Eye on the Industry: A Look Ahead to the 2011 Global Social Network Environment

The following is a post from Kevin Olivieri, TIG Global Social Media Analyst.

Six months is a long time in business these days and lots has changed. Since my last report in July, a plethora of transformations have shaken up the marketplace. From redesigns and new launches, to privacy concerns and brand new social frontiers – social networks made major moves and continued to grow worldwide at an astounding clip. I’ve compiled a broad outline of the recent changes, geared to provide insight into both social networks and the market abroad, as well as predictions for 2011. Enjoy!

Facebook, Twitter, & LinkedIn Evolve
To say the last half of 2010 was an important time for Facebook would be a massive understatement. Facebook joined in on the geosocial trend with its ‘Places’ offering, reworked their ‘Groups’ product for tighter personal networks, unveiled a completely revamped and all encompassing ‘Messages’ forum designed to streamline our conversations, and even more recently, a redesigned personal profile page seemingly aimed at taking users away from LinkedIn, all while increasing its user base to almost 600M! Not to mention the fact that Facebook overtook Google as the most popular online destination, signaling a huge victory in the battle for online supremacy.

Meanwhile, Twitter also underwent significant changes in a quest for more users. In August, Twitter revealed its newly redesigned site, aptly named Twitter 2.0, that supports various media content while experimenting with monetization efforts to capture coveted advertising money through their ‘Promoted’ features (trends, users, tweets) and approaching the 200M user mark, a milestone that is expected to arrive by early next year (even though growth was stalling in the US).

Not to be outdone, LinkedIn introduced new features to their site including newly designed company pages and the ability to ‘Follow’ companies, which has helped their growth reach a rate of one new member every second across the globe.

Top Trends and Statuses
When you ponder just how big social media’s reach has gotten, look no further than the top trends in status updates this year. Social media often gets a bad rap for as a gateway to personal overexposure, but you will notice that trends in posted content reveal far more than what the user ate for breakfast. The World Cup, Haiti’s earthquake, the Chilean Miners, and the BP Oil Spill are all global events that affected users in many different ways and dominated the top 10 trends and statuses for 2010. Whether it was tragedies or triumphs, social networking sites proved to be the best way for individuals to communicate and connect with others on a global scale. This goes to show that social sites are forging past mere kids play and reaching educated and influential individuals across all communities.

International Growth
In the grand scheme of the social networking scene, Facebook and Twitter continued to gain millions of new international users. Twitter has experienced international growth of 79.4% compared to last year, with a steady clip of growth each month. Facebook has seen its international presence also rise as it became the leading social networking site in Poland, Hungary, Mongolia, Paraguay, and as I predicted, India (to go along with their other 100+ countries). You can take a closer look with the map below.

Of course, in any battle, there are casualties. As Facebook has seen success in international markets, it has done so at the expense of countless regional social networking sites. Over the last few months it seems European home-grown social networks have taken the biggest hit from Facebook’s growth. In the Netherlands, regional site Hyves with over 10M users and 68% penetration, is currently for sale. Poland’s former top site, Nasza Klasa, was recently sold off and NetLog, “Europe’s MySpace”, is rumored to be going on sale soon too. The issue with local social networks is the fact that people today want the ability to connect with others all across the globe to share content and ideas. And with Facebook being the most globally connected social network, it’s not a surprise to see users leave regional sites and sign up for the leading site.

Facebook, Twitter, & LinkedIn Abroad
Internationally, as mentioned before, Facebook continues its ‘world domination’ in its crusade to make itself the preeminent social networking site across the globe. With big victories in India, Poland, Hungary, Mongolia, and Paraguay, Facebook’s reach continues to expand to almost 600M users, up from 350M users at the start of January. As internet continues to become more available across borders and the desire to connect with people, groups, and businesses from across the world in real-time grows, Facebook will continue to increase its user base at an impressive clip into 2011.

Just as Facebook’s global reach has increased, so too has Twitters as it has become the number two social network in many important economies including Canada, UK, and Australia, as well as third most popular in the USA, Italy, Germany, and France. But perhaps the most striking development has been its explosive growth in Latin America (305%), Asia Pacific (243%), Africa/Middle East (142%), and Europe (106%) over the last year. More importantly, it seems Twitter has succeeded in nations where Facebook has faltered, especially in Japan where it has seen a 428% increase in user base this year and Brazil, who now boasts the highest Twitter penetration in the world.

Not to be outdone by Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn is quickly finding a broad, niche audience. This professional network is rapidly growing, signing up one new user every second while becoming the 3rd most popular social networking site in the UK, Canada, and Australia. LinkedIn is in for quite the skirmish with Facebook as the two will increasingly compete for businesses in 2011.

