Universal McCann: U.S. Trails World In Social Media Growth

The country that gave the Web both MySpace and Facebook turns out to be a world-class laggard when it comes to social media growth.

The U.S. trails emerging markets such as China, Brazil and Russia in the adoption of activities including blogging, social networking and video-sharing. China, for instance, has already surpassed the U.S. in the number of people starting their own blogs, at 43 million compared to 26.4 million.

Meanwhile, online social network membership in countries such as Brazil, Russia, Taiwan and Mexico is growing at more than 70% compared to less than 49% in the U.S.

"We tend to think of ourselves (in the U.S.) as leaders, but we're just catching up with the rest of the world," said Graeme Hutton, senior vice president and director of consumer insights at Universal McCann, in a presentation Wednesday at the Advertising Research Foundation's Re:think 2008 conference in New York.

Hutton and colleague Tom Smith, research manager, EMEA at Universal McCann, discussed findings from the agency's two-year-old research project studying social media consumption in 29 countries and 17,000 respondents in its latest phase.

Besides comparing usage by region, the ongoing study also tracks social media uptake according to demographic factors such as age and gender, and by social media format.

While the U.S. as social media also-ran may seem surprising, it's partly a result of it's being a mature media market. "The markets that are leading don't have the same panoply of media, so they leapfrog ahead," Hutton said. "Social media is the new form of expression; it's a new way of doing things."

Thus, a higher percentage of people globally have done things like watched a video clip, created a profile page, and downloaded a podcast, at least once, compared to people in the U.S.

Nevertheless, the U.S. remains a dynamic market for social media. Among the fastest-growing categories since the start of 2008 are watching online video (more than 70% have done so at least once), downloading a podcast (30%), and subscribing to an RSS feed (almost 20%).

In the U.S., "social media is a long way yet from saturation," Hutton said. "The opportunity to learn, to test and invest is still substantial." The full impact of the first generation of social media won't be realized for another three years or so, he added.

Among other global trends highlighted is a gradual shift to greater participation in social media. People typically move from more passive to active types of engagement. While 83% have watched a video clip, 64% have now also shared a clip with a friend and 38% have uploaded a clip.

Likewise, 73% have read blogs, but 58% have also left a comment and 38% have started their own blog. Overall, Asia leads the way in content creation, and blogging in particular.

The gap in social media participation by age isn't as wide as one might expect, especially in more passive types of involvement. About 65% of those ages 45 to 54 in the U.S., for example, have watched online video, compared to nearly 90% of those ages 16 to 24.

But the highest levels of active engagement skew toward those under 35.

Age differences were more pronounced in attitudes toward social media, with younger people predictably more enthusiastic. So, 65% of 16- to-24-year-olds said blogging is a good way to express yourself, compared to less than 35% of those ages 45 to 54.

Similarly, while men and women participate in social media about equally, women attached greater importance to online social platforms.

What about social networks as the next big advertising bonanza? Not so fast, said Hutton. While the promise is great, "it doesn't mean to say that you can use social media as you can with other forms of advertising--in fact, that's the worst possible thing you can do," he said.

For now, "it's really about promotions, sponsorships, and bringing in different forms of participation rather than trying to do classic advertising."

The world is still waiting for a company to do for social media, what Google did for search. "Google didn't become Google by offering banner ads--they leveraged their core strength, which is search," Hutton said. The key to monetizing social media has yet to be found.

The next phase of the Universal McCann study will look more closely at social media activity on mobile devices.

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