What do Brazilian and Indian Internet users have in common? A favorite social networking site called Orkut, a Google web property which, when it was launched in 2004 was meant to put its parent company on the social networking map in the U.S. Orkut may not have taken off stateside, but it has exploded in these two countries, and it isn’t alone. Pioneering social networking site Friendster saw U.S. usage wane with the appearance of MySpace, but has experienced exponential growth in Southeast Asia. It’s a phenomenon which has left company leaders scratching their heads about where all the users came from and what to do with them.
The global nature of the Net means that a service launched in one country might well catch fire in another one across the world. U.S. Internet users are more likely to move to the newest, shiniest service rather than join a network and stay put — leaving an opening for new users in another land. Perhaps the success of these sites overseas is due to the loyalty of the other markets to the product, and a testament to their ability to mobilize their friends to join the service they love.
Here’s a rundown of some of the more popular “Made in the USA” social media sites that are hitting it big overseas.
Orkut: Perfect Fit for Social Brazil
Like its gigantic cousin MySpace, Orkut is a rather modest, almost antiquated-looking website with much the same features as other social networking services. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of some competitors, but when it first entered the Brazilian collective conscience in 2004, Orkut (pronounced “oh-koo-chee” in Portuguese) quickly became a social phenomenon. Now over 58% of Orkut’s users are Brazilian and, according to Alexa, Orkut is the most popular site in Brazil.
Brazilian tech blogger Daniel Duende talked to me about how social networking in Brazil really took off in the summer of 2004, and about how his countrymen — very social people — “took over” Orkut and made it Brazilian. He says that part of the success of the site among Brazilians can be attributed to timing.
“The ‘taking’ of Orkut by the Brazilian people was a natural answer to the question of ‘what’s next?’ following the success of blogs and photoblogs,” Duende said. “Other factors were that Orkut was a social network that came from Google, which had broad approval of Brazilians, and was invite-only like Gmail, another big hit at that time.”
Orkut is so imbedded in Brazilian culture that it has even inspired a tongue-in-cheek song of betrayal and love lost called “I’m going to delete you from my Orkut” (“Vou te deletar do meu Orkut”). Composed by an Orkut user, the song quickly made its way across the network and, because of the reach of Orkut, across Brazil. Soon there were hundreds of people doing their own videos for the song on YouTube, which has received broad media attention across the country.
Because social networking is so popular in Brazil, some experts have called it the perfect testing ground for new sites and a way to gauge the future popularity of these services. But Duende says Brazil is Orkut territory, and there are really no other players in the space that could possibly compete with it. “Friendster came too early, and they were too ‘cold’ in their approach to web social networks,” he said. And while MySpace is already widely used in Brazil (and has plans to launch a Brazilian version soon), Duende says Orkut is ingrained in Brazilian society. “Orkut is part of the lives of more than half our Internet users, and an important part of our Internet history,” he says.
Brazil isn’t the only country that’s crazy about Orkut. While more than half of Orkut’s users are based there, and the U.S. takes second place at nearly 19%, a close third is India at over 15%, where the site is stirring debate and causing political furor. The Hindu Nationalist Party, Shiv Sena, is demanding that Orkut be banned due to its “immoral” content, and some of its crusaders have even gone so far as to ransack cybercafes.
Nonetheless, Orkut still enjoys massive success in India. According to Alexa, Orkut beats Google in terms of traffic in India, ranking as the No. 2 most popular site in the country, after Yahoo.
Fotolog.net: Orkut for Photos
It’s not only straight social networking sites which have been “taken over” by Brazilian users. A New York City-based photo-sharing site called Fotolog.net owes much of its success to Brazilians who have made the site their own. While social photo-sharing king Flickr enjoys a diverse international user base — as evidenced by its move this week to offer translated versions of the service in seven languages — Fotolog’s popularity practically began in Brazil.
According to Fotolog CEO John Borthwick, 90% of Fotolog’s user base is located outside of the United States, and Brazil was the starting point which later led to growth in the rest of South America, eventually spreading to Europe.
“The phenomena started in Brazil,” Borthwick wrote in his blog. “Adam [Fotolog’s Chief Product Officer] will tell you that in those early days he was concerned that Fotolog might get stuck in Brazil, and Portuguese isn’t a global language. But Brazilians have turned out to be a strong early indicator of global Internet phenomena — from ICQ to Hotmail to Orkut to Fotolog, Brazilians seem to have a knack for early adoption of global social platforms.”
As with Orkut, many Brazilians are fiercely devoted to Fotolog, and have found innovative uses for their site profiles, experimenting with the service as a platform for creative expression. Daniel Duende cites the case of Brazilian fashion designer Marimoon, who began her career by posting photos of her designs on the site, and now successfully markets her creations on the Internet.
Friendster: Down in the U.S., Up in Asia
Back in 2003, before the dawn of the MySpace era, Friendster was king. But as MySpace began to gain ground, Friendster saw traffic drop as people migrated to the new kid in town. By 2004 Friendster seemed to be out of fashion in the U.S., but as its popularity plummeted here, it was on the rise in Southeast Asia. In a recent article in Inc. magazine, Friendster’s director of engineering Chris Lunt says the Asian Friendster phenomenon seems to have started in the Philippines, where the site still enjoys amazing traffic.
