Welcome to the Facebook Desert

In the Hutong

Being odd on an even day

1316 hrs.

Kaiser beat me to posting on the superb post over at O’Reilly Radar by Ben Lorica that describes how Facebook is doing worldwide. (Full disclosure: I do some advisory work for Facebook’s rival Friendster.)

There is a lot of speculation in blogs (see the comments on Kaiser’s post) and on Twitter about why this is the case. Some suggest it is because Facebook is occasionally blocked in China, and almost always painfully slow to load. Or maybe because they haven’t done much marketing here, or because they were slow to localize.

Maybe.

But what I have observed suggests that Facebook’s challenges in China are no different from those facing other foreign websites – social networking sites or otherwise.

If I can make it there, it don’t mean squat

Most American online companies suffer from the understandable conceit that if a site and its formula work in the United States, it will work around the world. A decade of history has proven this is not the case, but that has not prevented executives from assuming that Chinese will flock to a site in their own language simply because it has succeeded elsewhere.

Chinese users are almost cussedly picky. They want a site that was created for them, that addresses their concerns, their online culture, and the way they live. They don’t like the feeling of getting something fed to them that was created for someone else. And if you feed it to them, they will either laugh at you – or just ignore you.

Any international online company that has lasted more than 24 months in this market (Google jumps to mind) has figured that out, and is working to recreate themselves as reflections of the Chinese culture, rather than Chinese adaptations of American culture.

The (Online) World is (Mostly) Flat

There are large and growing chunks of China’s landscape – especially here in Beijing and down in Shanghai – that look increasingly global. You can fly into Beijing on United Airlines, stay at a Hilton, eat at Hooters, drink at the Hard Rock, ride a Buick into your gleaming office tower, do a day of meetings (with Subway and Starbucks brought in for you), and shoot back to the airport and hop on United to head to your next destination.

After an experience like that, it is little wonder that the Silicon Valley crowd starts to spout long chunks of Thomas Friedman, and even begins believing that the only real difference between building a website for kids in Austin and kids in Anhui is the language. So they hire a bunch of Chinese students from San Jose State to translate their site. They launch, do no promotion, and wait.

And they get numbers like Facebook’s. China is a pimple on a flea on an elephant’s tuchas for Facebook.

Everything’s possible. Nothing’s easy.

Finally, most CEO’s throw up their hands and say “forget it, China is too hard.” They shift focus to other “easier” markets, the Chinese site dies a slow death of malignant neglect, and executives at Chinese online companies crow about how the foreigners will never get China.

They’re both half right. It is a downright bitch to make your business work in this country. But this is also a place where everything is possible if you understand the rules, the people, and the culture. (Knowing the language helps, too, but the first three are the most critical.)

A wise man once told me that low-hanging fruit was rarely the best fruit on the tree. China is not going to be low hanging fruit for the Facebooks of the world any more than it was for the Volkswagens, KFCs, Hewlett-Packards, P&Gs or Motorolas. All of these companies learned this place the hard way, and found out that they had to create products and services that were attuned to the way people live and work here.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that companies today can learn from the experience of those who have gone before. There is a lot of experience out there in the form of people who have been through it. They’re actually not that hard to find. But when you have found a few good ones, listen to them.

Unless you’re not really that serious about China, and you’re only looking at the place because some guy on your board read about how important the Chinese online market is. In that case, go ahead and make your token effort and be done with it. Just don’t plan on coming back when the economy in your core markets falls into the toilet and you need China to boost your numbers. It won’t be here.