2012 saw more of the world catch the social media bug. Facebook passed the 1 billion "active user" mark midway through the year, reaching a staggering one-seventh of the global population. And Twitter continued to see steady growth, helped by its launch in dozens more languages. Much of this growth is driven by Asian countries, which have seen massive rises in use over the past year.
One key trend is that the world social media map is becoming more homogenous. Just a few years ago, there were 11 different networks that were market leaders in some countries. Now Facebook is the first choice in all but 10 countries. The few exceptions include China, where it is still banned, along with Twitter.
In the past year, Mark Zuckerberg's creation has overtaken Orkut in Brazil and Mixi in Japan, as well as edged into first place in Armenia, Latvia, Kyrgzstan, and Vietnam. After a somewhat slow start in Asia, it is now the largest continent in terms of Facebook users, with 278 million -- compared to 251 million in Europe and 243 million in North America.
Some of this success is due to aggressive marketing strategies. Facebook has poured extra resources into Japan in the past 18 months, setting up a dedicated base in Tokyo and rolling out a new localized version of the site, which is better adapted to the Japanese language. Its IPO prospectus included details of its plans to increase users in India and South Korea, by enhancing products such as mobile apps and making the site more accessible.
But it has still failed to dominate some of the world's biggest markets. Russia is one notable exception, where Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki are the most popular choices. Even if China relaxes its censorship laws, Facebook will struggle to compete with the massively popular QZone and RenRen. And despite making big inroads in Japan, Facebook still trails Twitter. The microblogging site is also in second position in numerous countries and showed strong growth in 2012.
Although international companies have been slow to embrace social media in other languages, this is starting to change. More marketers are seeing the benefits of translating and localizing their social media accounts. But reaching users across borders can still be a challenge. Even where Facebook and Twitter are the dominant platforms, there are differences in the way users engage with each other and their favourite brands.
Researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center found big cultural differences in Twitter use in a 2011 study. They found that French and German users were more likely to share links and news, while Korean and Malay tweeters tended to use the network for chatting. European users were more likely to be passive observers, who rarely, if ever, posted a tweet.
Forrester Research found similar variations in its report on "Global Social Media Adoption" in 2012. Forrester concluded that around three-quarters of U.S. and European social media users are "spectators" -- meaning they rarely create content or post their own pictures, videos, or blogs. In contrast, 76 percent of Chinese users and 80 percent of Indian users are "creators," regularly posting content. This could be due to lower penetration rates in these markets, with the early adopters being more enthusiastic and active on the sites. It suggests a marketing strategy that encourages fans to create their own content could be much more successful in Asian countries.
Another difference is in cultural views on privacy. A 2010 study (published in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment) found Americans were much more comfortable sharing personal details than German users, who often tend to use pseudonyms on Facebook (despite its "real name" policy). This was recently highlighted by a German state threatening to sue the company, claiming the policy violated data protection laws.
The policy is another reason for Facebook's slow start in Japan, with users preferring the relative anonymity of Mixi. The change can be attributed to a gradual shift in culture, and an increasing use of social platforms for job seeking and professional networking.
Another global trend is the rise in mobile networking, with Japanese and U.K. users ahead of the crowd when it comes to tweeting on the move. But while they tend to have more sophisticated smartphones, most Indian and African users still have relatively basic models. For many of them, going mobile is the best option due to poor broadband coverage and the relative costs.
While Facebook and Twitter are global leaders, social media marketers shouldn't ignore other networks. Despite Orkut's woes in Brazil, it still boasts a strong user base, with many users maintaining both Facebook and Orkut profiles. The same is true in Japan, where Mixi is managing to hold its own in the mobile market. And the two Russian market leaders, Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, are both planning to extend their reach by targeting Eastern Europe and translating their sites into other languages.
It's also worth considering smaller, niche networks. LinkedIn is an obvious choice for business-related use in Europe and North America. A similar network, Xing, is aimed at professionals in northern European countries.
Getting the language and local feel right is also key. Separate social media profiles for different languages is a must -- mixing English and Spanish on a single profile will only confuse and alienate readers. The ideal scenario is a locally targeted account for each country. For example, London-based users are unlikely to care about a store opening in Los Angeles.
And finally, being responsive is the key to engaging users -- no matter the language. Surprisingly, a large number of global brands are still failing to respond to messages and tweets. Hiring local social media managers is one way to ensure these don't get lost in translation.
As more of the world gets online in 2013, there's little doubt that social networks will continue to grow, especially in emerging markets. Social media marketing can be the key to engaging customers and fans on a global scale.
Christian Arno is founder and CEO of Lingo24.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
"Business hand touch social network" image via Shutterstock.