When Social Went Global

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A repost of one of our monthly tech columns for Marketing Magazine, this one on the globalisation of social media and what it means for, well, all of us. This article first appeared on 04.03.14. It sets the scene for a regular round-up here on technology in China and Asia Pacific by Carol Ong (based on her own newsletter), the first one of which is here.

Via nasa.gov, the recreation of "Earthrise"
Via nasa.gov, the recreation of “Earthrise”

The comforting phrase “social is local” has echoed through marketing departments for a while now. Comforting because it suggests it’s enough to have experienced, tech-savvy people representing the brand on the ground who know their own community backyard. No question, local intelligence is vitally important. But as this year unfolds, I think we’re going to see some shifts in how social media marketing operates around the globe. Call it a new form of ‘social migration’ that global marketers in particular should pay attention to.

I say this for a few reasons:

1. The growth of the largest social networks now depends on new geographic territories

If you’re Facebook, what do you do once you have 1.23 billion monthly active users on your platform (813 million of which are on mobile, 60% of whom are returning daily)? You take your now mobile-first platform, commit to making it more efficient so that it uses less bandwidth in  markets where that really matters and simultaneously set about putting the technological infrastructure on the ground to accelerate providing Internet connectivity “for the next 5 billion”; which is exactly what Zuckerberg is doing via Internet.org, announced last year. This is clearly a philanthropic and a commercial move: two thirds of the world without access to the Internet represents a giant growth opportunity. And Facebook aren’t alone in turning their attention to the rest of the world. Aside from Facebook’s partners in Internet.org (Samsung, MediaTek, Ericsson, Nokia, Opera and Qualcomm), Twitter’s IPO last year revealed it was targetting Argentina, France, Japan, Russia, Saudia Arabia and South Africa for faster growth than the United States.

2. Mobile powers the pace of the shift

New behaviours often make existing services redundant, but the explosion in mobile penetration and usage worldwide*, creating what the World Economic Forum describes as a “dramatically altered business environment” across Africa for example, has allowed the leading social platforms to continue to grow, despite newer players arriving and scaling at vertigo-inducing pace: China’s WeChat, plus WhatsApp, SnapChat and Instagram being amongst the most salient. With social media, if your service is mobile first, a rising tide really does float all boats.

3. Cultural importers can export too

This time last year I was sitting in Beijing, listening to the CMO of Alfred Dunhill, Jason Beckley, speak about bringing a luxury British brand to the world. His words were refreshingly open-minded:

“Our market is in migration,” he summised, “…and we’d be naive if we thought luxury will always be an imported idea.”

The same is true of technology. If you want to predict the future of social and mobile, you’d do worse than watch China. It’s not just about the giant data pool. Historically dismissed for copycat innovation, the market is now home to some trail-blazing companies like the mobile company XiaoMi, with their eyes set on a global marketplace. By way of another example, take WeChat’s early rebranding for global rollout and their omnivorous approach to development (originally a messaging service, they added photo sharing & filters, games and now taxi bookings, with deeper mcommerce on the near horizon). Burberry announced a ‘digital innovation partnership’ with WeChat in February.

In short, I’d suggest we get used to the idea of ‘guanxi’, a Chinese term meaning both personal and business networks or connections, extending into Europe and the US this year. Taobao, Jack Ma’s equivalent of eBay but several times’ the size, recently shared a list of the hottest shopping keywords used in 2013. You may think it’s too early to get excited about keeping up with the rise of tuhao, buying yellow ducks and avoiding peng ci, but as technology businesses go about smashing geographic barriers and consumption get more collaborative, I wouldn’t bet on it.

*According to the content marketing service, Percolate, ‘pull to refresh’ is the most used gesture in the world – for more stats and analysis, check out their excellent The State of Content Marketing piece last year and more recently ‘Weibo, WeChat and the Future of Chinese Social Media‘.

Update: check out more on XiaoMi’s international expansion roadmap here, (via Benedict Evans).

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