Lessons From the U.S. Cast Light on Social Media Opportunities in Japan

The widespread and creative use of services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter during and after Japan's recent megaquake provided a great example of the power of social media in dealing with natural disasters.

Of even greater long-term significance is the impact these tools are having on business – especially now that they seem to have reached a critical mass of Japanese users. To understand the potential for Japanese companies, it's helpful to take a look at how social media services are being used by U.S. companies, which have a slightly longer history with them.

I used to think of social media sites as a way that teens and 20-somethings connected with each other. However, they have also become a powerful corporate tool in three main areas: marketing, recruiting and research.

Many U.S. companies now consider social media to be a key marketing channel. Compared to traditional media channels, social media tools give companies a more precise and powerful way to build a relationship with potential customers. In particular, these sites are great for finding and communicating directly with key customers, who, in turn, help generate great word-of-mouth marketing.

Companies show a lot of creativity in their use of social media, but a basic staple is to create a corporate presence on primary platforms (e.g., Fan Pages on FaceBook, Twitter streams, videos on YouTube, etc.). They then use these platforms to keep core customers excited about their activities through frequent updates to the page and two-way dialog that also allows the companies to learn more about their clientele.

Many companies also use social media to build their brand by creating a personality and "face." The CEO may write a blog, or an expert may dispense advice to users. Or the company may run contests and offer "sneak peaks" at its products. Of course, companies can also place ads on many different social platforms or promote trials of their products through group buying sites, such as Groupon.

U.S. companies have also found social media to be a powerful recruiting tool. They use social networks to promote their job openings, to find strong candidates and to help convince those candidates to accept their offers. In the U.S., the most popular site for recruiting is LinkedIn, which features the user's work history as his or her online profile. It is an especially powerful tool for finding mid-career candidates with a specific skill-set or background.

Finally, companies use social media to conduct research. This might involve asking customers for feedback on new products, monitoring product reviews and company reputation, or conducting competitive research. Socially-generated "knowledge sites," such as Wikipedia and Quora, also provide an excellent way to access knowledge of "the crowd."

It's too early to tell whether the Japanese social media ecosystem will develop exactly as it has in the U.S. Domestic counterparts still dominate the landscape, and some platforms, especially in the recruiting arena, have had trouble gaining traction. However, Japan's growing use of global social media tools suggests that their arrival as a key Japanese business tool is near at hand.

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