The passive German consumer: Why does Twitter not work?

I’m very glad to report that I finally work in a very German environment. I’ve always thought if we are in a new city or culture, the best way to learn the new is to understand the local act. I really enjoy spending time with fellow ‘expat’ groups but I naturally feel very happy to be able to spend time with Germans to understand the variations and their outlook (This also excites the consumer researcher in me very much).

Social media adoption in Germany
How I see it: Social media audience adoption in Germany, adoption curve via

Most recently I have been quite taken by how media consumption values differ between Germany and the perceived ‘west’. Here are some observations I have had which are interesting if you’re non-German or a company planning to be in Germany (especially having something to do with marketing or media).

  • The question of German privacy: Data protection is a big theme in the country, even politically at times. This could be a reason why Xing which has to follow German law is perhaps trusted more than LinkedIn. Also, Whatsapp is ok being a private and controlled stream, Twitter is public sharing with random people. Somehow hardly agreeing with the German mindset about privacy. (I have heard of real people who microwave cards with chips to avoid data leakages. It is common that Germans will cover the webcams of their laptops when connected to the Internet.)

    Data privacy in Germany
    Borrowed from Rank Fishkin’s Twitter stream, saw this magazine abundantly at SMX Munich

  • On tradition, quality and price: I live in South Germany, so this may be biased, but largely I see people who focus a lot on tradition. Smartphones buzzing in biergartens is not norm. Though I see many older people complaining that the young lot are on the phones too much. They need to travel around and see how that’s really not true, in comparison. Maybe it will change with changes in demographics (different nationalities, younger people). But Germany’s age graphic is getting older (like many other developed markets). Tradition also has a strange bearing on quality. People seem willing to pay up (tons) for traditional firms and objects that are perceived as having ‘better quality’, however, they are extremely price conscious about other aspects  (e.g. smartphone prices). In the EU5 Germany has the typically had the lowest smartphone and tablet penetration and has often been described as a ‘laggard’.
  • The mobile Internet experience: It is ruined by the fact that there really are no ‘flat tariffs’. The usual allowed Internet flat allowance is 500MB/ 1 GB which is hardly enough for a true mobile experience. Free Wi-Fi in restaurants is not a German thing. That’s hardly a shocker considering even tap water isn’t free with meals. And then Whatsapp (which is this MVNO now) doesn’t take too much bandwidth also additionally being kostenlose compared to the SMS is a big bonus for Germans across age groups.
  • The rationale- what should I do with Twitter? : I hear this all the time. People do not know how Twitter can be used (personally or by companies). Few companies interact on Twitter aggressively. Many just use it as a distribution (push) platform. Their excuse is that Germans are not on Twitter. Which is true. The ones that are (about 4 million) are not very engaged. So it’s chicken and egg really. From data and conversations, it’s not a huge generalization to make that Germans are not early adopters. As a consumer used to Twitter responses from a company, it’s a nightmare. Companies openly claim not wanting to invest in social because the returns are negligible. I believe them. Just the whole ecosystem seems decades older. People even question how can 140 characters ever be of value (That may be true considering the length of German words though, but DEnglish is growing 😛 I hate it, but I have to admit, how my life is easier with it).
    Why Germans don't blog
    Why blog anyway via
  • The rationale: We have media, why should I blog?: I recently spoke to someone saying how difficult it is to find people who blog in Munich. This when in India almost everyone I knew was a blogger (hobby, work, serious, some even sharing cat pics). The answer I got back was that there are a few hundred newspapers in Germany and many are perceived as ‘unbiased’- someone even used the term ‘pure journalism’ (first I thought it were a joke, but no), unlike the media in countries like the US. This means, the German ‘publikum’ saw no need to get onto wordpress (or blogger) and flesh out their political opinions on Blog posts. To this, I immediately asked, but how about casual bloggers, and the ones that share cat pictures or talk about fashion and entertainment and home improvement (and I consider all of these serious fields btw.). I had no answer to this, but the implicit feeling was (this in 30 somethings) that writing or opinion sharing is considered a serious business. People are concerned about quality. And they genuinely feel quality in writing (including blogging) comes from several years of work as a media person or a journalist. So a college kid writing a blog is less likely to become a norm. It may become viral and entertaining, but to garner respect, you need to be seen as an ‘expert’ and a specialist which means many years. This additionally means, Germans don’t want to be seen or be associated with low quality products (e.g. blogs) online with their own names. Many Germans I see even have weird names on Facebook (it’s near impossible to add anyone unless they really want to add you to a ‘private’ network and they don’t really share tons anyway) to have their identity protected. Sharing is a different animal culturally.

