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Thursday, May 31, 2012

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Tool of the trade: Kazuko Kishikawa, an employee of the Oirantan curry restaurant in Takeo, Saga Prefecture, takes a picture of curry at the restaurant last month to post on the city's Facebook page. KYODO

Facebook emerges as marketing medium

Kyodo

Ryohin Keikaku Co., the company that operates the Muji retail brand selling clothing and household items both domestically and overseas, opened its official page on the U.S. Internet social networking site Facebook in 2010.

An extensive range of products and events it hosts are uploaded on the page along with columns, with titles such as "We would like to introduce you to our 'support kit for going home in the event of an emergency,' " and "This is a simple kit for you to start growing vegetables."

It may look like just another product advertisement on a blog or corporate website, but one of Facebook's advantages for businesses lies in its commenting feature and the "like" icon that gives users the chance to make their own endorsements. Those comments and endorsements are shared by other members on the world's biggest social networking site, which had more than 900 million users as of the end of March.

On Facebook, which listed as a public company in the United States on May 18, people typically register using their real name. For businesses, this network of "real" people serves as a powerful tool when people recommend products. Those endorsements are not made anonymously but often by friends or other people they may know well and trust.

Businesses also say they can make better use of feedback from these "real" people rather than from someone nameless on other commercial websites.

Ryohin Keikaku has more than 700,000 "fans" on its page. Takashi Okutani, director of the company's Web business division, says Facebook's attraction lies in "the ability for us to come into direct contact with consumers."

Like Ryohin Keikaku, an increasing number of Japanese businesses are using this social media, set up in 2004, that has been making strong inroads into Japan.

In filing for its initial public offering, Facebook identified Japan as one of the select "relatively less-penetrated, large markets" where it focuses on growing its user base.

It estimates a penetration rate of less than 15 percent in the country, where it faces competition from the homegrown Mixi social networking site.

Tokyu Hands Inc., which retails a variety of household goods through its street and online shops, also has around 180,000 fans. With around 600,000 products on offer, the company uses Facebook to display some it cannot display on its store shelves or in print ads.

Tokyu Hands also responds to customer queries. "We are hoping to get customers interested in our products and give them a push when they are buying something," said Kei Ogata from the company's information technology commerce division.

Not only big retailers but also local governments are jumping on the Facebook bandwagon to promote products and small businesses in their regions.

Last November, the city of Takeo in Saga Prefecture opened F&B Ryohin Takeo, where it sells rice and vegetables grown by local farmers as well as porcelain ware. It also handles reservations for rooms at luxury Japanese-style inns.

"We want to support local small businesses that are handling quality products," a city official said.

Those who want to sell products on the city's page need to pay 5-9 percent commission on their sales. But city officials post information and photos to show how these products were made or how they are used. They also reply to questions frequently. The online shop generates around ¥300,000 in average monthly sales, the officials say.

Oirantan, a popular, 30-year-old curry restaurant in Takeo, has started selling curry products on the page. "We think it's safe because it's operated by the city," said Kazuko Kishikawa, an employee of the restaurant. "Our curry has many fans outside the prefecture and we needed a marketing tool," she said.

Bilcom Inc., a digital marketing company, has set up a page dubbed Tohoku Hyakkabu to support businesses rebuilding their operations in the northeast after last year's March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The site introduces businesses selling specialty goods of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.

The company developed software for these businesses to quickly set up "shops" on Facebook. The software is offered free of charge.

Ishiwatashoten Co., which sells shark fin soup in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, is among the shops that have made use of the software. "We believe more and more people will buy merchandise on Facebook," a shop official said.



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