The culture of social media – is it universal, international or local?

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The challenges of an international social media campaign

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What is your language?

If brands may be having difficulty tackling the social media strategy in their home country, when it comes to taking the brand across borders, the task does not get any simpler for the marketing teams.  I have seen little in the way of research that explicits the differences in the way that social media is working, country by country.  Individually, some brands using global dashboards (such as Buddy Media, Vitrue, Wildfire…) are presumably beginning to see how each country is different.

This subject certainly warrants a number of different posts.  For a first post on the subject on this blog, I thought I’d lay out a little road map of areas that need to be analyzed in an effort to understand better the internationalization of an international social media strategy.

The international language is… ENGLISH?

When getting started, the tendency is (rightly) to go fish where the big fish are.  Starting with a Facebook page in English makes sense for the vast majority of brands considering the large English-speaking population on FB.  Yet, even if English is still the predominant language on the internet, the cultural differences between the countries where English is spoken does not allow for a one size fits all approach.  Whether it is in the type of greetings, the level of formality, the jargon or the spelling, each culture has certain sensitivities.  According to your intention, these sensitivities ought to be respected.

Language that structures

Each language brings with it a framework, vocabulary and customs.  A word has the very concrete ability to structure / frame a thought.  Certain words are laden with historical references that are, by definition, very local in their interpretation.  Not all words have exact translations in all languages.  A 140-character tweet in Chinese is like a short story compared to the 140-character in floral French.

The varying notions of privacy

One of the most notable areas of cultural divide is on the definition of privacy.  The odd thing is that few people would not value the concept of privacy.  However, the de facto experience and boundaries of privacy are indeed very different from one country to another.   The same is even true within a country (e.g. north and south Italy, to name one example).

What’s sharable?

In terms of format, there is no doubt that the world prefers video and images to text.  However, certain images will shock in one culture more than another.  Indeed, the way that one observes an image varies according to the culture.  For example, the Japanese will first look at the image as a whole before delving into the detail.  An American will typically pick up the details first, before taking a step back to view the larger context.  Looking at Twitter, many Americans are happy to relate glibly what is going on right here, right now in a very casual manner; an attitude not shared so much with the German twitterati, for example, who may consider such banter as a bit too much “hot air.”  (Rheingold study via Paul Hassels Monning)

Platforms and tools

While Facebook can boast a large and still growing audience, not all countries are Facebook friendly.  Some countries have locally grown networks that dominate (Orkut, QQ, Vkontakte, etc…).  Moreover, even in a heavily penetrated Facebook country (USA, Canada…), there is a need to make sure that the audience with which you are seeking to engage is present.  Moreover, in light of the changing landscape and rules that may be altered overnight (cf Facebook’s latest F8 announcements), it is probably wiser to spread your eggs out across different baskets and platforms.

There are many different issues that need to be addressed when rolling out a social media campaign around the world.  Notwithstanding the heterogenous levels of the marketing teams around the world (which itself has a direct impact on the style of engagement), there needs to be a new form of awareness in the HQ marketing and communication teams about how a digital campaign must be adapted in tone, content and platform around the world.  I think it’s a fair bet that those whose brand/internal culture is most open (i.e. to diversity) will be best equipped to face the international challenge.  Just as you need to be aware of local business customs IRL, you need to make the same type of accommodations in your online strategy.

What are your thoughts?  I’d love to hear your point of view!

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