Six Apart executives have been more than generous with their time and resources in helping us research this book. Among the most helpful was Nob Seki, Six Apart’s EVP and general manager for Japan who helped us with our chapter on non-English-speaking business blogs. Nob spoke to us during a visit of his to the company’s San Francisco headquarters. We enjoyedturning tables on Nob, who is a former reporter for Nikkei business publications, the largest such publisher in Japan where he used to cover IT and interviewed such luminaries as Oracle’s Larry Ellison. He's more accustomed, it seemed to asking questions rather than having to answer them. Nob’s English was excellent. The following are excerpts from our 90-minute face-to-faceconversation.
Q. How is blogging impacting Japanese culture?
This is a very tough question. You are focusing on business people blogging. When Japanese people start blogging, they usually do it personally, not as business people. Japanese people are different at work than they are at home. At home, they behave as individuals and are informal. It’s different when they are business people at the office. When you leave the office, you can easily become very personal. The interesting part is the business blog. Most business blogs in Japan are very personal. They are talking to customers—selling to people— as if they were friends or family.
This is different from companies where the tone is very formal. To companies, blogs are a new way to talk to customers, less formal than webpages or brochures.
Take, for example, Nissan's blog [written by a product manager and promoting a new city car]. Rather than taking a formal corporate tone, it shows a personal character—a Nissan person. It is interesting to see people talking personally to customers as if they were friends or family. By contrast, Web pages are usually very formal. It is a new way to talk to customers. This can be a better way to talk to customers.
Q. Is it a cultural shock to have businesses talking on a personal level?
Not a shock. Japanese people are not shocked because they are used to switching from formal to informal ways. If you are president of the company you should be very formal, but people think the blog doesn’t have to be formal. Japanese sales people are very friendly and informal to customers. It's not a shock at all.
Q. How is MovableType (MT) doing in Japan?
MT is doing very well in Japan. It is sold both online and in shrink-wrapped CD-ROM version. The shrink-wrap is more popular for businesses, particularly big companies, because they hate credit card payments. Companies would prefer to pay by invoice through their procurement departments. Most Japanese people don't have corporate credit cards. The shrink-wrap distribution is mostly Softbank, who sells to VARs and resellers, who then sell into companies.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs), usually just buy online. In both large and small companies, Movable Type is used by workgroups for the most part and not across an entire enterprise yet.
Q. How has blogging changed over last 12 months?
Before 2003, nobody in business blogged in Japan. When Six Apart -Japan was established December 2003, people thought we were crazy because there was no blogging market and no expected market. But we started offering blogging tools and after six months, there were many kinds of blogging services and a great many blogs. In the beginning, small e-commerce sites were the only Movable Type business users. These were companies who understood or pursued Search Engine Optimization (SEO) effects. They understood that blogging makes money and they used it to double or triple income because the blog boosted Google rankings. Then, many ISPs and portals started introducing free blogging services. Consumers started blogging, got familiar and comfortable with blogging. Most recently, business people started realizing that blogging tools could be used to replace HTML on websites. Now, they realize the blog has other values. They’ve started asking Six Apart about applications. We told them about marketing and better communication with customers using the blog. Also, internal blogs became much more popular in the last year.
Last September (2004), bigger businesses started introducing blogs. Two such examples are Nissan Motors and Proctor & Gamble-Japan.
Q. Is blogging viewed as a serious business tool in Japan?
Nikkei Business magazine (Japan’s leading business magazine) recently wrote an 18-page story on word-of-mouth. It started among students’ word-of-mouth, then gave business examples. Some of them include blogs. The story concludes, TV advertising is no longer influential, so companies got more interested in word-of-mouth on the Internet, making companies more interested in blogging. Nissan Motors is one example. They now see blogging, not just SEO and HTML issues, but because blogs succeed in getting consumers to participate through Trackback.
Q. Trackback seems to be an even bigger deal in Japan than it is in the US? Why is that?
Trackback makes a very big difference in Japan. Companies find comments get very negative. People write nastier in comments than they do in Trackbacks. So companies don't allow comments but encourage Trackbacks.
