Japan Inc. struggles to reach out to bloggers

Kenji Hall

Calling Japan Inc. You need to find a way to reach more of Japan's online community. That's the latest message from PR powerhouse Edelman and blogosphere expert Technorati Japan. The numbers, from a new survey, speak for themselves. Though more than 85% of Japan's bloggers have written about companies or their products, just over half of these digital scribes have been contacted by companies.

You'd think companies would be eager to tap into this growing group of Internet-savvy consumers. By 2007, Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications forecasts the number of bloggers will rise to 7.8 million, from 6.2 million now, while the in-blog ad market could reach $60 million (20 times its size two years ago). The country's online community is already estimated at 85 million.

Some Internet heavyweights have created tools to connect companies and consumers. Take, for instance, online retailer Rakuten's "affiliates." Using easy-to-use freeware provided by Rakuten (and newly acquired U.S. unit LinkShare), this army of bloggers can post product reviews, recommendations and photos on their own sites. Want to buy the product? Simple. Just click on a link from the blogger's review and you'll be zipped to the product web site. Bloggers earn a minimum 1% commission on the sale and Rakuten gets 0.3%. Between April and June, nearly a third of the $1.3 billion of Rakuten's online sales were made through affiliates.

Make no mistake: This is no ConsumerReports.org.

But then again consumer activism doesn't have deep roots in Japan. Surprisingly, the Edelman-Technorati study hints that companies may not need to be as proactive about engaging Japan's blogerati as you might think.

Among the bloggers who responded to the poll, many said they get their info straight from companies. More than 70% said they they found corporate web sites to be a trustworthy sources of info, and nearly 63% said the same about companies' news releases. Considering the recent rash of product problems--anybody remember the cover-up of defects by Mitsubishi Motors a few years ago?--the stat might be hard for some to believe. It's in sharp contrast to the Edelman-Technorati poll taken in the U.S. late last year. In that study, a mere 26% said expressed faith in corporate web sites and 6% felt the same about corporate news releases. Says Edelman's top exec in North Asia, Bob Pickard: "We see a far more rapid online engagement" by U.S. companies.

So what approach should companies operating in Japan take? "Company information, company web sites, company new releases are still trusted. We're not saying drop eveything you're doing. We're saying you can supplement it with this new communication thinking," says Pickard.

The Edelman-Technorati is hardly an exhaustive study. It polled only 231 bloggers. But it's interesting to see how much the Japanese look to the authorities and Establishment for guidance (It's still common for top grads of elite colleges to flock to the posts at government ministries). Maybe companies in the U.S. struggling to connect with American consumers should try their luck in Japan--by setting up a web site.

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