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.
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.
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.
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.