When Twitter recently joined forces with Mixi to compete against Facebook in Japan, many asked, \"What in the world is Mixi?\" International marketers must understand that social media can be very different in other countries.

When news recently broke that Twitter is joining forces with Mixi to compete against Facebook in Japan, the question on the lips of most Americans was, “What in the world is Mixi?”

Since MySpace long ago became what Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live calls “the abandoned amusement park of the Internet,” people in the United States often see Facebook – and perhaps Twitter and Linkedin – as the social network for the world and are oblivious to alternatives like Japan’s Mixi.

Companies looking to include social media outreach in an international marketing plan must be aware that a U.S. Facebook marketing strategy is not a one-size-fits-all solution for best results in all other markets. International social media marketers must be familiar with local networks, communicate in the appropriate language, adapt to local culture and maintain an in-country presence with living, breathing people who keep it “social.”

International social networks

Yes, Facebook’s dominance is spreading internationally, but other social networks still have strong presences in other countries. In addition to Mixi in Japan, other notable sites include Orkut in Brazil and VKontakte in Russia.

Since Facebook access has been blocked in China since 2009, Qzone dominates that market with hundreds of millions of users. Other local Chinese networks like RenRen also benefit from protectionism against international competition. Perhaps something similar will happen in India if Facebook refuses to filter content as that government has recently requested.

“Orkut visitors in Brazil are far more engaged than their Facebook counterparts,” explains Internet marketing researcher comScore, Inc. in the whitepaper “The Rise of Social Networking in Latin America.” “An average visitor to Orkut spent 4.3 hours on the site in June 2011, while a visitor to spent 1.6 hours during the month.”

To achieve the best social media marketing results, international marketers will need to identify the top networks in each market and develop plans to adapt to the way international consumers behave online. This adaptation must include localization in the local language and culture to avoid some of the embarrassing scenarios that have discussed regularly in this column.

Multilingual networking

Social networks themselves have noticed a need to communicate with users in other languages, and many are localizing their user interfaces into dozens of languages. Facebook has been translated for an impressive 74 locales, largely thanks to translation crowdsourcing.

These networks are also enabling instant communications. The new has branded itself the “multilingual social network” with instant translation of posted messages to bridge the gap between multilingual friends. Facebook has taken a similar route by adding automatic translation options to posts via Microsoft’s Bing Translator. Enterprise-level social networking platforms such as Jive and Telligent are also integrating with translation platforms to facilitate multilingual communication.

Although platform menus are already multilingual and posts can be translated automatically, companies aiming to advertise on one of these sites will still need to ensure core messages are translated or transcreated – completely redone for ideal adaptation in the target language – by human professionals.

Cultural adaptation

Mere translation of a U.S. marketing campaign is usually not enough to drive success in marketing to foreign social media users. Cultural adaptation to local social media customs is also crucial, especially since this is marketing is targeting a culture within a culture.

“In most Western cultures having a real photo creates credibility, and in some Eastern cultures it creates discomfort,” explains international social media expert Cindy King on her eponymous website. “Cartoon avatars work much better.”

For this reason, Mixi adopts highly relevant features that appeal to Japanese users. For instance, it allows anonymity that is not permitted by Facebook. Mixi also goes a step farther by allowing shy Japanese users to add friends without ever being so bold as to actually request a connection; users create lists of potential friends and Mixi quietly makes connections where it sees matches.

The social networks themselves have also seen failures in cultural adaptation. For example, Facebook was criticized earlier this year for inviting Russian users to announce children on the way, even though speaking of the unborn is considered bad luck in Russia.

Local hires

Finally, successful international social media marketing campaigns require skilled marketers to not only plan and implement these campaigns according to local language and culture, but also to keep the messages lively and, well, social.

The Clearasil brand saw huge success in Russia with the help of Russian marketing agency LLC Grape. Grape created a culturally relevant, Russian language campaign on VKontakte. The agency’s cleverly engaging efforts connected Clearasil with more than 500,000 online participants and increased annual sales in the country by 30 percent.

International social media marketing is more than creating an English Facebook page for an international audience. Brands like Clearasil that understand this reality and adapt to different international networks in language and culture will see more international success than those that do not.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..