The vast majority of people who use social media in North America and Europe are passive voyeurs, watching what others post, while users in emerging markets such as China and India are active participants and writers, according to a study from Forrester Research.
The finding is a sign that companies need to adjust marketing on social sites to match local online behaviours, and those changes could have an impact on a company such as Facebook, which has been building its business around companies marketing to consumers in wealthy countries.
"Don't expect too much interaction from western consumers," wrote Gina Sverdlov in the report. "If you've been putting all of your social efforts into the U.S. and the U.K., it's time to shift your focus – and your budget – to the countries where users are more social."
Facebook strongly advises companies to provide opportunities for customers to engage on the social network, rather than blast one-way marketing messages at them, vowing that it will help build customer relationships and stronger brand loyalty.
Companies in Europe and North America have taken the cue, regularly asking users to post product reviews and photos online, or to answer questions such as "what's your favourite way to eat an Oreo?" on Facebook.
But Forrester's study shows that only a fraction of people in these regions actually comment on social sites, while 70 per cent of them act more as spectators, observing content posted by others.
Only one-third of Americans and one-quarter of Europeans update their status on a social network or Twitter every week, while two-thirds of people in emerging markets do, the study said.
In metropolitan India and China, three-quarters of respondents produce and publish content on social sites.
The reasons for greater participation in emerging markets is two-fold. First, the demographics of overall online users in developing countries skew toward younger generations, and younger users tend to be more socially engaged.
Second, because the internet has been accessible in developed countries, users there have already developed online habits, with social media tacked on to their established online routine. The internet has only become available in many emerging markets in the past few years, when social sites were already up and running, so they became a core piece of online participation from the start.
These trends present a particular challenge for Facebook as it approaches its IPO this year, said Reineke Reitsma, Forrester's research director. Most people prefer to use Facebook to connect with their friends, and only sign up to receive updates from companies if it will help them get a discount or offer, quickly discontinuing the updates soon after.
"It's a fairly big challenge for Facebook to make money," she said. "That's the interesting paradox that Facebook has to solve."