 I love this blog post which goes deep into the various reasons of how Germans tend to be ‘passive Internet consumers. I’ve heard ALL those things one time or the other.

Personally, it seems like such a big departure from the Indians, who share (even unqualified) opinions on anything and everything without caring about it at all (and a lot of it could be trash). Surely, the German media may have the quality, but I am reluctant to buy the argument that user generated content is always poor quality. I feel it lends perspective to the cultural narrative, so personally, I am all for it.

It also means, if I wanted to meet Bloggers here, it may either never happen, or they would all be journalists. And since they’re hardly on Twitter, I can see why my hashtags to find anything hardly reach anywhere. That somehow, doesn’t bode too well for a brand trying to find advocates or if you were Huffington Post or Thoughtcatalog trying to find bloggers to write for you- quite a tragedy! When people say Germany is 5 years behind the US in terms of marketing, I want to refute and say it’s much worse especially if one has to consider the online organic content scene. But, I do believe those cool kids in the shops like Apple- only using ‘du’- they are going to change it.

  1. Doing social media in the B2B space in Germany is even worse. I am blogging and tweeting in German on behalf of a big IT company trying to reach IT decision makers. Frankly, I don’t expect any engagement at all, not even on Xing. I am already happy if they simply read my content, and my main motivation to play the social media channels is that I hope to influence the search engine results in Google (ca. 95% market share in the German search engine market).

    Why the engagement in B2B is even lower in Germany in my opinion:
    – most decision makers in companies are usually 40+ years old (my assumption).
    – no one wants to speak on behalf of their employer without first getting approval from the employer.
    – everyone wants to see hard cash before agreeing to any engagement or cooperation. Giving the prospect of reaching a large audience is not convincing enough.
    – Marketers are in general frowned upon in Germany. Nobody wants to talk with marketers. They want to talk with subject matter experts. This is why even many marketing and sales positions in German B2B companies are occupied by engineers and technical specialists.

    One more word on Xing: Despite being a business social network, people there are very sensitive on being sold at. On LinkedIn, people just ignore you, if your content is not tailored to them. On Xing they might report you to the admins, leading to a ban of your personal Xing account.

    PS: I am German myself.

  2. Funny how innovation curves are inherently dependent on culture. I am sure you aren’t the one to generalize or extrapolate but if your categorization is true then I suppose you might have to re think your selling strategies as well. We all need to be convinced, du or Sie, das ist doch egal.

    1. I was trying to make the point that perhaps the more open and west/US influenced population will make a revolutionary change. Though of course they need to be convinced too! 🙂

  3. On an unrelated note – It’s awful commenting on this blog! I don’t blame you but Google. They just lost the publishing platform battle with WordPress, Tumblr and everyone else. I couldn’t comment using my iPhone. On the laptop too, the UI sucks. :/

    1. I am aware of this issue and not sure on what I can do to resolve it. Not sure on whether I should shift it all to WordPress. But I am just worried that I will lose much in transfer! 🙁

  4. Much before I read the last paragraph of this article, I already had this question in my mind – In a country where people find it useless to create online content (unless of course they are experts / journalists), how do content marketing agencies see growth in Germany?

    With the mindset (or as Seth Godin says, the ‘worldview’) itself is so limiting towards crowd-sourcing content, do you think the content marketing role itself is very limiting and not just challenging?

    1. I think it is challenging and not well developed here at all. I think they can’t possibly afford to remain so though. So I have hope.

    2. I see a cultural change yes. The inertia is large, however, there is also (almost an underground/rookie) entrepreneurial scene gaining steam (e.g. pushed by Rocket ventures like Zalando) which is making the bigger players change their act as well. I see the difference coming from the lot in their 20s (who have travelled more and probably more inspired by US style structures) and also from changes that may happen with new cultures coming into the country. They need it because otherwise the workforce will keep shrinking due to the aging population. It’s a pity though to have such lag even being the strongest economy in Europe by far.

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