The Groundswell is now global. Social media has entered the mainstream in every single market Forrester regularly surveys — and in most of those markets, social media use is at 75% or higher. Australian, Japanese and Italian online users all show stronger adoption of social media than Americans do – and Chinese, Dutch and Swedish users have nearly pulled level with the Americans. And in 2010 Facebook reported that more than 70% of its active users were outside the US, while Twitter said more than 60% of its accounts come from outside the US.

The simple fact is that if your company has a social media program, that program is global — whether you want it to be or not. And this isn’t just a nuisance or a language issue. Failing to recognize the global nature of your social programs means you might be telling foreign users about products that aren’t available in their countries (for instance, Toyota UK reached more than 100 million people with a fantastic blogger outreach program for its iQ model; but it turns out that more than 95% of those people live in countries where the iQ isn’t for sale). Or you may be advertising discounts and promotions to which many users don’t have access (for instance, while Amazon’s Facebook page promoted a special price of $89 for the Kindle last November, a Kindle cost almost twice as much in the UK — and wasn’t available at all in most other markets). If you work in a regulated industry like financial services or pharmaceuticals, you risk running afoul of government regulators.

The bottom line: You need to adapt your social media strategies to a global social world. In practice, that means three things. First, you need to choose the social media page structure that works best for your brand: Should you use a single global Facebook page or Twitter account, or should you create specific pages for each country you sell in? Second, you need to set up processes and tools to share your social content and assets from country to country. And third, you need to put the right human resources in place — both centrally to lead your company’s social strategy and asset creation, as well as locally to customize those assets to each market and to engage with local customers in local languages.

My new report, The Global Social Imperative, discusses the first of those three issues: What type of page structure should you choose for your global social media programs. We think that:

  • Global pages only work for globally consistent brands – and only on Facebook.Companies whose products and offers are consistent all over the world — like consumer goods manufacturers or fashion brands — can get away with only running one Facebook page. The key is to use Facebook’s content targeting feature to make sure you’re posting to different users in the right language — and even the best Facebook marketers aren’t always adept at this. On sites like Twitter and YouTube that don’t offer any type of content targeting, directing all users to a single account means you’ll be talking to most of them in the wrong language.
  • Country pages are best for companies whose products vary market to market. If you make technology products, you probably offer slightly different products in each market — and that means using separate pages for each of the markets you sell in. Likewise, media companies (who often stagger the release dates of their films and albums) and companies in regulated industries (who need to abide by different advertising regulations in each market) should create a separate page for each country. Automakers should too — but as we’ve seen, they often don’t.
  • Hybrid structures are an efficient way to get people to country pages. If you’re thinking of using local pages, I’d recommend a hybrid structure instead — where you use a global page as a hub to attract users and share broad global information and then direct users to country pages where they can get localized information in their local language. The BlackBerry Facebook page I linked to above actually uses a hybrid model, as does Captain Morgan.

What companies do you think are organizing their global social media programs most effectively? Have you seen any other creative responses to the challenge created by the global nature of social media? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Oh, and look for more research on the other two questions I mentioned above — what processes and tools can best help you share content and assets, and what resources do you need in place at both the central and local levels — in the coming months.