Q. As time goes by, are comments becoming more acceptable in Japan?
No. These days, newspapers are covering the blogging phenomenon. Most coverage attributes the success of blogs to Trackback. Comments.
Q. What do you do about negative comments? This is a big issue among American businesses. How do people feel about turning off comments in Japan?
There's a lot of history about this in Japan. In December 2003, Nifty Corp.—a Japanese ISP and a subsidiary of Fujitsu—became TypePad's first licensee worldwide. Before Nifty introduced the blog service, Japan’s largest bulletin board—called Channel 2 – were very famous. Channel 2 is very anonymous. People write about anything, without saying who they are. It sometimes gets very nasty, sometimes used for criminal stuff—even once for a murder announcement. A teenager once announced a murder before he actually committed it. Bulletin boards are chaos. They are mostly anonymous and people focus on the darkside because they can be anonymous.
When Nifty was about to introduce the blogging service, they hesitated to let the blog accept bad comments. They didn't want blogs to have the same bad image as bulletin boards. They decided to refrain from using any comments, but instead, asked people to use Trackback, because it is traceable. Their blog is a success, in part, because the Trackbacks were less nasty than comments. Plus people start their own blogs so that they could make comments on other blogs.
Nifty showed other companies how they could use blogs, because they want in on the conversations that are going on over the Internet. Recruit is a magazine publishing company who decided to use Movable Type for newly introduced magazine websites because it was easier. Some people at Recruit had personal blogs. They learned that Trackback generated better quality comments. Senior people were afraid of nasty Trackbacks and warned they would shut the blog down if that happened. Instead, they got many positive quality comments. What started as just a small test, now has Recruit using Trackback for every magazine issue.
Proctor and Gamble —Japan also counted on Trackbacks in part when they incorporated a blog into a marketing program to introduce a new detergent along with TV and advertising campaigns. The major focus was to get housewives to talk about their experience regarding washing. They could answer by email, Trackback or their own blog. The results were great. Houswives introduced many interesting and funny stories regarding washing. Housewives are heavy browsers, perhaps more than men. They like online diaries.
Q. Do you have any additional examples?
Japan’s BK1, is one of the big online book sellers. It started a Movable Type site in July 2004., selecting employees to blog about books, letting visitors actually buy the book by clicking on a shopping cart in the blog. After three months, they evaluated the effect of the blog. After three months, the traffic had increased by 10-20% and sales have increased 5-10 % (after adjusting for the impact of a new Harry Potter book).
Q. Tell me about the Nissan site and what makes it special.
Nissan’s marketing agency decided to use a blog to introduce TIIDA, a city car available only in Japan. It’s actually a very commercial site, on each day, it talks about a specific feature. What generated much interest is that the blog always begins with: "I am Yamamoto from Nissan Motors.” This is very famous because in Japan, such managers usually don’t get to introduce themselves to the public site like this.
(Interesting thing is, since Japanese use surnames,so we don't know if Yamamoto is a man or woman. People think this is a man because of the tone of wording, but people cannot tell. (Shel, this is not related to Nissan’s stuff, but it may interest American readers, so leave this phrase if you want))
What makes TrackBack so appealing in Japan?
Trackback is one way to communicate with other people. Comments are easier.
I'm not sure why TB is so popular, but many Japanese people think about Trackback as something different [from comments]. Trackback makes the blog different from the web or [other ordinary] Internet marketing.
The online diary in Japan is also interesting to me. Even though these are diaries, they are using Trackbacks. Trackback is one way to communicate. Why do diaries need Trackbacks? I use comments because they are easy and straighforward. Japanese people feel more offended than American people when you get comments. That’s why I guess Trackbacks get more popular than comments. It may be cultural things. Japanese are not so good at listening to opposing opinions. Japanese culture doesn't allow you to make direct negative comment because its impolite. I shouldn't talk directly to you. Trackback is indirect. Comment is very direct. Maybe, this is why Trackbacks are so appealing to Japanese people.