about social networks, mobile services, and IT in Korea, I extended my favorable impression. Korea’s internet experience is not the same one we have in the US – for one thing, large sites have to verify people’s real names to allow them to participate – but it continues to evolve in a social and mobile direction that may presage the types of changes we’ll see in the US.

The continued high levels of social participation in this part of the world tell me that corporate social innovation won’t be far behind. Even in Japan, once executives see how it’s done, they’re likely to move in a bunch. For companies based elsewhere that do business in Asia, I’d recommend trying new social technology projects in Korea or Japan, where the social world isn’t quite a crowded with corporate social applications ads it’s getting in America. You just might learn something that’s not available anywhere else.


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John Paul Murray

Due to the polychromatic and high-context culture of Asians, especially the Japanese and Korean, social technologies are already in sync with their way of life. I predict that as soon as there is a critical mass adoption, they will leap-frog the rest of the world in their usage and optimization in business.

John Magee

Fascinating observations, Josh. I suggest you get input from an expert on Japanese and Korean culture. I suspect the key question is under what circumstances they feel comfortable communicating in an open forum about their work, their company, etc. Good luck. I look forward to reading again about it.

r van den hoff

I think the reason for Japanese companies not to use social media is the reflextion of the countries economy: it is almost stricktly focused on the export, a line strongly supported by the government, and the domestic market is completely neglected for years and years....so domestic thinking is not in their genes...


review Korea Conference


Interesting article.Strangely as accurate as completely...not (for korea at least). But good to see Forrester is in the market.

(coming from a Korean, in Korea, (US background) forging in digital trenches of Korean biz and internet industry 10yrs)

RE Korea parts:
International companies wanting to enter the walled-garden should PLEASE take the message from this: GO NATIVE (which often means go social) in ways you've probably never imagined. Korea and Japan need specific market attention or you likely fail (as almost ALL international IT/internet sites have).

First, I have to say that every time an international industry guy comes to korea and writes an article, they all have a similar flavor (which is fine). But the problem for me seems like the people they (you) meet give an accurate, but very distinct, skewed small sample of the work force/industry. eg: for every person you met with the profile u described, there will likely be 10x who do not. That's not a criticism, just an observation of your observations. And why I always have trouble with these articles. Its not WRONG. But its not enough of a picture to draw ANY overall Korea business inferences.

Also, its important to note: Koreans u met wanting to get into "social media", I have to assume refers to companies looking to move outside the Korean market or just ... youngins who read English well enough. Because social media nets in Korea are robust, active, and been engaged by conglomerates and companies for years before facebook was an idea in Zuckers head. And they not use English any more than Americans use French (ie: Au bon pain... "faux pas" "bonjour" ..er... "menage a t___!")

So yah, Koreans looking at international biz are, of course, "open and excited to social media" and learning about it: as it is in the US/English markets. Cause its new marketing channel for them. They've "been there, done that here." To wit, most Samsung Electronic divisions are already heavily engaged in social media in English speakinng digital world (twitter, facebook pages etc). LG as well.

There are lessons to be learned from Korea perhaps to apply to US social nets. Some in the reverse (which will mostly be related to anti-protectionism). or..as Korean biz ppl LOVE "benchmarking" -- just localize for application with local established networks.

Leapfrog? ahead? behind...
dunno. More just apples and oranges. On this of the Korean internet walled-garden and that side. ...

or mabye more aptly "Galapagos Digital Island" of Korea (independent evolution).

That said, b2b comment was dead on though, imho. b2b social nets in Korea won't true catch on due to cultural factors and business ones unrelated to critical mass or adoption (eg: Korea conglomerates and companies are VERY protective of their data and connections... for obvious reasons).

again very interesting article and very insightful for what it is. I'm just struggling to reconcile if its... to be blunt... useful (in an practical, actionable sense).

well, other than good discussion..which certainly has its own merit. ^^ Good to see how Korea IT market looks,as you said, for a couple days through international eyes.

thanks for the read!

Beef Recipes

Very interesting. It's amazing to see how fast social technology are growing, no wonder marketers have problems following. We're always hungry for more and things changes so fast, a good plan today might be totally out of the track in a week.

It's also amazing how much information is available to today's web marketer, just thinking about facebook, can we talk about ad targeting possibilities. The web keeps amazing me, it's great food for though to see how fast things changes. Very good article by the way.

Jean K. Min


Thanks for the insightful post. You might want to check out some posts below:

-Blog Like Cat, Mingle Like a Dog

-News, the Killer App in Korea

-Korean Internet Turning into a Galapagos Islands?

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