6 Reasons Why Twitter Japan's Subscription Model Might Work (In Japan)

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We reported today that Digital Garage, Twitter’s partner in Japan, is ready to roll out a new, Japan-only way to monetize the service. The way it’ll work is pretty simple: Japanese Twitter users will soon be able to charge their followers to view tweets – on a monthly basis or per single tweet. Otherwise they will only see excerpts or no text in the postings at all. Digital Garage gets a 30% cut.

Not charging companies for holding accounts but having users pay to view tweets? What may sound like a bold move at first actually makes sense, as the web in Japan (where I am based) features a number of peculiarities that play into the hands of Digital Garage’s Japanese operations:

  • Japan is the only market in the world where Twitter offers an official mobile client (launched last month). And in this country, the mobile web is bigger than the fixed Internet, with no signs of a reversing trend (not too few people even expect the gap to be widening in the future).
  • Japanese mobile web users are used to pay for content. The possibility to conveniently pay through the monthly phone bill makes it easy for content providers to charge fees ranging from a few cents to many dollars (more background). And tweets are nothing but content.
  • Charging for premium access on the fixed web isn’t unusual either. Japanese social networks like Mixi or special interest sites such as super-popular recipe site Cookpad have been doing this for years (paying monthly unlocks premium features on both the mobile and fixed Internet). Roughly speaking, between 5 and 15% of all members usually opt for these premium models in Japan. Twitter is estimated to have around 2 million registered users in Japan – enough critical mass to make a payment model experiment worthwhile.
  • Writing in Japanese and Chinese characters, Japanese Twitter users can squeeze considerably more text into single tweets than those posting in English, for example. This theoretically boosts the potential for posting tweets that are “valuable” content-wise. It might also be part of the thinking behind the pay-per-tweet option.
  • In sharp contrast to the West, Japanese web users are generally way more interested in what celebrities (singers, actors, TV stars etc.) “are doing” or “what’s happening” in their private lives. Some posts on their official blogs can contain simple content such as a picture of a lunch meal and still draw thousands of comments – on a single posting (click here for an example with 10,000 comments). Digital Garage explicitly says the payment model is geared towards fans of those “famous” Twitter users.
  • Fueled by coverage in the press and even on national TV (unusual for any web service in Japan), Twitter’s growth in Japan has been accelerating in the past weeks. Elsewhere it seems to be flattening currently.

It’s unclear at this point if only users of the Japanese interface will be able to see if Digital Garage’s experiment (Twitter Japan doesn’t exist as a separate entity) turns out to be successful or not. Another question is how the payment option will be handled in the API and how closely Twitter in the US is watching what’s going on in Japan. We’ll stay tuned.