Once Intensely Private, Germans Now Turn to Social Networks

What the Growth of Sites Like Wer-kennt-wen.de Means for Culture

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Gunnar Brune
Gunnar Brune

When the 2008 online rankings were recently published by the German online research organization AGOF, many asked, "Who is 'Wer-kennt-wen'? The site had entered the top ranks of German social communities by storm and without notice of many within the marketing community.

Wer-kennt-wen.de is a relatively young (founded 2006 by students in Koblenz) social community. It translates to "Who Knows Whom" and it's special for two reasons: the straightforward name andthat it allows everyone to participate, rather than beginning with a specific group, like students, as Facebook did.

Then there was a second surprise for the German online scene last year when Nielsen reported that Germany has shown the greatest increase worldwide for social networks for 2008. Germany traditionally ranked far behind in online networking. In 2007, the average national reach of social networks was 61%. Reach in Germany was only 39%, far behind comparable countries. In 2008 a seismic shift moved social networks in Germany forward to 51%. It was the biggest social growth spurt in the world and, in it, there's a broader cultural shift.

The majority of German population has had a great reluctance to disclose private data. Two totalitarian systems have taught generations to fear an "Überwachungsstaat." As a result, spying on private life is still a great issue. You could see it in the Academy Award-winning "Das Leben der Anderen" ("The Lives of Others") as well as in current data misuse scandals of German blue-chip companies. Those who were 20 years old when the communist regime in East Germany was blown away by the people in 1989 are now 40 years old. The 40- to 60-year-olds have been the greatest source of online population growth in the last couple of years and, for reasons to be explained, they entered social networking in a big way in 2008.

Wer-kennt-wen.de (WKW) started in 2006, had 1 million registered users in December 2007 and has now 5.8 million registered users. WKW's success is due to good timing and to its USP. First of all, the easy-to-understand name seemed to have helped to attract the mainstream just because it clearly expresses what the brand is about. This seems especially important for the mainstream target group that understandably struggles with the complexity of online offerings. The second advantage is that the network is open for everybody. StudiVZ, in comparison, achieved a faster start by addressing a specific group, the students. But now it's running into growth challenges.

Both Facebook and StudiVZ have faced public outcry in Germany when they tried to change their rules for the use of private data to allow to better monetize their content. In the first days of the Web 2.0 era, it seemed that few cared about data privacy. Still, today kids display more to the broad public than they would tell their parents at home. But the behavior of this early adopting target group with little life experiences can't be confused with the opinions and behavior of the older people now joining in droves. The broader use of social networks in these target groups also means that users will judge the use of private data more critically.

There are some simple lessons to be learned from these online success stories in Germany: The names of complex online offers should carry a simple explanation of the offer within; local websites often are more relevant to German mainstream; networks that are too targeted run into growth issues; advertising in social networks has far less acceptance than in other fields; use of private data is a very critical issue and with the mainstream, user concerns only grow; and the market is still driven by flux: new, strong competitors can always take over today's blue chips.

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Gunnar Brune is managing director of Lowe Deutschland in the lovely harbor city of Hamburg. He studied Marketing and Constitutional Law. Prior to Lowe he worked at Zum goldenen Hirschen and Scholz & Friends in the fields of brand strategy and communication management. His current special interest is the evolution of cross-media communication strategies.

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