Marketers should prepare for a shift in the global balance of social media

"If you want to predict the future of social, you could do worse than watch China"
"If you want to predict the future of social, you could do worse than watch China"

The comforting phrase "social is local" has echoed through marketing departments for a while now. Comforting because it suggests it's enough to have experienced, tech-savvy people, who know their own community backyard, representing the brand on the ground.

No question, local intelligence is vitally important. But as this year unfolds, we’re going to see some shifts in how social-media marketing operates around the globe. Call it a new form of "social migration" that global marketers, in particular, should pay attention to. I say this for a few reasons:

1. The growth of the biggest social networks now depends on new geographic territories

If you’re Facebook, what do you do once you have 1.23bn monthly active users on your platform (813m on mobile, 60% of whom return daily)? You take your now mobile-first platform, commit to making it more efficient so it uses less bandwidth in markets where that really matters, and set about putting the technological infrastructure in place to accelerate the provision of internet connectivity "for the next 5bn".

This is exactly what Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is doing via, announced last year. It is clearly both a philanthropic and commercial move: two-thirds of the world without access to the internet represents a giant growth opportunity. Facebook isn’t alone in looking further afield; aside from its partners in (Samsung, MediaTek, Ericsson, Nokia, Opera and Qualcomm), Twitter’s IPO last year revealed it was targeting Argentina, France, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa for faster growth than the US.

2. Mobile powers the pace of the shift

New behaviours often make existing services redundant, but the explosion in mobile penetration and use worldwide, creating what the World Economic Forum calls a "dramatically altered business environment" across Africa, for example, has allowed the top social platforms to continue to grow, despite newer players arriving and scaling at vertigo-inducing pace – China’s WeChat, plus WhatsApp, SnapChat and Instagram, being among the most salient. With social, if your service is mobile-first, a rising tide floats all boats.

If you want to predict the future of social, you could do worse than watch China.

3. Cultural importers can export, too

This time last year in Beijing, I heard Alfred Dunhill’s CMO, Jason Beckley, speak about bringing a luxury British brand to the world. He was refreshingly open-minded: "Our market is in migration," he surmised. "We’d be naïve if we thought luxury will always be an imported idea."

The same is true of technology. If you want to predict the future of social and mobile, you could do worse than watch China. It’s not just about the giant data pool: the market is home to trailblazing companies like mobile outfit XiaoMi, with its eyes set on a global market. Or take WeChat’s early rebranding for global roll-out and its omnivorous approach to development: originally a messaging service, it now offers photo-sharing and filters, games and taxi bookings, with deeper m-commerce on the near horizon.

I’d suggest we get used to the idea of "guanxi", a Chinese term meaning both personal and business networks or connections, extending into Europe and the US this year.

Taobao, Jack Ma’s equivalent of eBay but several times the size, recently published a list of the hottest shopping keywords its users searched for during 2013. You may think it’s too early to get excited about keeping up with the rise of "tuhao", buying yellow ducks and avoiding "peng ci", but as technology businesses set about smashing geographic barriers and consumption gets more collaborative, I wouldn’t bet on it.

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