NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Facebook is rapidly overtaking even the strongest local social-media brands to become the first truly global brand in this space. In Europe, for instance, Facebook is edging ahead of France's Skyrock and Spain's invitation-only Tuenti, which is still the cooler brand among young Spaniards, crushing Italy's Splinder, and leaving the U.K.'s Bebo way behind.
But there are still holdouts, prompting Ad Age to enlist ICOM, a global network of independent ad agencies, to answer the question, "Who's your Facebook?"
Mixi (http://mixi.jp) has grown at lightning speed to become Japan's biggest social-networking site with 28.6 million users and 26.7 billion page views a day, mostly accessed by cellphones, said Ryo Matsuzaki, account manager at Adex Nihon Keizai Advertising/ICOM, Tokyo.
Popular apps include a virtual currency used to customize avatars and group profiles, and buy virtual items. Besides buying banner ads, marketers set up their own communities to interact with members. Honda, for instance, attracted more than 630,000 entries with a simple app promotion for its CR-Z. When users make entries in the app and include the letters CR-Z in the user nickname, they're entered in a contest to win a free CR-Z.
Orkut (www.orkut.com) has more than 20 million users in Brazil compared to an estimated 5 million for Facebook, says Rino Ferrari, president, Rinocom/ICOM, São Paulo. Although Google owns the international site, named after the Google software engineer Orkut Buyukkokten who developed it in 2004, it has become such a popular Brazilian brand that Orkut has been run from Brazil since 2008.
Orkut started as an invitation-only network, then was opened to anyone with a Google e-mail account, and last year returned to an invitation-only system.
Compared to Facebook, Orkut has fewer applications and has focused mainly on text and images. But to keep from losing users to Facebook, Orkut is updating and implementing new tools, Mr. Ferrari said. Companies are setting up their own Orkut pages, and buying banner ads to reach certain demographic targets.
Facebook, like Twitter, doesn't really exist in China. But local social-networking brands thrive. Tencent (www.tencent.com) started out as the QQ instant-messaging service but has morphed into an enormous all-around social-networking site, claiming 586.6 million accounts in March 2010. Baidu Space is the social-networking service of Baidu (www.baidu.com), the site that dominates online search in China, and home to many Chinese bloggers.
Other leading social-networking sites are Renren (www.renren.com) and Kaixin001 (www.kaixin001.com), said Cosima Wang, senior director-brand strategy, O&R Communications Group/ICOM, Beijing. Renren, with daily page views of 560 million, attracts members who are typically better educated and have above-average income, Ms. Wang said. Kaixin001 is known for the Kaixin farm, where members "pinch" vegetables, participating in an interactive online game. Many advertisers have used in-game ads on the site, she said.
Facebook rules, but local dating site RSVP (www.rsvp.com.au) is changing Aussies' social behavior both on and offline. The site is free, but paid subs with the purchase of "stamps" allow more interactivity and contact opportunities. Plus RSVP partnered with Cook Islands Tourism and Pacific Blue airlines to launch reality-dating show "Rules of Attraction," although it's yet to sign a deal with a TV channel, said Lyn Bayliss, head of digital at Odfellows Australia/ICOM, Sydney.
Social network Nasza-Klasa (www.nasza-klasa.pl), meaning "Our Class," is way ahead of Facebook with more than 11 million users. But Facebook, at 4.8 million, is catching up fast due to a perception that its users are younger, better educated, more successful urban dwellers, and that Nasza-Klasa appeals to a different group of less-educated internet beginners, said Pawel Binkowski, managing partner, BrandStorm/ICOM, Warsaw.
"Advertisers are crazy about Facebook right now, with all companies launching fan pages -- often without a clear idea what they want to achieve," said Mr. Binkowski. "Cost of entry is very low (free) while it costs money to get on Nasza-Klasa. Advertisers' perception is that Facebook is currently the tops while Nasza-Klasa is passé. It's not entirely true. Nasza-Klasa is still a great place for display ads and targeted advertising."
Sonico was the biggest social-media site until Facebook surged ahead in mid-2009, and now leads with 6 million users to Sonico's 3.6 million. But Sonico has become one of Latin America's leading social-media sites with 42 million users in the region, and aggressively negotiates innovative local and regional deals with advertisers.
"Our partnership with Nokia [has] an application that allows users to access their Sonico profiles through their phones, and Nokia promotes Sonico's applications in all their online/offline communications," said Tomas O' Farrell, Sonico's co-founder.
Taiwanese computer peripherals marketer Genius is doing a regional World Cup campaign, with sweepstake prizes for fans of Genius' Sonico page who upload World Cup-related pictures or videos to the page. Other marketers like McDonald's Corp. and Unilever have created virtual gifts for users to send each other, like a Triple Mac sandwich and Axe products.
Lays potato chips has 1.7 million GupShup followers, more than the 500,000 it has on Facebook. Using the Indian social network, the brand sent updates and quizzes direct to users' phones via text message rather than to a website. GupShup (Hindi for "chit chat") has 30 million users, more than Facebook or Twitter, simply because more Indians have text-message ready mobile phones than access to the internet.
GupShup is India's Twitter -- users create accounts and send text messages to followers. The average person follows only two people, and sends an average of five updates per day. This social network has grown up on mobile phones because the country has more than 600 million wireless subscribers and just 9 million broadband subscribers, according to April data from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. The International Telecommunication Union counts 52 million Indians with access to the internet in 2008.
"In mobile text, the reach is there -- it's an American blindspot," said GupShup CEO Beerud Sheth. "We're all so obsessed with smartphones, but text messages reach more people than TV in India."
GupShup launched in mid 2007 and its user base so far exceeds that of India's leading internet-based social-media network Orkut, at nearly 18 million, and Facebook (less than 16 million) and Twitter (about 2 million), according to ComScore.
This is how it works: Rather than a Facebook newsfeed or tweet stream of running commentary, users subscribe to a feed and get updates on that account via text message. Brands can set up their own feeds and solicit followers and, subsequently, can text consumers who have opted in for updates. They can also buy text ads at the bottom of other GupShup texts. To date, 150 advertisers, from global brands like Pepsi and eBay to domestic giants like ICICI Bank and Tata have run campaigns.
For eBay, GupShup is a way to reach India's growing mobile user base. In two recent campaigns, 20,000 subscribers joined eBay India's mobile community, and that response means the marketer will increase commitments with GupShup moving forward.
"Just like it's essential for every brand to have a website in western markets, it's essential for every brand to have a mobile community in emerging markets," said Mr. Sheth. "It is simply the only way to engage with the billions of consumers."
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Contributing: Kunur Patel, Valentina Vescovi, Aixa Rocca