Can Twitter become a game-changer in Japan, where it just recently launched a new mobile platform? Or will cultural differences and native social networks like Mixi and Poupeegirl thwart its efforts?
Twitter may go somewhere where no other American social network has gone before. It may crack the Japanese market, where MySpace and Facebook have failed previously. Presently the only thing standing in its way is Mixi, the Facebook-like social network giant and another with the odd name of Poupeegirl. With over 17.4 million users and a forecast to scale to 30 million in four years, Mixi dwarfs Twitter's active users that tally less than 900,000 in Japan. Coming in at 500,000 registered users is Poupeegirl tackling more of a niche market with fashion-conscious young women, both in Japan and abroad.
Barriers to entry for Twitter include several factors, but the central issue is Twitter is not Japanese. As much as the Japanese like to mimic Western culture, Japanese folks like to deal with Japanese folks. Last I looked, Biz Stone, Ev Williams and Jack Dorsey didn't appear Asian. So, while Twitter is enhancing its compatibility functionality and interface on the its mobile platform, it may not be enough to compete head-on with Japan's home-grown social networks
Mixi may not have the global reach of social networking giants like Facebook, but in Japan it's king. While it doesn't view Twitter as a full-blown threat, it is cognizant of its popularity elsewhere and is protecting its flanks. Its recent roll-out of Mixi Echo which was quickly renamed Mixi Voice is Mixi's answer to Twitter.
Considering Mixi's enormous usage share in Japan and the convenient ‘all-in-one’ SNS blogging platform it provides, loyal Japanese users are less likely to move towards a new platform that provide similar functionalities, such as Twitter or Facebook.
The microblogging feature on Mixi Voice lets its users post a 150-character message on their profile which will then be broadcasted to the user’s friends, a la Twitter.
Poupeegirl's users on the other hand are mainly women, and the service has caught the attention of the fashion industry. Cosmetics maker Kose Corp and high-end luxury brands like Coach and Louis Vuitton are partnering with this network to market their merchandise to a well-defined target audience.
Yoshimi Morinaga, CEO, PoupeegirlYoshimi Morinaga, CEO of Poupeegirl,Inc. indicates that while her network is much smaller that Mixi, they have been able to attract registered users beyond Japan's borders. At present, about 35 percent of the sites' members are located overseas versus Mixi's 3.1 percent.
Once registered, users obtain avatars or "poupees"("doll in French) which they can then dress.Poupeegirl members use the site to share information about fashion where they can purchase clothes, accessories or makeup at virtual shops with virtual currency called "ribbons" and "jewels." According to a company survey following one promotion, 52 percent said seeing a virtual item made them want to purchase the real thing. According to the Morinaga, she is forecasting Poupeegirl to scale two-fold in one year's time to 1 million registered users by September, 2010.
Twitter on the other hand is making an aggressive push to make its presence known in the Japanese consciousness through mobile phone upgrades, new features and Twinomi.
Going mobile in Japan is a contagion that has spread like wild fire. With more than 91 million people in Japan accessing the Internet by cell phones, and 8 million of them exclusively, mobile access is a way of life in Japan. While Twitter's previous mobile site wasn't compatible with some Japanese phones, its new site is not only compatible, its new roll-out and enhanced functionality might be its key to opening up the Japanese market for the microblogging service.
Biz Stone"A very big focus for us is mobile, which is why Japan is very interesting to us," said Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter during a launch event in Tokyo on October 15.
"Japan is obviously very advanced in mobile so it's a unique opportunity to see how the mobile users in Japan are using Twitter," he said. "And it's also a test for the Asian market because it's usually very hard to localize in Asian languages. It's harder than French, German, Italian or Spanish, which we are going to be doing in the coming months. It's largely experimental but it's also a lot of fun."
During the Tokyo event, with so many Twitter users paying attention to Twitter's mobile site's launch, of course no one was surprised when the "Fail Whale" made a cameo appearance on Japanese mobile phones. After all, isn't part of the Twitter experience we've all come to expect as part of the norm?
Kevin Thau, director of mobile business development at Twitter notes, that while "Favoriting, @replies and preference settings" will available on all mobile browsers, one new feature that will debut in Japan before the US is emoticons. Yes, that means Twitter will now allow smiley faces to filter into the Japanese Twitterstream.
Twinomi or Japan's version of the water cooler might also attract more Japanese users to test Twitter's waters.
First introduced by Daichi Ito, an online editor - to liven things up, he developed a a virtual bar, with the hashtag #twinomi, which combines the word "twitter" with the Japanese word for ''drink.''
Out of nowhere, dozens joined in, using the hashtag to tweet their beverage of the moment or send out random thoughts. Messages tend to be denser, since a lot more Japanese fits into 140 characters than English. The exercise helped connect strangers with strangers, all who wanted to feel like they weren't alone.
The hashtag was a hit. Even now, months later, Japanese Twitter users gather for a nightly drink online and at local bars.
''Japanese people aren't good at talking to strangers,'' Ito said. ''And Twinomi probably caught on because it's like sitting at a bar, without having to worry about anyone around you. If you want to chat with someone, you can. If you don't, nobody will take offense.''
All these factors could push Twitter over the edge and allow it to scale past both Mixi, and gain significant advantage over the niche network of Poupeegirl. In Twitter's quest for world domination, its interesting to see how much time and effort has been put forth to attack this one market. Perhaps monetization is in the cards, where Twitter may be testing the waters by creating and testing a workable business model overseas, before bringing it to the US. After all, Mixi is on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and doing very well! Be interesting to see if Twitter 'takes stock' by following in its footsteps.