Thursday, February 11, 2010

Networking sites promote collective voice

Online social networks and microblogging sites, where text is limited to just over 100 characters, are fast becoming the main way many people communicate in Taiwan. This is changing how high-tech and low-tech businesses reach out to consumers. Already, online communities are intermingling with the non-virtual world, with old classmates finding each other and specific groups banding together to share information. This new generation of social networking is offering people a collective voice, something not previously realized with mere blogging.

In a recent I-Survey of Eastern Online, surfing the internet ranked third as the most popular activity for Taiwanese users. The top activity for people ages 18-29 was watching television, followed by chatting. Seventy percent of the people between the ages of 13 and 29 said their friends know their web connections in blogs, MSN or Facebook, one of the most popular social networking sites.

Facebook age

Based in Palo Alto, CA, Facebook became popular in Taiwan upon introducing a Chinese-language version in 2008. The company and other microblogging sites have ignited the explosive power of social networking by organizing collective bargaining in purchasing gourmet foods to mobilizing disaster rescue workers. Its users span a wide range of age and social-economical boundaries, from elementary school kids to white-collar managers.

The Commonwealth magazine reported that the online game Happy Farm offered by Facebook was among the top most popular activities for Taiwanese users in 2009. Recently, this led Taiwan’s Premier to issue a warning to government officials not to indulge in playing this game during office hours.

Besides Facebook, Twitter and Plurk are also popular according to PC Home Online chairman Jan Hung-Tze

Collective bargaining and culture

In taking advantage of the collective online community, consumers are banding together to maximize their buying power. Taiwan’s group purchasing website “Ihergo” has accumulated about 260,000 members, mothers or grandmothers coming together to buy snacks, gourmet foods or nutritious products. The total amount of online sales of “Ihergo” reached NT$630 million (US$20 million) in 2009, a growth of over 400 percent from 2008.

Alvin Wood, co-founder of Plurk, said it is interesting that when he plurks “Good Morning” in Taiwan, he gets a dozen or even a hundred responses. This kind of phenomena would not happen in the United States. He feels that the collective culture is more appealing to Asians, who have a stronger desire to seek a connection with others. This is more so in Taipei than other Asian cities, said the Commonwealth magazine.

Taiwanese have been eager to forge interpersonal communications, which had been hidden in the traditional communities of the physical world, but can now be easily realized by plurking a “Hi” or playing an online game on Facebook.

Banding together to help

New social networking sites, once thought of as fresh online toys for the young, increased in importance during Typhoon Morakot and in its aftermath. In August 2009, Typhoon Morakot caused the worst flooding Taiwan had seen in 60 years. The disaster also led the Taiwanese to develop a massive online media. Internet surfers used Plurk and other social networks to transmit live updates of disasters to an online disaster center, supplementing the government's official disaster relief system.

During the recent Haitian earthquake, the American Red Cross made it easy to donate by asking people to simply text “HAITI” to 90999 and an automatic donation of US$10 would be deducted from the person’s cellphone bill. Online users also set up simple links to their favorite donations sites with personal appeals on their social networking page.

Why the fascination?

Commonwealth said that online users of microblogs need only spend five seconds to check out the title of a discussion topic, and if they are interested, they can connect to the official website. The initiative is entirely in their hands. These microblogs supplement the marketing gap left by websites (considered too mass market) and instant messaging services (too personalized and limited to one-to-one conversations). The contact scope of microblogging is smaller than that of websites or blogs, it is less costly, but enables a microblogger to focus on targeting consumers more precisely.
The Chinese-language version of Plurk has drawn over 300,000 members in Taiwan. A surprising array of enterprises, from breakfast shops to high-tech companies. Last May, even the 80-year-old Taiwanese opera troupe, Ming Hwa Yuan Arts and Cultural Group, began using Plurk to promote its new Taiwanese opera performances and to survey audience opinions.

Microblogging changing advertising strategies

The craze for social networks is gradually impacting existing advertising and media models. Taipei-based China Motor Corporation devoted 20 to 30 percent of its marketing budget to online social media, "almost equal to the amount spent on television commercials," asserted China Motor advertising director Jessica Kao.

Computer vendors like Acer Inc. and ASUSTeK Computer Inc. have extended their rivalry to the social networks. Acer has actively organized a Facebook community that is 2,690 strong and growing. "You would have to spend a lot of money to find that many Acer notebook PC fans," says one Acer marketing executive. The company used their Facebook page as a focus group to test consumer reaction to different notebook specifications and discovered that they liked smaller notebooks, which was markedly different from the specs originally drawn up by the company. Acer immediately adjusted its sales model. ASUS has also established a social media presence to generate anticipation for new products. It does so by engaging its users in discussions about new models.

High Tech Computer Corporation (HTC) has made an even more concerted effort to plunge into social networking, using Facebook to post videos of tests run on its latest handsets, and updating pages of product information on a daily basis. Its Facebook followers have grown into a community of 6,890 fans, who enthusiastically share their feelings about using HTC smart phones.

Consumer electronics firm BenQ has used the Plurk site as a marketing tool, claiming 1000 fans of the company’s latest news and events. One customer, who was unhappy with BenQ’s slow repair service complained directly at Plurk. BenQ’s online representative found it and responded to it right away. "If you're going to go after social media as a way to get in touch with consumers, you need to be 101 percent sincere and operate over the long term," said Luke Chen, the Project manager at BenQ. The worst thing would be for the business sector to just plunge into social media without staying engaged.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.