Social networks will need to do more for Asia

Beyond just speaking an Asian language, social networking sites must also pay attention to unique usage patterns to encourage user adoption, says analyst.

While most users in regions like North America flock to Facebook, it will take more than just language translation skills for these social networking sites to wrestle majority market share away from existing players in Asia.

Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst with eMarketer, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview the barriers facing some of these sites include brand identity, cultural understanding and usage patterns of users, in addition to localization.

She said language translation forms the first inroad to penetrating a new market, but is difficult to perform well. Translations have to take into account context, and cannot be done by a machine yet, making it a "laborious process which can cost a company a lot of time and money", she said.

Williamson highlighted Facebook's efforts to localize its site by tapping users to translate its content. While this has saved the company some costs, the analyst thinks it has had the additional benefit of gaining user loyalty. "Facebook shows it is listening to [users] and allowing them to take the lead," she said.

She added that Friendster is an example of a site that has had success in the Southeast Asian region--more than in the United States, where it came from. Friendster has said previously this is likely due to its efforts at coming out with localized sites for the many different languages used within the region.

Williamson said, however, on Friendster's chances at capturing the rest of Asia: "Just because Friendster has succeeded in some Asian markets does not mean that it will automatically succeed in China. Cultures and Internet usage patterns are not necessarily the same from country to country.

She explained: "The Chinese social networks are very different from the Western social networks. In China, much of the focus is on playing games, participating in BBS (bulletin board system) chat and on using avatars or cartoons to decorate or represent oneself."

In Japan and South Korea, mobile versions and games integration are strongly intertwined with their social networking sites, she said.

Facebook, on the other hand, is used primarily to post photos and share Web content with other users, said Williamson.

Furthermore, Western sites have to fight the perception that they are foreign, and not homegrown, she noted.

"The leading social networks in Asia are typically homegrown local destinations," she said, listing mixi in Japan and Cyworld in South Korea.

MySpace's foray into China was marked with hitches along the way, as its owners tried to be embraced as a local company but presented a site that was mostly a literal translation of its MySpace International site, failing to localize its products and services for the Chinese market.

A look at eMarketer's statistics showed the dominant social networking site differed from country to country. In China, Tencent QQ had 66 percent market share as of December last year. In India, it is Orkut also with 66 percent.

According to April statistics that Hitwise e-mailed to ZDNet Asia, Facebook has had success in some parts of the region: in Hong Kong, it is the top Web site at 39 percent and in Singapore at 23 percent.