Keeping in Touch

For the past 13 years, Scotsman Mark Devlin has been building up a miniature publishing empire targeting English-speaking foreigners in Tokyo. His flagship has been Metropolis, an 80-page glossy magazine that delivers its menu of program listings, stories about life in the city and ads to some 67,000 readers each week. Lately, though, the real growth in Devlin's business is coming from his company's Web site, crisscross.com, which uses news stories to lure expats into dialogue with each other. Devlin's strategy is to transform that budding social network (100,000 registered users at last count) into a powerful tool for getting to know his readers' interests and desires. "It's all been driven by demand from our readers," he says. "People ask you for something, and you say, 'Oh, that matters'."

In the old days it was hard to figure out what global nomads wanted. Thanks to the Internet, it's gotten a whole lot easier. As Devlin's experience suggests, one way of flogging goods and services to always-moving cosmopolitans may be by creating a sense of community first--and nothing can beat the Web for that. If you're a Lebanese in South Africa (lebanese.co.za) or an Irishman in Eastern Europe (europeanirish.com/easteu/index.htm), then there's a site for you. If you're a Russian-speaker living in China or South Korea, you can network via polusharie.com (the name refers to the "Eastern Hemisphere"). For English-speaking expatriates there's a vast array of Web resources offering everything from counseling services for families returning to the homeland (figt.org) to strategizing on how to move your assets offshore (escapeartist.com).

When it comes to using cyberspace to forge new ways of schmoozing, though, it's hard to beat the Indians. Sulekha.com, which unites both homeland Netizens and the worldwide community of NRIs (nonresident Indians), now holds 10 million pages of content, 95 percent of it created by users. It claims to be India's leading site for classified ads and also its biggest blogging portal, stimulating such an outpouring of online rumination that Penguin recently brought out a book of excerpts. Over the past three months, says founder Satya Prabhakar, traffic to the site has increased by 60 percent. "As the world becomes flat, there is a lot of movement from within India to outside, and from the outside to India," he says. "That's causing a need for people in all those places to interact." Indian expats abroad use Sulekha to find everything from marriage partners to concert seats. And if you've ever purchased a ticket for an Indian classical-music concert in the United States, for example, you'll get an e-mail notification from Sulekha the next time an Indian musician comes to town. Advertisers love that ability to target specific audiences.

No wonder: the expat community may be fragmented, but its members are strikingly "entrepreneurial and adventurous," says Ann Cottrell of San Diego State University, author of an extensive study of expatriate families. They also tend to be above average in education as well as income. Even if they might look like a moving target, in other words, nomads are just the sort of potential consumers whom many companies would love to target--and with the Internet's help, they now can.

On Devlin's site, advertisers pay for ads only when a potential customer clicks on them--a feature he calls "pay for performance." The leaders of late: Toyota, which uses ads to direct customers to English-speaking dealers in Tokyo, and Lufthansa, which, well, knows that nomads travel a lot. Still, Devlin is already worrying about how to break out of the golden cage. "The problem with the expat markets is how you get beyond them," he says. "Where do you go?" Perhaps, he thinks, by promoting dialogue among different expat groups around the world.

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