LinkedIn, the world’s largest social network for professionals, has a massive presence in Asia—over 40 million members with the user base growing daily.
Yet it is substantially more successful in some places than others. India accounts for roughly half of its total users in the region. Southeast Asia and Australia together account for another quarter. Penetration in East Asia, however, is lower, especially considering how many professionals live in China, Japan, and Korea. Many factors account for differences in uptake, but cultural factors are very significant.
LinkedIn entered Asia in 2009 with an office in Mumbai. Many Indians were already early adopters of the professional network, which is well suited to the country’s entrepreneurial and network-oriented professional culture. India’s strong tradition of English-language education also helped professionals get on board quickly, since LinkedIn was not yet available in any other Asian languages.
By 2011, however, LinkedIn’s focus had shifted to the broader Asia-Pacific region. Local-language versions were launched in Korean, Japanese, Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Malaysia, and Tagalog. It opened country offices in Singapore, Japan, Australia, and Hong Kong.
LinkedIn’s expansion efforts went best in countries with large English-speaking populations. As of March 2013, it had over 4 million members in Australia, or four out of five professionals there. Several months later, it hit 20 million in India, a more than 500% increase since 2009.
Southeast Asia, a global hotspot for Facebook and other Western social media brands, also rolled out the red carpet for LinkedIn. Within only three months of launching a local language site for Indonesians, LinkedIn had a million users. Over the next year, it also hit a million in both the Philippines and Malaysia. And within two years, a million Singaporeans, 70% of the city-state’s professional labor force, were on the service.
But despite localization efforts in Korea and Japan, numbers there remain lower than in less-developed countries like Malaysia or the Philippines. China currently has more than three million users, but penetration as a percentage of the overall population remains dramatically lower there than elsewhere.
While cultural factors propelled user uptake in India, Australia, and Singapore, they held it back further north. In Japan, cultural norms tend to discourage open networking and professional self-promotion. Moreover, the Japanese tend not to move between jobs often—lifelong loyalty to a single company is common. For these reasons, LinkedIn, which many use primarily for finding jobs and hiring people, does not serve the immediate networking needs of many Japanese professionals. It does, however, offer rich content, including proprietary insights from Japanese leaders like Hiroshi Mikitani and Shinzo Abe through the LinkedIn Influencers program.
In China, online professional networking is more accepted than in Japan, but the political culture presents major challenges. Chinese authorities generally block non-Chinese social media services, including Facebook and Twitter, due to fears that they might facilitate criticism of the state. At present, LinkedIn remains unblocked, but further expansion poses risks. According to Doug Young, a Shanghai-based business journalist and expert on Chinese media (and regular Techonomy contributor), setting up a Chinese language site would “make them particularly vulnerable,” since doing so would “put them on the authorities’ radars and force them to impose the kind of self-censorship that compelled Google to pull out of China in 2010.”
LinkedIn also faces stiff competition in China from Tianji, a homegrown Chinese-language professional networking service. Unlike LinkedIn, Tianji is available in Chinese. It offers features, such as emoticons and a salary comparison tool, that resonate with local preferences.
Yet East Asia is far from a lost cause for LinkedIn. After all, Facebook struggled for years against local competition in Japan before it became the country’s dominant social network. And in China, despite its relatively low user numbers, LinkedIn includes an outsized portion of the country’s English-speaking elite, which gives it tremendous value to global recruiters and marketers, and a substantial brand attraction locally.
The company says numbers are not all it focuses on. According to Hari Krishnan, Managing Director of LinkedIn’s Asia-Pacific and Japan operations, LinkedIn is “not chasing new members as much as we are squarely focused on enhancing the experience our members get when they are on LinkedIn. This includes introducing enhancements such as mobile apps, two-factor authentication for logins, rich-media profile updates and making the platform available in new languages such as Tagalog.”
Part of what makes LinkedIn valuable to users and clients is the scope of its coverage—the celebrated network effects that are the pixie dust of great Internet and tech companies. More users makes it more valuable to existing users. LinkedIn is clearly making progress, but gaining further traction in China and Japan will be critical for LinkedIn to succeed with its stated mission to “connect the world’s professionals to enable them to be more productive and successful.”
Will Greene is a writer and strategy consultant focused on Asia’s emerging R&D ecosystems. You can find him on LinkedIn.