Facebook & co. have long since become part of digital everyday life. This doesn’t just apply to the private sector: social media is also a valuable tool in marketing and in maintaining contacts between companies and their customers, serving as a source of information, a means of evaluation and a means of communication. However, the same rules don’t apply everywhere in the world: companies should also take cultural differences into account in their social media strategies.
Digitalization has turned our use of media completely upside down. Thanks to Web 2.0, users are no longer passive; instead, they’re producers and consumers at the same time. This means that PR and advertising content can flow quickly and directly in both directions. Companies address their customers directly and benefit from the direct return of unfiltered information. International platforms, such as Facebook and Weibo, China’s largest microblogging service, play an especially important role here, as companies can easily get in direct contact with their target group. And according to a Nielsen study, 70 percent of Internet users trust assessments and ratings from other customers on these platforms.
However, it is precisely the global nature of the networks used by billions of people that tempts people to derive globally valid measures and strategies for social media marketing. Cultural peculiarities are rarely taken into account – a neglect of country-specific characteristics that, ideally, should increasingly come into the focus of marketing departments. Because what works well on Facebook in the US can fall on deaf ears on Weibo in China and vice versa. This applies to all areas of content generation – from text, images and videos to interactive elements such as competitions and general considerations on the mixing ratio of informative and entertaining aspects.
Context is everything
But how do we approach these differences? Culture is a complex system; the once prevailing assumption of homogenization, claiming that people acquire corresponding values and norms through the consumption of similar goods, has been outdated since the 1990s at the latest. As a result, marketing for the same products in different regions of the world needs to bow to the assessment and communication models there in order to be successful. The cultural theory by anthropologist Edward T. Hall has proved helpful in being able to place these manifold differences in an understandable framework: fundamentally, Hall differentiates between so-called high- and low-context cultures. This division is particularly meaningful in the juxtaposition of Western and Asian hegemonial powers.
Communication in high-context cultures, such as China, Japan, and Korea, is usually more implicit, indirect, and abstract. Low-context cultures, such as the US or Ireland, treat information more directly and explicitly. As the concept says: the context makes the music. Numerous other aspects of the Hall model can be used to derive ideal-typical, culture-specific communication peculiarities, which also and especially have an impact on social media. And, in turn, these special features allow recommendations for social media marketing of international companies in their respective markets.
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High vs. Low
For example, it’s appropriate to use more distinct content types in high-context countries than in low-context ones, as information as such is in the foreground in the latter. In Asian countries, on the other hand, a wide variety of websites with numerous animations and similar elements are preferred. Moreover, communication is seen more as an art form here than in Western countries. Therefore, content should be more entertaining and less informative in high-context countries than in low-context countries. The same applies to the accompanying text for photos, which should be longer in China or Japan than in the US or Germany. Videos can also be culturally specific in terms of entertainment: because the aim in high-context countries is to create interesting, impressive, exciting and detailed communication, videos should also be longer and more narrative than in low-context countries, where the focus is on information content.
There are also differences in the importance of interpersonal relationships; in Asia, harmony and a good relationship level take precedence over problem-solving and task management. This should also be reflected in social media communication – it makes sense to interact more emotionally with customers in Asia than in the West. Another factor is the perception of efficiency and time usage. Time is used efficiently in low-context cultures; diversions and distractions are rare. In high-context cultures, many tasks are performed in parallel; digressions are the rule. That is why it makes sense to increase the frequency of social media posts in countries like China; unlike in the US, for example, they’re seen not as a distraction, but as welcome input.
Many different content types
Focus on entertaining content
Long accompanying text with photos
Longer videos with narrative content
Emotional interaction with the customer
High frequency of social media posts
Concentration on a few content types
Focus on information
Shorter photo texts
Shorter videos with a focus on information
More objective interaction
Lower post frequency
These recommendations are just the first step towards a differentiated view of culturally specific customer communication in social media. Many companies have already started rethinking their marketing strategies and marketing their products globally, but with local characteristics in exchange with their target groups. However, these approaches are still quite rudimentary; in light of the major dynamics of social media, much more effort will be required here in the future.
The following articles may also be of interest:
Anja Corduan, “Social Media as an Instrument of Customer Communication: Comparative Study of Companies in China, Germany, and the US,” Springer Fachmedien, Wiesbaden 2018, 511 pages, €74.99