BRIC Countries
As BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies continued to grow along with their burgeoning middle class, so too does their importance to businesses worldwide. In the social networking realm, some interesting statistics were brought to light over the last few months involving BRIC countries. Whether it’s the fact only 10% of the online populations in both Brazil and Russia ARE NOT on social networks, or maybe the fact China has the highest percentage of online population interacting with social media, or even the news India has ditched Orkut for a new number one social networking site, BRIC countries are online in force– but where are they?

A mighty BRIC has fallen. It was only a matter of time until Indian Internet users made Facebook the most popular social networking site in the country over Orkut. With a rapidly growing economy, rising middle class, and increasing Internet availability for a population of over 1B, Facebook’s couldn’t have asked for a better country to gain momentum in (ok, maybe China). If Facebook can stay in the minds as new users in the region are exposed to the Internet, Facebook could see a huge explosion in numbers of users in a country with a population over 1 billion.

Unlike India, Brazil’s online population continues to stick with Orkut, even though surrounding countries in the region have moved to Facebook. Facebook has, however seen quite a bit of growth within the South American country, especially in the 25+ age range, as it’s grown fivefold since last year. On the flip side, Twitter has really been embraced by Brazilians, helping make Brazil the highest Twitter penetration for a country at 23% and continually growing.

Russia has proven itself as not just a powerful economic force, but also a powerful social networking force with recent statistics showing Russia has the most engaged social networking audience worldwide. The 34.5M users spend approximately 9.2 hours each month communicating and sharing content on social networking sites. Even with the highest numbers in the world, Russia stays strong with regional social networks like VKontakte (Facebook clone) and Odnoklassniki instead of Facebook. One of the driving forces of VKontakte’s dominance over Facebook is the ability listen to and view pirated music and movies (translated in Russian) within the site for users. Even so, Facebook has seen an upward trend in signups over the last 6 months as the site’s user base has almost tripled. One interesting development over the last month is the fact that VKontakte will be partnering with Yandex, Russia’s biggest search engine, to provide social search results (think if Google partnered with Facebook for searches).

Last but not least, the biggest BRIC of them all, China. Where Russia holds the most engaged social networking crown, China is the king of social media engagement, with a reported 92% of Chinese on some form of social media channel. Unfortunately for non-Chinese companies, Facebook and Twitter still are blocked by the “Great Firewall of China”, allowing local social networking sites such as RenRen, QZone, and Kaixin001 to flourish. Even though these sites are banned, Chinese Internet users still find ways to access them as Facebook and Twitter have seen growth in China. To circumvent citizens from using Twitter, China has recently released their own state-run microblogging site, a sort of ‘Communist Twitter’ and a new study expects microblogging in China to grow to around 100M users in 2011. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have made their intentions for international expansion clear and it certainly involves China. And just this week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was spotted at the HQ of China’s biggest search engine Baidu, further signifying Facebook’s interest in the Chinese market and its hundreds of millions of online citizens.

2011 International Social Networking Predictions and Musings
If 2010 was any indication, 2011 will be another banner year for social networking sites as we continue to bridge the gap between people across the world and technological advancements make the web increasingly more available to everyone. Expect Facebook to continue its march onward to usurp regional social networking sites outside of Brazil, Russia, and China. Additionally, I expect growth of Facebook in Brazil and Russia to surge over the year. Although none of the remaining BRIC countries will fall, I expect the momentum to build enough to make Facebook THE social network for Russia and Brazil in 2012.

As for Twitter, even though the growth in the US has apparently stalled, I still believe it will become the 2nd most popular social networking site in the country by year’s end. I also believe its ability to disseminate news and share content and ideas in real-time will help build a bigger user base across the globe, especially as Internet-enabled mobile phones continue to become more available. I’ll also predict Twitter to emerge as the 2nd most popular social networking site, behind Facebook, and even #1 in Brazil and Japan. We’re also going to see a lot more international businesses set up shop on Facebook and Twitter (and LinkedIn for B2B) and truly take it seriously with well thought out strategies and planning while integrating these channels into their everyday business processes.

Lastly, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict Facebook is no longer blocked in China by the end of 2011, although it will be a relatively censured version of the platform with a fair deal of content “blocked” by Facebook.

It’s going to be VERY interesting to see how Google +1, Google’s newest foray into social services, pans out over the year and if it proves to be a fresh take on social connectedness or if it fails. Only time will tell. (Don’t forget to check back here next year for my more in-depth Regional Social Networking specific posts for better understanding how social networks are being used internationally for businesses.) Until then, Happy New Year and stay social!

What do you think of the predictions for 2011? Can any of the other BRIC’s “fall” to Facebook? Any chance Facebook is allowed in China? Will Google +1 succeed or fail? Will Twitter continue to stall in the US? Sound off in the comments section and let us know what you think about the future global social network environment.

Interested in ramping up your social strategy? Learn more about the TIG Global suite of interactive services, send us an email, or give us a call at 301-841-4700.

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