The Japanese Translation

In the U.S. we are accustomed to hearing anecdotes about the advanced state of mobile media and marketing in Japan. It is an article of faith in our industry that many Asian markets are years ahead of us in their mobile revolutions. But in most cases, the vision is just that, anecdotal. And so I was fascinated by one of the most compact but comprehensive profiles I have seen of the Japanese case from the research firm Infinita at A six-page summary of the company's new research report, "21st Century Mobile Marketing," by Christopher Billich, is available free and well worth the read.

While understanding all too well the differences between the Japanese and U.S. mobile industries and infrastructures, Billich draws an enticing image of what this platform could become. For instance, he says that a browser-based "mobagetown" suite of games and virtual worlds is the most popular mobile content destination in Japan, with over 9 million registered users and 17 billion page views. Coke branded a version of the site and netted 1 million sign-ups and 350,000 Coke avatar users. Nike pushes exclusive mobagetown content via QR scan codes that users entered in-store. Both campaigns demonstrated a level of brand integration on phones that remains rare even on the Web today in the U.S.

Mobile search, which is a total muddle here, is used by a third of Japanese customers on a daily basis to find content. Mobile search accelerated quickly in the past year after the major carriers decided to partner rather than resist the major search brands and let users access both on deck and off deck content from the same box. Billich says that a quarter of mobile ad revenues now come from search as all parties come to realize that an open platform drives revenue for everyone. Contextual ads from these same engines are emerging besides third-party content. Billich thinks that in the next four years 60% of mobile ad revenues will be search-related. Here in the U.S. we are still arguing over who should own the search box and where it should lead, and consumers react accordingly. Search on a U.S. mobile deck is like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You know the rest.

Mobile ad spending in Japan was $621 million last year, up 60%, while the rest of the ad market was nearly flat. The platform still accounts for 1% of all ad spend, and Japanese consumers spend about 4% of their media mind share with mobile. But there is no big secret to mobile gaining an extraordinary toehold in this market. The playbook is not new here. Standards, cross-platform interoperability and marketing industry outreach are all the usual suspects. Carriers coordinated standards like QR Codes and HTML email and coordinated the rollouts to the markets. The carriers worked together with a major ad agency to create a joint subsidiary that developed standard metrics and allowed cross-carrier buys.

The Japanese instance is far from ideal or fully evolved, to be sure. Accurate measurement, weak mobile search algorithms, and overly complex media buying bedevil this region just as they do ours.

And we can argue all we want about the key cultural and infrastructural differences between the U.S. and Japanese cases, how this level of cooperation and standardization can't happen here. But on some level, it does have to happen here. Users need to know what kind of material a mobile search box (anywhere, from anyone) will deliver them in order to use it. Media buyers need to make easier buys with greater reach without having to worry about a campaign's compatibility over a hundred handsets. Content providers need to know they will make money off  a robust ad eco-system and revenue shares with carriers that actually encourage investment not mere experimentation. And, ultimately, the consumers need mobile content that is compelling enough to use.

We are not there yet, and arguably neither is Japan or anyone. But they seem to know and acknowledge that getting there requires top-level cooperation and coordination among rivals.

So far, that obvious lesson is getting lost in translation.




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