In general I think it is safe to say you can not apply the same digital marketing strategies in Japan as you would for US and most other places. Ad creative, media, and users are just not the same. Basically, cultural and language differences caused Japan’s internet to develop in a closed-off ecosystem that does not generally correlate with Western and/or English language internet culture. Memes, jokes, site layouts…everything is just different.
Mixi is an interesting piece of Japanese internet “history” that gives a bit of insight into this phenomenon.
In 2004 Mixi launched an SNS platform that was accessible from a desktop and feature phone portal site. At its initial launch and high growth period services included blog publishing, member to member messaging, photo albums, community creation, and games. At one point everyone had it, and it felt like most people were active almost on a daily basis.
Mixi continued to grow in popularity as an SNS until it’s peak around 2012. In recent years monthly active users have sharply decreased along with advertising revenue, and it is not the shining star that it used to be.
So what caused it to peak? Why did it lose popularity?
Here are my theories based off my experience as both a user and working in digital marketing:
Problem 1: invite only system
Initially you could not just join Mixi when you wanted. You would have to get an invite code from an existing user, so there was a big hurdle to overcome just to register. I remember in early 2006 when I signed up that I needed to ask a few friends for a spare code. It took about 3-4 days to register! I can understand why in the first few months why they would want to limit access (spammers, fraudulent accounts, server loads etc), but I think in the long-term it hurt their growth by having an invite system for too long. It wasn’t something you could casually join at your own convenience.
Problem 2: you needed a Japanese phone number
At one point Mixi nixed the invite system, but you still needed a valid Japanese mobile phone number in order to sign up. I feel this was another bad move that stunted the site’s growth. Japanese users who were overseas, for example, could not rely on Mixi in order to connect with friends. If you wanted to register a new account, you would need a new phone number. The whole sign up process was a big pain in the neck.
Problem 3: extreme anonymity made it hard to find friends
Japanese net users value their privacy more than US Internet users. They don’t like to put their face up online, and until Facebook spread, people were very hesitant to use their real name online for any sort of activity. Mixi did not require real names or photos, so everyone was running around with a nickname or net handle of some sort. Your friend Yamada Taro could have a handle like “YamaTa” or maybe something even more hard to recognise like “（＞▽＜！！）や”, and it was really hard to keep track of which user was who if you didn’t log in for a while. Japanese people were very reserved about posting any pictures of their faces (and still are), so when a user named ぴかぴか with a picture of a chihuahua added you as a friend, you couldn’t tell if it was your best friend from middle school or some random stranger without some digging around their profile.
Problem 4: page foot prints
During it’s growth period Mixi had a “foot print” feature that showed the time of when the last 100 or so users who viewed your profile page. People were hesitant to view other people’s profiles, and it was a big deal when someone you liked viewed your page.The last time I logged in the foot print function was taken down, but I think this also hurt the site in the long-run and made people self-conscious of what they were doing while on Mixi.
Problem 5: no English version or active promotion outside of Japan
The number of Japanese internet users reached it’s saturation point, and between the initial invite system, the phone number issue, and a resistance towards non-Japanese speaking users from existing users, the platform lost chances to gain footing overseas during key growth periods. There was also never an English version during the time it was peaked, so it reenforced the pre-existing language barrier that exists on most Japan-based sites.
Problem 6: lost footing during the switch to smartphones
Mixi’s feature phone site was well designed and offered an above average user experience, but it lost traction during the initial spread of smartphones. In my opinion Facebook and Twitter apps had a better user experience. Also there was a growing acceptance of using your real name and uploading photos showing your face, users looked to other sites for social experiences.
However, despite it’s struggles as a social platform in recent years, in late 2013 Mixi’s smartphone game Monster Strike helped turn the around the sluggish sales numbers. During a success download campaign, the app had about 6,000,000 users by mid-2014. Revenue-wise it is slowly evolving from a SNS to a game company.
I think it is interesting how facebook got people to come out of their shells and use their real names and photos. Users are still incredibly shy when compared to Americans. It’s funny how these cultural traits still shine through to online personas despite the lack of “borders” on the sites.