While Twitter itself is still struggling to find a profitable business plan, Japanese ad agencies have quickly embraced the micro-blogging service to create innovative campaigns.

This year, Japanese clothing chain Uniqlo has been at the forefront of creating Twitter-based microsites for which they received international media attention.

In one of the simplest ones, Flash veteran Yugo Nakamura developed the UTweet microsite (www.uniqlo.com/ utweet) where, after entering their Twitter ID, the user’s profile icon gets mashed up with their own tweets as a red-and-white graphic visualization. Visuals are then spliced into a film of various hipster models wearing the company’s new clothing line. UTweet is only one of several Uniqlo apps that has proven to be popular.

ELM’s campaign for Sharp’s new LED bulb series (mirai-sharp.jp) is another campaign getting Twitter users buzzing. A user can choose from a range of fanciful dwellings and place their selection on a map. The more followers they have, the bigger the pagoda, tree house or skyscraper they can get. It’s another clever idea that makes use of Twitter accounts and demonstrates the willingness of Japanese advertisement campaigns to experiment with the social-networking service.

However, why are there so many more clever ad campaigns originating from Japan than from the West?

During the last 12 months, Twitter has taken off tremendously in Japan. By June, Internet research company Video Research Interactive counted 6.25 million registered Twitter users in Japan, 16.3 percent of the total number of people spending time online in the country. This compares with 9.8 percent in the United States according to media researcher Nielsen Online. Twitter itself has said that every day 8 million tweets are sent from Japan, which amounts to about 12 percent of tweets worldwide. During the World Cup, Japan set the world record for most tweets per second — 3,283 during the Japan-Denmark game.

“It was foreseeable that Twitter became the first true 2.0 project in Japan,” observes Oliver Reichenstein, CEO of Tokyo-based design agency Information Architects. “In Japan, users often eagerly embrace technical novelties — but are also quick to discard them.”

Reichenstein points out some parallels between the recent Twitter boom and the now-aging Japanese blogosphere that thrived before being invaded by corporations with bland marketing blogs. With Twitter, however, Japanese firms are supporting more creative approaches.

“Instead of being critical about it as in the West, they are speedily adapting. The result doesn’t have to make sense all the time,” says Reichenstein.

Indeed, it doesn’t have to make sense all the time to customers. Another recent Uniqlo campaign drew in some Twitter users who had no idea what they were in for. Within three days, more than 130,000 users had signed up for Lucky Line, where their Twitter avatars could stand in a virtual waiting line — some not even knowing what would be in store for them. (In the end the company raffled off discount coupons and T-shirts, says the Dentsu agency who played with the idea of a line to generate buzz.)

“How do we find a good shop on the street? It’s easy,” explains Yasuharu Sasaki, creative director at Dentsu. “A good restaurant is always crowded. A good museum has a long waiting line. People draw more people. However, on the Internet it’s not intuitive. I wanted to visualize how a Web site or a digital campaign is popular. So I thought that the waiting line could be a symbol of the Uniqlo sale.”

For this particular campaign, Twitter proved to be ideal.

“I love its speed, uncertainness and flatness. A cool idea can spread around the world within a day,” Sasaki says.

Although the campaign generated some short-lived hype and increased the company’s brand awareness, there were some minor problems. When a password for a URL site with a text file containing the cached user names in the line leaked, people initially believed that also their Twitter passwords had also leaked. This turned out not to be the case, but still it was a close call for Uniqlo, which is part of an industry that hasn’t yet had to worry about privacy issues like the social-networking industry has.

Another campaign pushed the concept of using a virtual flock of Twitter followers almost to the point of silliness. KDDI’s IS Parade (isparade.jp) calls itself a “parade generator.” Enter your Twitter ID and your profile icon sits on top of a little marching character. It keeps marching while your followers dance and stroll behind you, thus generating a cheerful crowd (some even show up as dogs). The campaign was developed by ad agency Hakuhodo Inc. together with Kensuke Sembo of Tokyo-based AAAAAAAAAA & Co. (aaaaaaaaaa.jp/). Sembo is creative director and part of the artist group exonemo.

“The purpose was to intuitively and emotionally show people’s connections that you wouldn’t usually notice,” says Sembo. “The parade has an unexplainable appeal to it. It’s not about the individuals who are part of it; it’s the fact that you can see all of the individuals collectively getting into it.”

IS Parade was recently awarded a Bronze Cyber Lion at the annual Cannes Lions International Advertisement Festival. With more than 6.5 million users, the Web-based campaign went viral and served as publicity for KDDI’s new IS smart phone (though the extent of the advertising was a discreet link at the bottom of the screen).

Technical implementation of the IS Parade into a Flash app was done by Tomohiko Koyama, aka Saqoosha, CTO and Flash developer at Katamari Inc. in Osaka. An implementation into Japanese social-networking site Mixi has been online since last month.

In general, the Twitter implementation into social-networking sites such as Mixi, Facebook and MySpace is crucial for many Japanese campaigns. The Mixi connection was thus essential for the extremely popular song generator “iida calling” (iida.jp/calling/). Now running in its 3.0 version, the initial interactive campaign for KDDI’s iida smart-phone brand used a caller’s voice to generate a song online. With the latest update, a user has to type in one sentence using the Japanese haiku measure. It is then generated into a voice file and transformed into a musical track that can be spread over Twitter or downloaded as a ring tone.

“During the product development (stage) we already came up with the idea to present several branded services from the entertainment field,” explains Qanta Shimizu, planner and technical director at the IMG SRC, Inc. Web agency based in Tokyo. “The iida calling app series were conceived to promote the brand further through a social platform.

“A tweet with 140 characters forces a user to limit their daily tweets; a Japanese haiku has the same structure as a tweet. There is a reason for the phrase, ‘The beautiful format is conceived through its limitation.’ “

Campaigns don’t have to always be so technically advanced — an update of the Flash player can be sufficient to play with a Twitter integration. Freelance Web designer Masaki Ono, who goes by his online name “sipo,” was inspired by the many tech demos posted on Flash community platform wonderfl (wonderfl.net/) where users can simply paste in an ActionScript, a small program written in scripting language, and let the site compile and run it for an instant result. From there, he developed his own Flash viral, DotWar (dw.sipo.jp/), that could have easily been part of a campaign. Typing in your Twitter ID into the app dissolves your profile icon into an army of tiny soldiers that starts strategically fighting a pixel army derived from the avatar of a follower of your choice. Users can’t predict the outcome.

“The number of your Twitter followers or your content has no effect on your victory or defeat,” says Ono. “Rather the dots and the color location within the profile icon become the tactical formation of the soldiers, serving as the decisive factors. So, anybody has a chance to defeat anyone, even (U.S.) President (Barack) Obama.”

It was crucial that DotWar be a two-player game, notes Ono, because if it were only a one-player game it wouldn’t be spread across the Net as well. However, like most apps, it primarily serves as a form of momentary gratification, thus running the risk of being used once and then being forgotten.

Despite the impermanence, DotWar is still a sign of how individual programmers in Japan, not just large ad agencies, can embrace Twitter and create innovative campaigns of their own. This is why Twitter appeals to developers; although they use it frequently, nobody has been able to really define what it is capable of yet, concludes Kensuke Sembo, creative director of the aforementioned IS Parade. “These kinds of chaotic situations are the most exciting.”

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