Lunt wondered why Friendster’s web traffic was spiking in the middle of the night, and noticed that the traffic was coming from the Philippines. According to Inc., he worked backwards, looking for “patient zero,” the first American who linked to a Filipino, and found Carmen Leilani De Jesus, a marketing consultant and hypnotherapist in San Francisco. She connected to dozens of Filipinos, and eventually more than half the site’s traffic was from Southeast Asia.
Lunt’s “oh no” moment was undoubtedly related to the fear that the “American-ness” of the network might be tainted by the massive influx of foreigners, and the fact that Filipino Internet eyes are of little value to American advertisers, who are looking for local consumers to whom they can sell their wares. The Filipino Friendster phenomenon might have started with one user, but what makes it so attractive to Filipino users? I asked prominent Filipino tech blogger Abe Olandres what he thought and he told me it was all about timing: “It was the first mover in social networking in the country, and before that, nothing came close to it except for forums or message boards,” he said.
De Jesus, the American who helped bring Friendster to the Philippines, believes the service’s popularity is due to the culture of friends-helping-friends in that country.
“I personally think that Friendster took off in the Philippines because that’s a culture where friendship and ‘who you know’ is sometimes a more valuable currency than money,” she wrote on her blog. “Basically everyone has an ‘uncle’ or a ‘friend’ or a ‘relative’ who can help you get what you need based on nepotism, favoritism, friendship, etc., because not everyone has money. ‘But if you do me a favor, I’ll owe you a favor.’ This is why friendship is important, and why a platform like Friendster, which was a ‘friend-collecting’ service, took off so rapidly in the Philippine culture.”
Friendster is now alive and well in the Philippines and even enjoying mainstream popularity. Just as U.S. presidential candidates are using MySpace and Twitter to build social networks of supporters, Filipino politicians are using Friendster to reach younger folks. Olandres says that mid-term local elections in the Philippines last May brought Friendster to the political arena when Senatorial candidate Chiz Escudero (now a Senator) used his profile to bolster the support of thousands of Filipino users.
The Wall Street Journal published an article last week about the Filipino Friendster phenomenon and the growing pains the company has had with the appearance of their accidental market. Some say that Friendster’s popularity in Asia — in addition to the appearance of MySpace on the scene — is what killed the site here, while others think that this new market represents Friendster’s second chance to make it.
Hi5: Here and Abroad
While some sites fail in the U.S. and triumph elsewhere, there are others that enjoy both strong local and international user bases. One of those sites is Hi5, a social networking service launched in 2003, which boasts a staggering 60 million registered members. While Hi5 has a significant number of U.S. users, the bulk of its traffic comes from Europe and South America. Hi5 CEO and founder Ramu Yalamanchi told me that the rapid growth and international success of Hi5 can be traced to an early decision to look beyond the U.S. — something that other American social networking sites didn’t consciously do.
“No one really knew if social networking would become a global phenomenon, but we’ve had an open approach to international markets from the beginning,” he said.
Hi5’s approach has worked quite well for its business, as it became profitable just a year later with revenue coming entirely from advertising. While Friendster might have originally seen its international user base as unattractive in terms of money-making, Hi5 has found a way to make advertising profitable for them in each of their international markets by establishing partnerships with local companies, such as Portugal Telecom in Portugal and EType in the UK. Yalamanchi says that once you are in the Top 5 most popular websites for any country, selling ad inventory in those countries is seamless. And Hi5 is in the Top 5 for a number of markets, both in Europe — in Portugal it’s No. 1 — and Latin America.
No one really knows why, but Hi5 has become extremely popular among Latin Americans and Latinos in America. It’s the No. 1 or No. 2 site in most of Central America, and ranked in the Top 5 in most South American countries. In the U.S., as the Latino online population grows with no real social networking destination of its own, Hi5 is poised to serve that need. Yalamanchi says there’s room to grow in the U.S. Latino market, as well as in the markets where Hi5 already dominates. With that in mind, in 2006 the company translated the service into seven languages and has enjoyed an increase in membership as a result of their localization efforts.
The appeal of Hi5 might lie in its no-nonsense, simple approach to social networking. Even without taking into account language, it’s easy to get in and start networking quickly because of the accessibility of its user interface. And while the site still remains simple, the company has begun to invest in more localized features to further cater to its global user base, such as localized search for 70,000 cities.
Only on the Internet can we see a product developed and brought to market with one group of people in mind, only to hit it big with an entirely different audience in another part of the world — in what seems like an accidental way. With the influx of new and unexpected international users, social networking services have been forced to reconsider their relationships with users and the features they offer. No longer are they dealing with a market they already know, but they are now struggling with unknown cultures and, in some cases, languages. Hi5 honcho Yalamanchi says he believes the key to success in this business is welcoming the newcomers while still keeping your original target audience’s interests at heart. That’s a fine line to walk, and some seem to be doing it better than others.
What do you think? Why are certain sites a hit in foreign countries and less successful in the U.S.? What is it about these various cultures that might lend themselves to a certain type of social networking site? Can you think of other online services born in America that hit it big abroad? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.
UPDATE: Bob Maistros, a spokesman for Fotolog, sent me a note about the service’s growing international footprint. “Fotolog’s foothold in Latin America has now allowed it to make the trans-Atlantic leap to Southern Europe. Europe now accounts for around 20 percent of its traffic.” I wonder if the prevalence of Portuguese and Spanish languages from South America helped it catch on in Spain and Portugal. —Mark Glaser