Big International Social Networks Are Closing In On Facebook

Last year, Facebook marked a new milestone in its nine-year history. It lost users.

While the network did pass the 1 billion monthly active user threshold globally in 2012, Facebook also lost 1.4 million U.S. monthly active users late last year, a small but symbolic decline. Nor was it the only network experiencing a slowdown.

After years of double-digit expansion, social media use in the U.S. leveled off markedly last year. American social media users grew an estimated 6.8% in 2012, a far cry from 30 percent growth rates just a few years ago. With so many of the country’s 221 million netizens already logging into social networks, growth is forecast to slow to a trickle in the years ahead.

Overseas, however, the social media landscape is entirely different.

In India, social media users grew by an estimated 51.7% in 2012, no small change in a country of 1.25 billion people. Indonesia followed closely behind with a 51.6% growth rate. China’s social media user base expanded 19.9%. Latin America grew at a 16.3% clip, while Russia grew by 11.1%.

To be sure, an ever-growing number of these international users are turning to Facebook. In fact, Facebook is now estimated to be the most popular social network in all but 10 countries.

But there are numerous and notable holdouts. Around the world, localized, country-specific social networks are expanding, commanding the attention of billions of users in some of the planet’s fastest-growing economies. For global companies willing to dive in, the rewards are sizeable. But so are the risks.

International Social Media Giants

Perhaps nowhere are stakes higher than in China, where the blocking of Facebook and Twitter has given rise to wildly popular homegrown alternatives. By some estimates, nearly half of the country’s population of 1.3 billion is online and active socially.

The Chinese social media landscape, however, is far from settled. The most popular networks are complex hybrids, combining the functionality of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and instant messaging in one platform. Dozens of sites vie for supremacy, and millions of “zombie accounts” make it difficult to pinpoint where users are most active.

The aging Goliath of Chinese social media is QQ, an instant messaging platform started in 1999 that claims some 800 million monthly active users. Nowadays, users treat QQ as a jumping off point to access a range of popular networking sites controlled by its parent company, Tencent Holdings.

Arguably the most important of these is WeChat, a mobile platform similar to WhatsApp that mashes up instant messaging and video calls with photo sharing and status updates. Launched in January 2011, WeChat (known as Weixin in China) already counts 190 million monthly active users (nearly as many as Twitter) and is growing at an astounding clip of 25 million users per month. Brands like Starbucks, Nike, and Durex are just beginning to test the waters. […]

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