March 12, 2010 4:49 pm

Twitter faces a battle for tweets

Twitter has a rival in Japan: an imitator called Ameba Now has reached 1m visitors in the three months since its launch by signing up more than 2,000 Japanese celebrities to “tweet” on its service.

Twitter is popular in Japan, with 4.7m visitors according to Nielsen NetRatings, but Ameba Now’s launch is one of the first signs anywhere of the micro-blogging website’s vulnerability to competition.

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Many internet start-ups struggle to localise their sites well enough and fast enough to prevent foreign language copycats. Twitter launched a Japanese service in 2008 but Ameba Now was still able to tweak the idea for local tastes when it launched in December.

“On Twitter your username needs to be in roman letters but on Ameba you can have a nickname in Japanese characters,” says Eiko Nagayama, the 24-year-old producer of the Ameba Now service.

The system is tailored to mobile phones, the most common way to use social media sites in Japan, and supports “smiley” icons – which Twitter lacks. Ameba Now followed Twitter’s 140-character limit for blog postings, even though Japanese script needs less space than English, so that users could post the same messages on both sites.

Its secret weapon, however, is celebrities. The site’s owner, Cyber Agent, has a squad of 10 sales staff who tour the talent agencies and television studios of Tokyo persuading stars to use Ameba.

Cyber Agent’s main businesses are internet advertising and online foreign exchange trading. Its Ameba blogging platform is an attempt to push into the fast-growing social media segment.

The site’s most followed celebrity is Mao, the lead singer of Sid, a “J-Rock”, or Japanese rock, band.

“A big good morning to you. I’m going for a bath,” read his update on Ameba Now on Friday.

Also popular are the mama tarento: pop idols of a decade ago who now tweet to their fans about the trials of motherhood.

The celebrities have lent Ameba Now a different culture to Twitter. Rather than tweeting themselves, “I think a lot of people sign up because they want to reply or comment to celebrities,” says Ms Nagayama. Seventy per cent of the site’s users are female, compared with a majority of men on Twitter in Japan.

The passivity of its users is one potential problem for Ameba Now.

According to Nielsen, its visitors spent about seven minutes on the site in January, compared with more than 25 minutes for Twitter users.

But, like Twitter, Ameba Now has little idea of how it will make money from its popularity – although an advertising model is likely. “For now we want to increase the number of users as much as possible and then think about how it can live as a business,” Ms Nagayama says.

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