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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

The Japanese Model

Blogs as a Business Tool.

  • October 19, 2007

Japan is another country: they blog differently there.

In the first place, the Japanese may blog more than anyone else. Some 127 million people live in Japan, whereas 380 million people around the world speak English as their first language. Yet there are more blog postings in Japanese than in English, according to Technorati, a Web site that tracks and counts blog posts.

More interestingly, the Japanese use blogs in different ways than North Americans do. Blogging in the United States developed as a kind of insurrectionist, populist journalism, akin to the pamphleteering of the 17th and 18th centuries, but Japanese blogs are a medium for quirky, personal expression and an easy, inexpensive way for corporations to publish on the Web. This second use suggests some interesting lessons for North American companies that have tried to do the same.

“There’s a lot more corporate blogging in small and medium-sized businesses, and I think that that’s an area where Japan has been leading the U.S.,” said Chris Alden, the chief executive and chairman of Six Apart, a start-up in San Francisco that sells blogging software and services. “They’ve realized that a huge part of their economics are now what they do online.”

In addition, Mr. Alden said, even large companies like Sony are using blogs as a way to communicate with customers. (A disclaimer: Mr. Alden was a co-founder and the chief executive of Red Herring Communications, a magazine and Web site I edited in the 1990s.)

Estimates vary by company size and how one defines a blog, but somewhere between 13 and 27 percent of Japanese companies used blogging software in 2006. By contrast, less than 10 percent of the Fortune 500 had blogs last year, according to Fortune magazine.

During a recent trip to Japan, I learned how Six Apart, an otherwise conventional Silicon Valley company of the Web 2.0 era, has built an unexpectedly large business in that country. Of the company’s 150 employees, 40 work in Japan. Six Apart is privately held and declines to reveal its finances, but Mr. Alden said one-third of its revenue comes from Japan.

When I visited its offices in Tokyo, Nobuhiro Seki, the general manager of Six Apart Japan, told me: “In the beginning, people just blogged about blogging. But Japanese companies have not had a problem using blogging for marketing, so long as they’ve been honest.” (Another disclaimer: Although I had never met him before, Mr. Seki had worked on an aborted Japanese version of Technology Review at Nikkei Business Publications. Technology is a small world.)

Mr. Seki said that there was no blogging to speak of in Japan until Six Apart came along.

Six Apart was founded by Ben and Mena Trott in 2001 because Ms. Trott wanted a better way to write her own blogs. (The name cutely recalls this married couple’s birthdays, which are six days apart.) The company has developed some of the most widely used blogging tools, including Moveable Type, a blogging “platform” that consumers and businesses can use free or for a fee, depending on the version; TypePad, a subscription service that hosts blogs; LiveJournal, a social networking service; and Vox, an online community where people can blog about shared interests.

Six Apart had a connection with Japan almost from the company’s inception. Its first investor was the Japanese entrepreneur Joichi Ito, the founder of Neoteny, a venture capital firm based in Tokyo.

“I was first a user of Moveable Type,” Mr. Ito wrote to me by e-mail. “Initially, Ben and Mena didn’t want to talk about investment, so we helped localize Moveable Type for Japanese; after we earned their trust a bit, they allowed us to invest.” (Six Apart has since raised about $23 million in venture funding, from Neoteny, August Capital, Focus Capital and Intel Capital.)

Six Apart Japan started in December 2003. The division sells TypePad through Japanese Internet service providers like Nifty and NTT Communications and Moveable Type through the Japanese communications company Softbank and other resellers. It also sells both products directly. Today, Moveable Type has the largest share of the Japanese market for blogging platforms, according to Mr. Alden. Six Apart Japan’s partners and customers include Sony, Nissan Motor and Uniqlo, an apparel retailer sometimes called the Gap of Japan.

How Nissan and Uniqlo used Six Apart’s technologies says much about how blogging has evolved in Japan, compared with the United States.

Uniqlo used Moveable Type for communications inside the company, or “intrablogging,” so that employees at the 700 stores around the world could share information and customer feedback. Because Uniqlo stores tend to have only two computers, most employees blogged by using their mobile phones – a comfortable activity for Japanese Internet users, 59 percent of whom commonly gain access to the Web from both their computers and their phones.

More daringly, Nissan chose to blog to the broader public about its new Skyline car for a year before the vehicle’s release.

“Nissan Motors was very advanced,” said Ichiro Kiyota, Six Apart Japan’s director of corporate marketing. “Nissan invited 50 people who were very keen on motors and professional drivers to test the car and then say what they thought about it. The company very cleverly allowed critics to have their say, and so the blog seemed authentic.”

Mr. Seki noted that Japanese corporate blogs, despite the country’s international reputation for formality, often have a personal voice; executives and employees blog on business-related matters about which they feel passionately. That’s because Japanese blogs grew out of the country’s highly individualistic blogging culture, which, unlike North American blogging, has never aspired to the status of new-media journalism.

“Most business blogs in Japan are talking to customers – selling to people – as if they were friends and family,” Mr. Seki said.

By contrast, most North American companies, particularly big corporations, have struggled to use blogs effectively. They’ve blogged, but with the ghastly unease of one’s high school headmaster trying to rap. Or they’ve blogged with collectively rigid self-control, remaining resolutely on-message and uninteresting. Or they’ve nervously disallowed comments on their blogs, stripping the medium of the interaction that is one of its cardinal features.

In many cases, companies in the United States have eschewed blogging altogether, relying on static, informational Web sites that have garnered few search-engine links and therefore attracted little Internet traffic. That strategy misses an opportunity for more effective marketing and does not help sales.

“What’s going on in Japan is that there are a lot of bloggers with a capital “B” like you’d find in the states,” Mr. Alden said. “But you’ve also got a lot of businesses that are using blog software as lightweight content management systems.”

Look east. American companies might do worse than imitating Japan’s business blogs.

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